Interview: George A. Romero On Diary Of The Dead
When I saw George A. Romeroís original Night of the Living Dead in film school, I thought it was all right. It certainly wasnít the gore-fest it was made out to be and while heavily fraught with late 60ís politicking, the film looked like something I could have made. Well, 20-year-old me was an obvious dumb ass because Night of the Living Deadís home-movie quality is exactly what makes it so brilliant. Diary of the Dead, Romeroís latest date with the night, is a true return to those guerilla roots after 2005ís expensive, studio-produced Land of the Dead. Social satire with zombies mixed in? Hell yes!
Romero, a 6-foot tall bona-fide hippie man in Scooby-Doo glasses, was unassuming and hilarious during an interview with a group of L.A. journalists. After spending half an hour sharing opinions on the age of the Internet, telling funny anecdotes about making horror films, and explicating the true meaning of all those zombies, Romero graciously assented to signing the hordes of DVDs that the buttoned up L.A. journalists sprung on him immediately after the interview ended. Itís official: Iím a fan. And so, apparently, is everybody else in this town.
Can you talk a little about the genesis for this project?
I made a film just a few years ago called Land of the Dead. It was the fourth zombie film that I made. I was pretty satisfied with it. I know that some of my fans were not, but when I looked at it, it seemed so big. It was Thunderdomeand I didnít know where to go from there. At the same time, actually before we shot Land of the Dead, I had this idea that I wanted to do something about emerging media. I thought, well thatís a way to get back and do something really inexpensive and simple and see if I still have the chops and the stamina to go make and make another little guerilla movie and relate back to the origins of the thing. I had this idea that I could use film students out shooting a school project and zombies begin to walk and they document it. I wanted to do this subjective camera thing before I knew anybody else was working on it. I didnít know about Cloverfield or anything else. I thought we were going to be the first guys out there with one of these.
How carefully did you have to construct the cinema veritť elements into the story?
It wasnít so much constructing the story as it was constructing the shots. People have said, ďBoy it must be nice to just be able to turn the camera on and shoot.Ē It was hell, man! We were shooting 360 around the room. We were doing 8 page shots. It really needed to be choreographed down to the shoelaces. It was really, really tough. The DP did a great job making it seem very off-handed but it wasnít at all. It required more discipline than anything in Land of Dead or anything else Iíve ever done.
Why did you decide to use a DP and construct the shots rather than go Blair Witch Project style and just hand the camera to the actors and have it look like actual kids are actually shooting it?
First of all, they donít shoot that good. I wanted it to be theatrical. The one thing about this film is that it sort of walks that line. Maybe unsuccessfully, it might be a little too arch and a little too theatrical, but I didnít want it to be Blair Witch Project. Blair Witch was dizzying to me and it didnít quite make sense. So I wanted to explain a little more and I wanted it to have some traditional elements, some gothic elements in it, which requires a bit more staging and carefully constructed, not only plot elements, but production elements. I guess thatís also one of things that is really is disappointing to me, that a lot of films these days leave those values out. I went to go see Atonement and I expected to need a tissue and it didnít happen. That same week Turner Classic Movies showed Brief Encounters [Close Encounters of the Third Kind] and you laugh at the style, you laugh at the techniques and everything else for 90 minutes and then at the end of the film thereís a tear in your eye. I find that films are hollow that way today, people are afraid of that. We were trying to walk that line and put some of that in but at the same time make it feel free and easy.
At the end of this film, you leave it with your heroine surviving and finishing the movie. So are you developing another film in the series?
This ending had nothing to with that. In Night of the Living Dead, everybody died. When I set out to make Dawn of the Dead, in my original script everybody died. I said, I got to make a sequel here; itís got to be the same. I decided sort of halfway through the shoot on that film that I could leave the world upset. I donít have to restore order in the world but I can save a couple of these characters. And so Iíve always done that: Dawn, Day, Land, and now this film. Itís always there and everybody always says itís wide open for a sequel.. The reason isnít to make a sequel; itís just that I wanted to save a couple of those people that I liked!
Youíre so identified with the zombie movie now. Are you happy about that or are does it sort of haunt you at times?
Of course it haunts you! Iíd love to be able to go in and pitch another kind of film and be taken seriously, but Iím generally not taken seriously. So thatís a bit frustrating because you donít grow up wanting to be a horror filmmaker, you grow up wanting to be a filmmaker. I wish that I had a wider range. I tried early on to do several films that were non-genre and 9 people saw them, so I donít have the credentials in that regard. On the other side of that coin, and far outweighing it, is the fact that Iíve been able to use genre of Fantasy/Horror and express my opinion, talk a little about society, do a little bit of satire and thatís been great, man. A lot of people donít have that platform. I joke and say maybe Iím the Michael Moore of horror but itís wonderful to have that ability. Itís sort of my niche.
How it difficult is it to reach that balance between social commentary and just ďthe zombies kills everyoneĒ?
I donít think itís difficult. I think you just have to set out to do it. [For] all of these films, the ideas for them have come from the world. And once you know, okay, Iím going to make a movie about this you can glue zombies on it, easily. So itís not difficult at all. You just have to have that idea. I think a lot of people donít. I go to conventions and universities and talk to young filmmakers and everybodyís making a zombie movie! Itís because itís easy to get the neighbors to come out, put some ketchup on them. You donít need a rubber suit or a monster effect. But there doesnít seem to be a lot of substance behind most of it. Itís just splatter, you know? I think you have to go deeper. I always tell these young filmmakers, ďGet an idea.Ē Forget the story. And everyone mistakes idea for story. If Iím pitching something out here to an executive they always want to know what the story is. The story? I could give 50 stories! Okay, the guyís black. Maybe not, maybe heís white! Maybe itís a woman, ba-da-boom. You could do it 50 different ways but it has to be about something.
Can you talk about how, because the dead have to be hit in the head somehow for them to die, you have perfected the head injury?
I had one early on in life!
You never make it redundant thought, so how do you come up with all these different ways to kill them?
Itís all ideas that come to you in the shower. I donít know what else to say about it, but that is the challenge every time you set out to do one of these. How am I going to kill these guys, how am I going to get rid of that brain? Anybody with ideas, please write them down! If I have to do another film, I donít know, man, Iím sort of running out of stuff.
What about Diamond Dead?
Diamond Dead! I would love to make that movie. I loved the old script. It was an Australian producer and we had Ridley Scott behind it. It looked like it was really going to happen and nobody got it. We pitched it with Ridley and everybody said, ďWhat is this?Ē Itís like Phantom of the Paradise, if you remember that movie, which I loved. Diamond Dead is about a dead rock band. Nobody got it so it sort of blew away. Right before I came out here on this trip, I got a call from this guy who said, ďWe have a new script and Iíd really like you to read it.Ē I havenít read it yet. He said he would e-mail it to me but Iím not home right now. Maybe itíll come back, I donít know. You never know, man. I canít tell you, thereís so much shit that goes out on the Internet.
Do you ever see yourself returning to comic books like you did with Toe Tags?
Well Iíd love to write another comic book. I told those guys [DC Comics] to call me up and Iíll do it again. I was actually hoping that that Toe Tags would turn into a movie but it was just too big. I had cities in devastation. This guy with a pet elephant, you know? Not the kind of shit you can do very easily on film. But I loved doing it. Iíd love to do another one. I actually have a couple ideas, I sent them into [Bob] Shreck Ė this guyís name is Shreck- and just ainít been invited yet.
Thereís been a couple of take-offs and homages to your work like Shaun of the Dead and 30 Days of Night. Were there any of those that you thought were particularly well done?
I just flipped for Shaun. It was funny because when it was going to get North American distribution I was living in Florida, on this little island called Sanibel with one little theater where the projector had a 40-watt bulb. So I get this message from these guys and I didnít know who they were. Some cat named Edgar Wright: ďI made this movie, I hope you like it.Ē So next thing I know some cat from Universal shows up like a guy with a bomb suitcase, the fucking print is chained to him. He starts saying, ďWe want to show you this movie at the local theater. We arranged it.Ē So this funky little drunkard comes down to open up the theater doors and turn on the projector. I see this movie a little too dark but it was hilarious, man! And I flipped for it. It came with their phone numbers and I called them up immediately. They just said, ďOh we just wanted to know that you werenít going to slap us down.Ē And I said, ďHow could anybody slap you down for this?Ē It was just so loving. Weíre still buddies. They both came out to be zombies in Land, both Edgar and Simon [Pegg]. Simon does a voice in Diary of the Dead, he does once of those voice tracks. Weíre still good buds. Iím happy to know them; they are the cleverest, really. Theyíre really cool. They could be the new Monty Python: They could take over. I donít think thatís what theyíre shooting for though.
You thank Simon in the special thanks and a couple of other people. Wes Craven, etc.
They all did voice tracks. What happened with this film is that we shot the principle action, we shot the scripted action, and basically said, ďIf we can get this shit in the can, then we have the movie,Ē and one of the kids was going to finish the movie and make it presentable. So we shot the principle action and then worried about all that other stuff: The narration, the news footage, the stock footage, the newscasts. This is the result of being able to have a kind of freedom. I was just able to go back, screw around with it with my producer, with the editor. We would record right into the Avid a million different little tracks and sound bites. So in the end we picked some of these things and we had a soundtrack except it was all us, it was all me and Peter [Grunwald] and Michael [Doherty]! And we said we got to get some other voices, this sounds funky, man. So I said we should just call up some of our buds. The first guy I called up was Steve King. I sent him an email of the script and he read it over the phone. We were able to do them all over the phone because theyíre all distorted anyway, theyíre all on the radio, they didnít have to have any fidelity. He said okay and he did the script. Then he said, but I wrote this other thing, do you want me to read it? I said, sure man. Then he just rattled out the thing that we actually used which of course was a hell of a lot funnier than what we had sent to him. Guillermo Del Toro did the same thing. I wound up just calling these old buddies up and saying, would you do this voice? And everybody said yeah. So all those special thanks: Tarantino, Simon Pegg, West Craven. Thatís it. They all did those news voices. It was great because these are guys that Iíve known and it was great that they came out and lent their support.
In the film you never actually use the word ďzombieĒ.
The characters donít know that theyíre zombies.
Is Diary of the Dead set in a world where the common lore of the zombie as we know it does not exist? Theyíve never seen a zombie film?
They havenít. When I did the first film, I didnít call them zombies. When I did Night of the Living Dead I called them ghouls, flesh eaters. To me back then, zombies were just those boys in Caribbean doing the wet-work for Bela Lugosi. So I never thought of them as zombies. I thought they were just back from the dead. I ripped off the idea for the first film from a Richard Matheson novel called Am Legend, which is now back with us after a couple of incarnations prior. I thought Am Legend was about revolution. I said if youíre going to do something about revolution you should start at the beginning. I mean, Richard starts his book with one man left; everybody in the world has become a vampire. I said we got to start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit. I couldnít use vampires because he did so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. I said, so what if the dead stop staying dead? Diary of the Dead goes back theoretically to that first night. I didnít use the word ďzombieĒ until the second film and thatís only because people who were writing about the first film called them zombies. And I said, maybe they are in a way. But to me zombies were separate in the rainbow. In this film, because it goes back to that first night, nobody knows what to call them. By the time of Land of the Dead, they have this slang already: Stenchies. But I felt it was too early for anybody to know what they were or to have any sort of identifying moniker for them.
So much of the film is about communication and the media. What are your views, aside from the zombie world, on how we share information?
Is it information or is it opinion and perspective? I wish it were it was pure information. What the Internetís value is that you have access to information but you also have access to every lunatic thatís out there that wants to throw up a blog. Anybody with a radical idea, if it sounds halfway reasonable, is all of a sudden going to get millions of followers. If Hitler were alive today, he wouldnít have to go into the town square, ever; heíd just throw up a blog. People are so used to trusting what comes over that box. People are so used to listening to that shit. They would rather have someone tell them how to think than do their homework and figure out what they should really think. And that to me is the really scary thing. I guess if I were to indict anyone itíd be us, us out here, for not paying enough attention. Itís easier to look up from your beer and say, ďHey, what that guy said, I happen to agree with that.Ē Anybody who tunes into Rush Limabaugh already knows what heís going to say and is already inclined to agree. So it winds up creating tribes. For me, tribalism and religion are basically the big reasons weíre in trouble. Patriotism, tribalism, and religion.
In the Internet media communication positive though. Itís how people share information about how to destroy zombies.
But is it information? Itís not information; itís an opinion or a certain perspective on it. In the old days there were three networks and all of a sudden Walter Cronkite is the most trusted man in America. Everybody believes what he says, not even thinking. In those days we didnít even know it was being spun. We were very willing to just listen to it and go along with. I think that same thing is happening today. The problem is weíre going along with, not with Cronkite, not with these three guys anymore. Weíre going along with 500, 1,000, thousands of people. Arianna Huffington? Itís bad enough I have to listen to her instead of Joe Blow from Cincinnati. Listen, Joe Blow may have exactly the right idea but there are undoubtedly a lot of people out there who donít. I donít know about this, but Iíd almost rather be unknowingly manipulated, at least if the information is being managed, than just be subject to this absolute confusion that just turns into noise. It bothers me. I wish that it was truthful but itís not because people are not truthful. They werenít truthful when they ran the three networks and not necessarily everybodyís being truthful now.
In Diary of the Dead, like youíre saying, the idea presented is that you canít trust the news because the news footage is being edited, and you canít necessarily trust bloggers Ė
And everyday people, if you canít trust them either, then youíre implying that thereís no reliable source of news anywhere, ever.
I donít think there is.
In Diary of the Dead thereís not really a distinction made between filmmaking and journalism. In the course of making their film, theyíre making a film and yet what theyíre shooting is supposed to be the truth to share with people. So are you saying that there really isnít a difference at this point?
Iím not sure there is. Iím not trying to answer this question. Iím trying to ask a question. Obviously the character gets out there and says, ďWalk through the door again, I didnít get it.Ē Is he distorting reality? Of course! Everybody does. Itís all opinion. His argument about being able to save lives, is he just trying to be a superstar? I donít know. I viewed a lot of this stuff, a lot of these blogs that are out there, a lot of this shit thatís on the Internet. Its replaced graffiti! I wish somebody would do a study to see if the paintings on highway walls, if the incidents have gone down since people have the Internet now. ďI donít need to do that shit, man! I can make my name for myself right here!Ē [Mimicks tapping on imaginary keyboard] I donít know! Thatís the way it strikes me. I just feel that people are just out there tooting their own horn or saying their own thing and maybe some of them are really well motivated. Maybe some of them are really trying to help cut through the garbage. But Iím sitting there and I donít know who to listen to. I have no idea who to listen to. Iíd rather not listen to any of it and try to get some facts. Thereís no sort of library were you can go to just get pure facts and make up your own mind about it. Is the planet warming or not? What have we gotten from any media source about that? Donít you think we should be able to figure that out, come up with a definite answer?
Well you clearly have opinions and youíve said as a filmmaker you want to explore them in the films, but you also always say that the zombies are just the situation and not a metaphor for something, so why is that just that and the other ideas are to be explored?
Why is that? Zombies are my ticket to ride! Itís how I get a deal! I donít care what they are. I donít care where they came from. They could be any disaster. They could be an earthquake, a hurricane, whatever. They donít represent, in my mind, anything except a global change of some kind. And the stories are about how people respond or fail to respond to this. Thatís really all theyíve ever represented to me. In Richardís book, in the original I am Legend, thatís what I thought that book was about. Thereís this global change and thereís one guy holding out saying, wait a minute, Iím still a human. Heís wrong. Go ahead. Join them. Youíll live forever! In a certain sense heís wrong but on the other hand, youíve got to respect him for taking that position. Zombies to me donít represent anything in particular. They are a global disaster that people donít know how to deal with. Because we donít know how to deal with any of the shit.
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