George A. Romero Sips A Bloody, Talks 'Diary of the Dead' with SF Weekly
"You can’t satirize anything anymore because real life, real politics, is satire of itself."
George A. Romero changed modern horror forever in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, a low-budget indie movie that not only introduced the concept of flesh-eating zombies into our pop-culture consciousness, but also managed to mix powerful social satire in with all the spilling intestines and creative head injuries. Legions of horror filmmakers have failed ever since to rise to his standard, with only a scant few, like friend Wes Craven, walking shoulder to shoulder with him.
This week, Romero’s fifth zombie flick, Diary of the Dead, opens. While sipping on a spicy bloody Mary on the Beverly Hills Four Seasons patio, the iconic director discussed what scares him most today (it’s definitely not Eli Roth), regrets about his long career and reign as the zombie king, and why, quite tragically, satire is getting harder to pull off these days.-By Cole Haddon
Your zombie movies have usually been released a decade or so apart, but Diary of the Dead follows your last one, Land of the Dead, by just three years. Can you explain the accelerated genesis of the project?
GR: With Land of the Dead, [which was the first studio financed in the series], I was pretty satisfied with it. I know some of my fans were not. But when I looked at it – even though Universal really left me alone to make it, and it wound up largely being the film I wanted to make – it seemed soooo big. It was Thunderdome (referring to the obscene size of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), or at least it was approaching Thunderdome. I didn’t know where to go from there. I had this sort of track going [through the movies], zombies were learning and evolving, but this movie was so big, I just couldn’t imagine what to do next. 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. It seemed like a way to get back and do something really inexpensive and simple, and see if I still had the chaps and stamina to go back and make another little guerrilla movie.
The Internet has made information sharing a past-time, but you’re frightened by its possible implications. What about it scares you?
GR: Is it information, or is it opinion? I wish it was information. One of the Internet’s values is that you actually have access to information, but you also have access to every lunatic out there who wants to throw up a blog. Anybody with a radical idea that sounds somewhat reasonable will suddenly have millions of followers. That’s the thing that’s scary. If Hitler were alive today, he’d never have to go speak in the town square. Ever. He’d throw up a blog. People are so used to trusting whatever comes over that box, whether it was the old console TV or your new phone. People are so used to listening to that shit, and they would rather have somebody tell them what to think than do their homework and figure out what they really think about it. I guess if I was to indict anyone, it would be us. For not paying enough attention.
It’s safe to say your career has been built on the success of the Dead series. Does being the zombie king ever haunt you?
GR: Of course it haunts you. I’d love to be able to go in and pitch another kind of film and be taken seriously, but I’m generally not. That’s a bit frustrating, because you don’t grow up wanting to be a horror filmmaker; you grow up wanting to be a filmmaker, you know. I wish I had a wider range. I tried early on to do several films that were not genre, and nine people saw them, so I don’t have the credentials in that regard. On the other side of that, and far outweighing it, is that I’ve been able to use the genre to express my opinion, talk a little about society, do a little satire – and that’s been great. A lot of people don’t have that platform. I joke and say I’m the Michael Moore of horror, but it’s my niche and it’s what I do.
And you do it better than anybody else in the business. But is it difficult to balance the horror with the social commentary?
GR: I don’t think it’s difficult. I just think you have to set out to do it. Once you know you’re going to make a movie about this, you can glue zombies onto it easily. You just need to have the idea. I go to speak to conventions and universities and speak to young filmmakers, and everybody’s making zombie movies – but it’s only because it’s easy to get the neighbors in them and cover them with ketchup. You don’t need rubber suits, monsters, or many effects. But there don’t seem to be much beyond it except splatter, and that’s all it is. I think you’ve got to go deeper. I always tell filmmakers, ‘Get an idea. Forget story.’ Studio executives always want to know what the story is. ‘Okay, the guy’s black. Maybe not. Maybe he’s white. Bada-bing, bada-boom.’ You can do it fifty different ways, but it has to be about something.
Your work has pushed the boundaries of cinematic violence for four decades, but these days, in an era when “gore porn” is considered a sub-genre of horror, do you find yourself competing with the Eli Roths of the world for shock value?
GR: I’m certainly not trying to compete with those cats that way. I don’t even know what they’re doing. If somebody could offer me some explanation of what that shit is about … Okay, so you’re angry. We were angry in the '60s, too. It doesn’t mean you do something to be cruel. Is that the appropriate response to your anger? I don’t get it.
Diary of the Dead feature several disturbing visual references to the chaos that followed Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. As a filmmaker who always seems to hit the nail on the head despite political or popular indifference to a subject, was it eerie to see everything you implied humans were capable of happen in your own backyard instead of in some obscure overseas locale?
GR: Well, we never had the advantage of being able to find real footage [like the hurricane news footage] that could make that reference back in the '60s. We just didn’t have it, even if there was rioting in the streets.
But you’ve been presaging such an outcome to a national tragedy for decades. Were you still shocked at what you saw coming over your “box”?
GR: Maybe. I don’t know. Almost everything I see, all the tragedy, the war, the craziness, nothing takes me by surprise. You can’t satirize anything anymore because real life, real politics, is satire of itself. So no, I don’t think I got that rush after [Katrina].