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Romero, George (Land of the Dead) Interview I

Rarely do I get intimidated. I’ve been around a lot of genre personalities. This was one moment in my life that I was never going to forget. In just a few minutes I would ring up a tour guide who would take me to a place that I have dreamed about since the mid 1980’s. A land where the living die, and the dead live.


Uncle Creepy: Hello, George. This is such an honor for me, and I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

George Romero: I’m happy to.

UC: It’s an incredible moment for me. Before we start, I have to tell you a little story which, if anyone on this planet deserves to hear, it’s you. Even when I was a little kid of about 3 or 4, I was a night owl. My thing was that I’d wait for my parents to fall asleep, and once I heard the snoring, I’d sneak into the living room where we had this giant black and white console TV. I did that one night, and there was this newscast on about the dead returning to life and how we had to get to rescue stations. At that age, I really freaked out, and I ran into my parents’ bedroom and woke them up. They thought I was having a nightmare, but I insisted it was real and dragged them into the living room to see. Of course, what was on TV was Night of the Living Dead.

GR: Oh, jeez.

UC: So, Mr. Romero, you are responsible for my first spanking!

GR: Uh oh! Well, I’m sorry about that.

UC: Actually, I should thank you because it really changed my life. It was probably the most defining moment in my life. It made me a horror fan and a Romero fan.

GR: Well, that’s a good thing.

UC: That’s why this interview is such a momentous occasion for me.

GR: Well, thank you!

UC: Now that that’s off my chest . . . so, George Romero. Your name is synonymous with all things horror, and the fans love you. It seems you’ve never been hotter. I know there are obvious questions that a lot of people are waiting to hear answers to, but I’d also like to take things from a different angle as well and ask you some questions about you personally, not just as the maker of the infamous Dead series. I know you love movie soundtracks. Is any of that part of your decision to do Diamond Dead?

GR: No! Brian Cooper had written the script and I knew the producer from years ago, and he called me up and said, “Hey, I have this great idea. Richard Hartley’s doing the music.” And he asked me if I wanted to be involved. I saw the script he had and listened to the music – he had had an artist do some character designs as well – and I just flipped for it. So it really has nothing to do with that; it was just something that fell into place.

UC: How far along are you on Diamond Dead?

GR: It’s very hard to say. We think the money is in place. There’s a possibility that if the money can’t wait for me, they might have to go with another director, so I really don’t know what’s going on. But it’s very close to happening and so is The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a Stephen King project I’m involved in. Apparently the money is about to fall out of the trees on that one too.

We have a deal on the next Dead film, which is now called Land of the Dead. I don’t know what it’ll be called in the end, but that’s a real deal. In fact, I’m sitting here working on an FX list.

UC: So that’s a complete “go” – a greenlight?

GR: Yeah, it’s a greenlight.

UC: That is absolutely some of the best news I’ve ever heard!

GR: Well, great!

UC: As both a horror fan (and I’m sure I speak for everyone else out there) and a journalist, that is amazing! It’s gratifying to hear it’s an actual “go” from the source.

GR: It’s trippy. I’m delighted to hear the news myself! I got the idea for this – or the rough idea; it’s a bit different now – before 9/11. I wrote the script and sent it out literally about 48 hours before the World Trade Center disaster, and of course, at that point everybody wanted soft and fuzzy movies. So I sort of pulled it back and sat on it for about a year and a half. And then I wanted to change it to reflect more of the post 9/11 mindset. It’s a very weird thing. On the one hand, it’s paranoia, and on the other hand, everybody’s living as though the world is still normal. That’s largely what this thing’s about, so I tried to reflect a little bit of that attitude.

UC: How does it feel to be working on the fourth installment after all these years?

GR: Well, it’s great. I’m enjoying the hell out of it! I really like the finished script – the one we’re using right now and calling finished anyway – so I’m thrilled. I’d really love to do it.

UC: Any idea when production would start?

GR: They’re hoping to start the beginning of October. October 3rd or whatever the Monday is. That’s a little tight; we might not be able to get it together that quickly.

UC: You know, it’s about time because there’s been a resurgence in zombie film popularity. It’s amazed me that it has taken so long for Hollywood to get the clue that they should really just go to the Master.

GR: Well, thanks again. Probably by the time this goes, it’ll be old news. But hopefully there’s going to be an audience for whatever I crank out here.

UC: I can almost guarantee there will be. Now, things have changed drastically since Day of the Dead back in the mid-80’s. Has the subject of the MPAA come up? Are you going to go for an R rating?

GR: I have to. It’s a much bigger budget, and the producers are insisting that I deliver an R. But they are basically letting me shoot the film the way I want to shoot it, and then I’ll probably have to cut it back for the initial U.S. release. I’ll get away with as much as I can inside the R, and then in some markets like Japan and so forth we’ll probably release a harder version. And then, you know, there’ll be the DVD and all that.

UC: You have a habit of working with a lot of the same actors in your films. Are you bringing any actors back for this go-around with the Dead?

GR: I hope so. I haven’t really gotten into it yet. This is all brand-new. We’re just working on an effects version first. The producers have hired a casting director, but we haven’t had any meetings yet or anything. I’d love for Savini to play a role, and I have a few things up my sleeve I’d love to do. They’re probably, because of the budget, going to want a couple of recognizable people, which wouldn’t be my preference. But we can’t afford, even though the budget’s bigger than any of the other Dead films (probably between $15 and $20 million), “big” names, so that’s fine with me. They might want some people with a little bit of a “Q” – is that what it’s called?

UC: Yeah, yeah.

GR: So, I just don’t know yet. It’s really just starting. I’m making my case for “leave it alone, just get good actors.” But we haven’t had the critical meetings, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

UC: As far as effects, do you have anyone in mind?

GR: I think I’m going to go with KNB, Greg Nicotero’s guys.

UC: I don’t think you could possibly make a better choice. Greg was in Day of the Dead as well, right?

GR: Yeah, exactly. He’s a Savini protégé. Tom is not that interested in doing it anymore. But if he’s in the film, Greg and I talked about maybe letting him do one specific character or something that he could really get his chops off on.

UC: Well, you guys are sort of synonymous with one another. When people think Day of the Dead or Dawn of the Dead, they think Savini and Romero. So it would be obvious that you two work together in some capacity. Even as an actor, I think Tom would eat that up.

GR: He would! I think he’d actually prefer it. Not have the burden, you know?

UC: Lord knows he’s paid his dues FX-wise, huh?

GR: Yeah, he has.

UC: Now all of this has come into play recently. Things have really started cooking with Land of the Dead. Do you attribute some of that to the recent Dawn remake? And what did you think of the Dawn remake? Did you get a chance to watch it?

GR: It was better than I expected it was going to be.

UC: I think a lot of people could say that.

GR: But I thought it sort of lost its reason for being . . . the whole social underside of it is gone. The mall is just a place where they hole up, you know. It’s not satirical. But I thought it was an okay action film with a couple of good script ideas in it. I don’t like fast moving zombies. Thank God these guys are not making me do that! I just think they are . . . you know . . . like the sheriff said in the original film, “They’re dead. They’re all messed up.” That’s what they should be!

I do have an evolutionary process going on. At the end of Dawn, there was the guy that recognized the gun, and then there was Bub in Day of the Dead, and I’m going a little further in this one. But they still don’t have their motor coordination down.

UC: They’re a little lopsided.

GR: Yeah.

UC: What was your favorite of the three? What Dead film has the most “George Romero” in it? Your most personal I guess?

GR: It’s so hard to say. They were in such different times. I suppose my favorite has become Day of the Dead just because I think we executed it better than the others. Not that it’s necessarily a better film. I don’t know; it’s funny – when you think about how satisfied you are with your own work, half of it is did you have a good time doing it and then how well did you execute it.

UC: Day is my favorite of your films too. I feel it was just the total package as far as the zombie films. You had your undertones, your commentaries that signify “George Romero,” and you had amazing special effects that to this day I haven’t really seen much top. One of the things I think a lot of people are going to be curious about in the new Land of the Dead film is whether or not you’re going to go the physical effects route or the CGI route or maybe a combination of both. What do you think of people making zombies with CGI like they did with Resident Evil?

GR: I’ve talked to Greg about it, and we want to do as much as possible mechanically. I’m planning maybe six shots using CG just to make them a little more competitive or more amazing, but Greg is developing some really fabulous puppets. I’d like to do the whole thing that way, but again, the producers are saying to pick out a few moments where we can really do something a little spectacular. There’s one sequence in the film that physically needs CG, but it has nothing to do with the zombies. It’s a big effect – a bridge collapse. So that’s probably going to have to be a combination of scale models and CG. And there’s one other shot which I’m not allowed to talk about – they told me specifically not to talk about it – which is a zombie shot that has to be CG just because of the environment. Other than that, no, man; I don’t dig that.

UC: Amen!

GR: Greg has some wonderful ideas for being able to use puppets and electromagnets. He’s an amazing cat, a very creative guy.

UC: He’s also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

GR: He’s great. A great guy!

UC: I’m so happy as a fan to hear that this is finally happening.

GR: Well, me too!

UC: Zombies are my favorite part of the genre ever since my little ass spanking when I was three. It’s always seemed that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. You’ve inspired a lot of filmmakers to go out and make zombie movies. I was wondering if there are any that you’ve seen – or even not zombie movies – but any filmmakers that you’ve had your eye on recently that you think are up and coming talents in the genre?

GR: I’ll tell you one movie that I loved: It’s called Shaun of the Dead. Have you seen that?

UC: No, I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard wonderful things about it.

GR: Oh, man. I just flipped! It’s British guys who used to do a TV series called Spaced; it’s sort of like a mini-Monty Python group. Wonderfully talented, wonderful actors. They just did this with such affection and love. You almost can’t call it a send-up even though it is. Let me just say it’s not spoofy; it certainly satirizes the genre, but it does it in such an affectionate way that it’s just . . . You’ve gotta see this movie! It’s fabulous. I’m their biggest endorser. I really flipped for it.

UC: That’s excellent.

GR: I think it finally has a release date. Maybe September?

UC: Yes, September. I’m looking forward to it. Basically, for me, you put a zombie in it, I’ll go watch it.

GR: I GUARANTEE you’re gonna come out of this one digging it. I hope there are enough fans of the genre to get the jokes and appreciate it.

UC: I’m sure. I go to a lot of conventions and speak to a lot of fans, and there are a lot of old school fans that adore your work and adore the zombie genre. I know they’re looking forward to this as much as I am.

Did you get a chance to see 28 Days Later?

GR: I haven’t seen it. I have it; it’s sitting here. I can actually see it on my shelf. You know I get these screeners. I should because I hear it’s pretty good, but I just haven’t yet. Because I’ve been working on this, I didn’t want to . . . I don’t like influences. I had to see Dawn because Richard [Rubenstein] was asking me to comment on it. I didn’t even want to go see that.

UC: It’s interesting that you mentioned the word “influences” when it comes to 28 Days Later because if and when you do watch it, in my opinion, it’s like a 90-minute homage with a half hour of each of the Dead trilogy films. It’s gotten a lot of acclaim, and the first thing I said to myself was that I felt like somebody had encapsulated the entire Dead trilogy and said, “Here it is. This is my homage to the Romero films.” It’s really interesting in that regard. You have the bleak beginning like Night did, then they go on a “shopping spree” with some consumerism at the midpoint, and then in the third act they end up in an Army complex where the soldiers are sort of the bad guys.

GR: Oh, man! All right!

UC: All that was missing was Captain Rhodes.

GR: Oh yeah, Joe! Joe should be there! Somebody told me there’s some Crazies stuff in there too. I don’t know if that’s true or not.

UC: I think you’ll enjoy it because it is a decent movie and they do some decent things, but the source material is just glaring.

Another one of your films I’d like to talk about a little bit is Bruiser.

GR: Nobody got it.

UC: How do you feel about Bruiser today?

GR: I love it! The zombie films aside – the zombie films are sort of like having misbehaved kids – my favorite is Martin, and behind that are Knightriders and Bruiser. I really love it. It’s just that nobody got it. It was really one from the heart and one that I wanted to do. The cast was great; the crew was terrific; we had a wonderful time making it. But it had a low budget and a short schedule. I’ve been used to covering my ass by doing a lot of coverage, and on that film I just couldn’t. I wound up having to choreograph it, and it was a whole different experience for me. So, I was happy to be able to pull it off, and I felt really good about it. I just loved the idea, but nobody gets it. We did it for a French company, Canal, and when we started the film, we’d get these guys on the phone. They loved it, and it was all buddy-buddy. By the time we finished the movie, they had gone through this merger with Vivendi and then Universal, and all of a sudden, the guys were gone. The only cats we were getting on the phone with were these execs from Universal. They had no idea what this movie was about, so I was disappointed that it never got a better release. But I’m also really happy there are a lot of fans who come around that really like it. I’m certainly glad it’s there.

UC: That was also the first time you filmed out of the country. You filmed in Canada, right?

GR: Yeah. And for this one right now, Land of the Dead, the producers are looking at Canada. The City of Pittsburgh and the State of Pennsylvania are trying like hell to provide some incentives so that we can do it here. But I don’t know if they can ever match the financial differences of going to Canada. If it pushes, they are actually running a budget for South Africa. Aside from wanting to go look at some elephants, I can’t imagine making that look like the Burgh.

UC: So your preference would be to film in Pittsburgh?

GR: Absolutely! It’s definitely written for Pittsburgh. It’s mentioned several times in the script. And there’s a physical reason for it: Pittsburgh’s on a little triangular peninsula of land. Both sides are rivers, and the base of the triangle is very narrow. It’s less than a mile across . . . three quarters of a mile. So that’s really all they have to blockade, and they’re cut off. The city’s cut off. There’s a little subway that runs across the river, and I have all that stuff built into the script. So, it’d be hard to do it anywhere else. But, you know, what are you going to do? You do what you have to do.

UC: I’m sure. You mentioned the script was done around 9/11, which was 2001. How long were you actually working on the script? How long has the story been in development?

GR: In my mind I left it alone after 9/11 for about a year and a half. Then I wrote a version that 20th Century Fox really wanted to do. It became one of those typical Hollywood things where we were still working on a contract a year and a half later. These guys I’m with now – the company called Atmosphere and a guy named Mark Canton (I think he used to be President of Warner, you know a big-deal cat) – came to me through pure serendipity. Canton was having lunch with my agent one day and asked what I was doing. My agent said, “Well, he’s got this other zombie thing and it’s at Fox, but we’ve been screwing around for a year and a half.” So Canton said, “Let me read it.” Two days later we made a deal. So after a year and a half of lawyers, the deal was done in a week. That’s the way it should be, man.

UC: Life is full of serendipitous situations. You just never know which one’s going to pan out.

GR: I know it.

UC: You’re involved in a new comic book for DC as well, right?

GR: I loved doing it! They called up and wanted to do some limited edition, six-issue stories written by filmmakers instead of comic book guys. They called me up first and asked if I had any ideas. I said to give me a couple of days, and I came up with one. They dug it, and so I wound up writing it. I just had a ball doing it.

UC: What’s it called?

GR: The series is called “Toe Tags.” I don’t know yet . . . we’re trying to decide what to call mine. I think all of them are going to be called “Toe Tags.” If they do one with Dario or with somebody else . . .

UC: Sort of like an anthology.

GR: Yeah. So I don’t know what specifically they’re going to call mine. I had a title on the Web for a while called “The Death of Death.” They might use that.

UC: Interesting.

GR: It’s a zombie thing too. And they’re really doing it, man. Bernie Wrightson did the covers, and they’re gorgeous. Tommy Castillo’s doing the book, you know the content. I’m just thrilled. It’s beautiful.

UC: That’s very, very cool. Speaking of anthologies, I have to bring this up. Taurus Entertainment is of course doing the Day of the Dead: Contagium film, and they just announced Creepshow III. How does that make you feel? People doing sequels to your work?

GR: I don’t know. I don’t know how they can do it. I’d rather be doing it myself. I don’t know how they’re doing Creepshow. Those guys . . . anyway . . . what are you going to do?

UC: Good enough for me. What other projects are you working on? Do you have any non-horror projects in the works?

GR: Well, sort of a non-horror thing, although it’s Stephen King. It’s a novel of his called The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. We have that, and it’s real close to getting financed as well. Those are the ones: Diamond Dead, Tom Gordon, and this one [Land of the Dead] which is a “go,” so . . . I’m hoping one of those will fall into place.

UC: How does it feel to be so hot in Hollywood again?

GR: Oh, man, it ain’t Hollywood, let me tell you. I don’t know. I’ve been getting a lot of press, and thankfully the fans seem to be really wanting this one and are supportive. It’s great!

UC: It’s about time someone took notice. On another note — you may not hear this enough — I would like to tell you that in the estimation of a lot of fans including myself, you’re a real hero to those in the film business. You’ve always made “your” films, you know? You’ve always done it on your terms. I just think that’s something that should absolutely be applauded.

GR: Well, thank you.

UC: A lot of people would compromise their work in order to just get it made, and you’ve always been a “this is what I want to do” type of guy. That’s still such a refreshing and inspirational thing to a filmmaker because it shows that your work can make it out there.

GR: I don’t know. I don’t want to sound like “oh, pshaw.” I am proud of that. It’s been tough though, man, I gotta tell you. It’s really hard. You drop off the radar, and all of a sudden nobody cares about you anymore. I did those couple of Orion things, and they just never got good distribution. Orion was in trouble. When you drop off the radar, it’s hard to get a gig. Also, my kind of ideas are not so automatic and not what Hollywood guys think of as horror concepts. When something gets hot – whether it’s the Scream series or whatever – they want you to come in and duplicate it. I don’t want to make movies about a guy in a hockey mask with a knife. I’m looking for something that underlies it and makes it a little more relevant. It’s tough. I was pitching this [Land of the Dead] and explaining it’s about people ignoring the problem, and I’d get these puzzled looks. But if I go out to a convention or something and say that to the fans, they get it right away.

UC: How do you feel horror has evolved from the 60’s when you did Night of the Living Dead to how it is now? What are the main differences?

GR: Not well. I just think too many things are made by people with no affection for the genre. Either that or it’s all effects driven. There’s no sort of reason to make most of the movies except that “here’s a cool idea.” Whether it’s Jeepers Creepers or whatever, it’s just basically a different spin on something old with no metaphor. So I haven’t been real pleased with a lot of the stuff. As I said, I didn’t love [the new] Dawn, but I liked it a lot more than I thought. I just love to watch the stuff like what you were saying. So, you know, I can get off on it, but on a more serious level there’s very little going on.

UC: Other than The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, any more possibilities for some King/Romero collaborations?

GR: I’d love it. If we get this one off the ground, we’ll take them one at a time, but he’s got a couple of things I’d love to work on. There’s a TV series being contemplated now based on Nightmares and Dreamscapes. I’ve sort of been asked if I want to contribute to that.

UC: That would be cool. Whatever happened with your Dracula script?

GR: They [ABC] just decided not to do it. Actually, they did Steve’s Kingdom Hospital instead. I called Steve and told him I was pissed.

UC: Are you considering that project dead?

GR: No, no. It’s still there. And we’re hoping to have somebody do it.

UC: What was your take on the whole Dracula thing? Can you talk about it a little bit?

GR: It was pure Stoker, man. I just went right back to the book and was trying to do the real deal.

UC: You wanted to do a miniseries?

GR: Initially it was going to be a miniseries, then it was going to be a three-hour movie. It goes through all these changes. Actually, I really loved the script, but anyway . . .

UC: I think they definitely made the wrong decision when it came to which one to do. Kingdom Hospital went belly-up really fast. At least Dracula is proven source material. Plus, with your name attached to it, I think it would have done very well.

GR: Yeah, I think it would have. Hopefully I’ll get to do it.

UC: I’m sure somewhere down the line you will. I’d love to see a Romero Dracula.

GR: Me too!

UC: Now speaking of remakes and decisions, I hear they’re looking to remake The Crazies as well.

GR: Yeah. Paramount is making a deal with us. We don’t have the paperwork on it yet, but I know they want to do it. It looks like it’s real. But they don’t want my creative input. They want me as an Executive Producer. They want to stick my name on it, but they don’t want me to come around too much. It’s one of those Hollywood things.

UC: Man, all of a sudden it seems like you’re everywhere!

GR: It’s weird, ain’t it?

UC: I’m not complaining mind you!

GR: Neither am I! But that’s it, just the three films. There’s also a thing that everybody talks about on the Web called The Ill, which is old. I haven’t done anything on it for three years. Everybody keeps asking me when that’s going to happen. Really, I haven’t touched it for three years, but somehow it stays alive on the Web.

UC: The Web can be an amazing tool. But it can be as much trouble as it is good too.

GR: I know. I get so irritated when they pick up a script that you’re in negotiations on and slam it. That can actually keep things from happening.

UC: Obviously, you are a horror fan . . .

GR: Yeah. I’m not a student, you know what I mean? I just love it. I dig it.

UC: How do you feel about the prospect of finally a horror channel?

GR: I think it’s terrific.

UC: It’s been a long road – I’m sure you can appreciate that.

GR: Fabulous!

UC: Romero and The Horror Channel: It’s a no-brainer to me. Have you ever considered the possibility of an actual Dead series?

GR: Yes. I have one.

UC: Do you really? That’s something interesting I’ve never heard of before.

GR: I’m not really promoting it. We just showed it to one place, and we haven’t pulled it out of that drawer since. But I actually have a pilot written and all that. I want to do a series and shoot it like Blair Witch. Start with the phenomenon on Day One and basically have a bunch of people running around with their own camcorders and stuff. It would all be very naturalistic. That was my idea. It could be done inexpensively. I’ve sort of been sitting on it. I’ve been saying that when we do this film, it might become worth more.

UC: Maybe we could do that as a Horror Channel thing?

GR: That would be fabulous.

UC: I think the fans would love that. It’s a very interesting idea.

GR: Let’s do it, man! I’m ready. Maybe we can do it this afternoon.

UC: I’ll call my higher-ups as soon as I get off the phone with you and say, “Dude, let’s go!” I’m sure the fans want to see George Romero involved in The Horror Channel. You can’t fool them. You can’t go to the fans and present them with a diluted product and tell them it’s The Horror Channel. They’ll laugh at you. So we have to give them the goods, and that’s what we’re setting out to do.

GR: I’m really pulling for you guys. I know there’s an audience, and it could be a gas. It’d be great, once you guys are on your feet, to do some original stuff.

UC: That’s something that will definitely come to fruition a little bit down the road.

I think I’ve probably taken up enough of your time, George. Again, I really appreciate it.

GR: It’s been fun talking. I hope we get to meet soon.

UC:

Jon Condit