With Survival of the Dead,' father of the zombie film continues a franchise
Tuesday, 25 May 2010

We called George Romero the other day. We were worried he might be dead.

We were worried because we knew if Romero were dead, within minutes he would sit up, begin slouching toward his first victim and develop a taste for brains. Within days, martial law would be declared; the National Guard would cut access into major metropolitan areas; within weeks, despite our attempts at staving off the inevitable, civilization would collapse. It would be every man for himself. And you, yes, you, sweet mother of three, stoic construction worker, cocky businessman only looking out for himself, sassy ethnic character, you would be forced to join ranks and watch as one by one your unlikely band of survivors were eaten alive until only you remained. The zombie apocalypse would be upon us.

Call us paranoid. But when Romero's publicist called to say he was canceling a trip to Chicago because he wasn't feeling well, it ran through our heads.

Turns out he had a head cold. Good news.

Even better news: George Romero, the father of the modern zombie film - heck, the father of the contemporary oozy undead itself - has a new zombie movie, "Survival of the Dead," and it's only been two years since his previous zombie flick, "Diary of the Dead," which itself was two years removed from his wonderful "Land of the Dead." Which means, compared with the17 years it took him to churn out his first three "Dead" pictures, the seminal "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), the equally revered "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) and the underrated "Day of the Dead" (1985), and the 20-year undead hiatus after they were complete, we live in a zombie renaissance.

Then again, we would be living in a zombie fantasia even if Romero, who turned 70 in February, were, uh, undead - what with "Shawn of the Dead," "28 Days Later," "The Walking Dead" comic book (soon to be an AMC series), "Zombieland," "I am Legend," and the roughly nine million other zombie-ified pop culture artifacts of the last decade. Still, to be here, to witness the byproduct of one's lifelong advocacy of shuffling sacks of flesh, must be fulfilling?

"I don't want to disown zombies, some of my best friends are zombies," Romero said by phone, chuckling, "but I like to keep them in the closet until it's the right time to drag them out and make a point. With 'Survival of the Dead' (which takes place on an island off Delaware, and concerns in-fighting between bands of survivors), it's that people can't seem to disagree without being disagreeable now. See, the biggest disappointment about the zombie thing today is that not enough people are using them allegorically or even wisely. It's just vicious and malicious and all shock, and there's not enough fun beneath the horror.

"Some fans, they ask about how this zombie was killed or how that zombie was killed. They want you to make the same movie you just made. But to me it's never been about the zombies in the first place. I would never make a movie about a zombie apocalypse, and that would just be what it's about. I never even called them zombies in ('Night of the Living Dead'). I just wanted a situation where the world around everyone was changing and the people in that world wouldn't recognize it until it was too late. Then they still couldn't come together and argued among themselves, despite everything happening."

In short, Romero settled on one of the most flexible and useful, though rarely appreciated, metaphors in pop culture.

Romero himself says he didn't even appreciate how potent the metaphor could be until "Night of the Living Dead" was first screened.

He was a young filmmaker in Pittsburgh, shooting commercials, when he decided to make a horror movie with some friends. It's a simple picture: Dead people come to life; survivors hole up in a farmhouse; each of them dies violently, until the last man standing, played by the African-American actor Duane Jones, emerges from the house and is shot by a militia, which mistakes him for a zombie.

It's one of the most indelible images in 1960s cinema, though Romero says the role was written with a white actor in mind. Jones was just the best actor they knew. "He was much more sensitive to how that last image would be read than I was," Romero said. "And he was right, of course, it took on a lot of meaning and the film became a portrait of1960s America."

"Night of the Living Dead" became a lot of things: a snapshot of race relations, the generational divide, a country mired in an unwinnable war. The filmmaker tried distancing himself. He made a romantic comedy that was barely released; a handful of horror films, "The Crazies" (recently remade), "Martin," some better than others. "I resisted a long time. I didn't know what was left to say or how could I go back to the innocence with which we made that first film." Until the late1970s, when he was more socially conscious and he heard about a huge shopping mall being developed near Pittsburgh.

With that, he embraced the political readings of "Night of the Living Dead" and set "Dawn of the Dead" in a mall, turning out a satire of slouching, impulsive, rabid consumerism. Basically, film criticism had an impact. "It had to," he said. "I would have looked like an opportunistic jerk to just do another one and not take the idea seriously."

But for decades the zombie fell out of favor and Romero's further sequels trickled out. He made only two more zombie pictures in the next 25 years, and "because the rights to the first four are owned by four different groups, I was never able to weave together the stories the way I wanted to, the way someone like Stephen King will connect his own stories and set many of them around a Castle Rock, Maine."

Which is how "Diary of the Dead" came about - as an effort to build a little ownership around a subgenre he single-handedly created. "The film was made fast and for little money, but because it had a limited release (like "Survival," it was released to video and theaters simultaneously) it made a lot of money, so I was able to make another. Now I'd like these films to be my final word, which at my age, it may be. And have characters in one show up in the next film and find them in new situations and lay out my own rules and not have it just be about whether zombies should run - which people actually debate."

Should they run?

"No! Maybe if they have a virus, but if they're dead they're having a hard enough time just walking!"

He stops himself. He's overanalyzed himself, he said. He shouldn't overanalyze zombies. The other day he was doing a crossword puzzle with his girlfriend. The clue was "Dead Director."

"I was puzzling and puzzling and then I realized, 'Oh, it's me!' So there you go. I get too much credit for all this."

 



Widget is loading comments...


Latest News