If you’re a Dread Central regular, then you should be in agreement that writer/director George A. Romero needs little introduction, if any preface at all. His name is synonymous with walking corpses and his body of work speaks for itself: Martin, Knightriders, The Crazies, Creepshow, The Dark Half. Let’s not forget the Dead trilogy (Night, Dawn and Day of the Dead) which will soon evolve into a quadrilogy when Romero ventures to Toronto this October to begin shooting Land of the Dead. It will be the first time in four years Romero has stepped behind the camera, his last effort being Bruiser, incidentally also lensed in Toronto.
The last two years have been a busy not just on the flesh eater front but for 64-year-old Romero as well. The director has been attached to various projects – he’d probably say it was the story of his life – including an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula supposedly aimed to fly on television, the rock ‘n roll musical Diamond Dead and an acting stint in Mick Garris’ Riding the Bullet. But everything either crumbled away or was forced to the back seat of Romero’s hearse when he was finally given the greenlight to roll on Land of the Dead after tinkering with the script for three years. You might agree, too, that a fourth Dead film takes precedence over anything else Romero had up his sleeve.
Dread Central sat down with Romero on the first day of his three day visit to Toronto as the guest of honor at Rue Morgue’s Festival of Fear in August.
Ryan Rotten: When I spoke to Greg Nicotero he told me you guys were discussing the progress of zombie decay in Land of the Dead. Some of them will be farther along since this film picks up years later.
George Romero: We’re going to show some of that, [in the film] people are still dying every day, so…
RR: Now you’re in the process of casting, how’s that going for you? Are you doing cattle call-like auditions?
GR: Some – in Los Angeles and here in Toronto. But it’s a studio release so you’ve got to have somebody on the marquee.
RR: Well at the time of Dawn and Day of the Dead you were given a little leeway in regards to casting unknowns. I mean, everyone was virtually an unknown, so how much stretch is the studio given you?
GR: A lot. They want a couple of “names” and that’s what we’re looking for. They’re simpatico. I wish I could tell you more but none of the deals are done.
(Sidenote: Romero would later revealed that Hooper was close to signing his contract and that he’d love to see Asia Argento also star.)
RR: What are your feelings on shooting in Toronto?
GR: I love the crews here. I shot Bruiser up here and it was the best experience I’ve ever had. Everybody was involved and into the film, so that was fabulous. But I have to say, as an American, I wish some more states would open up [to film productions]. I really wanted to shoot Land in Pittsburgh – just simply because of tradition. Pennsylvania is dancing around passing some legislation that I don’t think any production company is gonna look at and think is great. I wish some of the states down there would get smart and do what Canada does in terms of rebates and all of that stuff because all you here down in L.A. is moaning about ‘Why is production running away?’ First of all, it’s great to shoot here. The cooperation level is unbelievable, the crews are dedicated, however, that’s because there’s work coming in! Down there it’s pretty hard to do that. I wish some more states would pass reasonable legislation that would enable us to stay there and be competitive.
RR: And isn’t there a stipulation that if you shoot here in Canada you can only hire Canadian actors?
GR: Yeah, that’s great too. They’re absolutely right to be doing what they’re doing. It’s great for the people who work in the industry up here.
RR: Between Bruiser and now what were you working on spec script-wise? Was there anything that was really personal and close to your chest?
GR: I was working for about a year and a half on a project that I was really in love with. Ed Harris got me involved with something called The Assassination, not a horror thing at all. It was a historical drama about the assassination of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. It damn near got up and going, I was down in Puerto Rico for five weeks with, by the way, a Canadian d.p. – who worked on Bruiser. But it just blew up, we actually had Anthony Quinn and James Coburn attached to it and they both decided to leave. [laughs]
RR: You’ve got a story arc called The Death of Death kicking off DC Comics’ Toe Tags, is that title going to be an on-going series for you?
GR: No, but if they call me up and ask me to do more I will say yes before they call. I loved doing it. They originally called me and asked for a six-issue series which will be a hardcover later on. They were looking for filmmakers to do contribute to Toe Tags. They called me up and asked if I wanted to do it and I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’
RR: So obviously it was a good experience…
GR: It’s great to be able to write stuff and you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to shoot it.
RR: That seems to be the general consensus for any of the guys working in horror comics right now. Rob Zombie said the same thing…
GR: You can do whatever you want, man! Berni Wrightson did the covers, Tommy Castillo illustrated the books…wow, I just loved the whole process. I loved everything about it.
RR: Did you have a tight turnaround to get the story done?
GR: Compared to film? There was plenty of time! By the standards that I’m used to it was fabulous. There was plenty of time to write them and I didn’t have to sit down write it all at once. I could do a couple and the artists could get started.
RR: I just got the big mother Dawn of the Dead box set from Anchor Bay and it was great to see Christine (Romero) talking about the films along with the rest of you. She has played such a big part in your films, mostly behind the camera, does she have a place in Land?
GR: She’s been working with me on casting but I don’t know if she’ll have an official title, but she and I work together on everything I do. We’re basically one guy…or one woman!
RR: This has been a great year for the undead…
GR: Yeah, it’s definitely the year of the zombie, but who knows? Next year my film will come out next year and everyone might be tired of them!
RR: Well, what about the societal reflections? Zombies are less walking metaphors and more like money making machines. Do you agree with that?
GR: Yeah, I think mostly it’s about the buck. Some of the anger that came out of the period so many of us got our start – Wes [Craven], John [Carpenter] – isn’t there. Have you ever seen American Nightmare?
GR: That really says it. I think it really cut it to the bone, I think we really were pissed off that the ’60s didn’t work, that the world didn’t change. Artists or people who were working in the media would eventually have some influence on it, but nothing changed.
RR: The Dawn remake was surprisingly cool, but I mean, the message – any message it had – has already been explored.
GR: I thought it was better than I expected it was going to be. Basically I thought it was a good action film. I said this to Richard Rubinstein, I even wrote it in the trade paperback introduction for Steve Niles’ comic. The movie lost its reason for being and so it’s an action film. It’s well made, Zach did a good job. I mean, I went in with a chip on my shoulder, I wasn’t involved at all…but I thought it was really pretty good. I think that’s the problem with the genre in general, I mean, first of all so few people have an affection for it. Secondly, no one uses it as a platform to speak. Forget speak, forget preach, just express your opinion through it. Any opinion. Instead of just a guy with a knife running around, you know?
RR: And I’m all for this boom in the horror biz but there’s not a whole lot out there that sticks to your ribs. Has there been anything that’s really impressed you in the last decade?
GR: No. [laughs] I had the most fun watching some of the Japanese stuff like Battle Royale and Versus.
RR: Of course Battle Royale is the one they won’t bring over here.
GR: I know, man, it’s like, give me a break! Well, I mean, how could you? Not only would you have to cut the blood scenes but the concept is so… After Columbine? Nobody is gonna release that.
RR: Do you think we’ll ever get out of that Columbine shadow? Or at least see some horror films that really tap that kind of anger?
GR: You would hope. Did you see [Gus Van Sant’s] Elephant?
RR: No, not yet.
GR: I was mesmerized by that movie. It didn’t quite give you the gut punch, that ‘Here’s what this movie is about you fuckin’ asshole.’ It was trying to say that but stopped short. But there was one film that somebody took and tried to do something with it. It’s very hard, people don’t want to hear about it and don’t get it. Bruiser, to some extent, was about that same kind of disenfranchisement, that kind of shit that turns people nuts and violent. Nobody got it. It’s very hard unless you’re going to take it and say ‘This is a true story’ with a horseshit re-enactment with drawing room speeches and people talking about what motivates them. First of all, that’s not my style. I’d rather leave it up to thought. Think about it a little.
RR: Horror films were once very truthful. They portrayed a side, like you said, that people don’t want to see. Do you think this lack of truth is due in part to the filmmaker’s fault or the overpowering studio element?
GR: I would be very quick to blame it on the system but there are so many video cameras out there now, so many people making things. I’ve been a judge at festivals where you see films and they’re vapid. I think there are a few people – whether it’s musicians, sculpters, dancers, painters – and they get it. They combine their skill and expression. There are only ever, no matter what, only going to be a few people that care enough and rise above. I’m not trying to toot my horn. I’m the first guy to say the studios are bad and I will tell you that, yes, in terms of releasing things…when these guys suck off fourth thousand screens a week on…Van Helsing…you can’t fuckin’ get a screen to show your movie. So if you make a little movie, your first problem is getting a goddamn screen. I’d like to say that’s the problem, but a lot of the little stuff I see people are making…you don’t see wonderful things there either. Even there, it’s only once and while.
RR: I did my time in film school too, I know what you mean. From the year I started you can almost point out the one guy that was bound to go somewhere with his vision.
GR: Exactly, just a couple of guys, man. I mean, I started studying painting and design and there was one cat in the class that was like, wow! Everybody measured themselves against him. I sat there was like ‘I’m not good at this!’ So I scrammed. The point is there are only so many people who care and will do what it takes to express themselves. Unfortunately, what I think the studio system does is pick up and foster people who maybe shouldn’t get the big deals.
RR: Like the guys who build a career on making nothing but music videos.
GR: Yeah, like the Hansen video. [laughs] You know, the one where they were on skateboards? [laughs] There’s something else too, and I don’t mean this in the negative sense. People that are filmmakers or should be filmmakers wind up defeated, before they get out there, either by school, a bad teacher, a bad experience. Many of those people – if they really have a dedication for it, and I’ve worked with them as d.p.’s, set designers – I can tell you, I’ve probably worked with 75 to a 100 people over the years that should be making films than working in a craft to serve filmmakers that don’t know what they’re doing.
RR: I can see how school can do that. I mean, when I moved out to Los Angeles I began to think that maybe I shouldn’t have dropped thousands on tuition and should have just moved to Hollywood and gained experience there.
GR: This is the wrong thing to say, but, I always say if you have a passion for filmmaking, somehow find your richest uncle, get him to give you a few bucks and go shoot something.
RR: And do it anywhere…it doesn’t need to be Hollywood.
GR: Right! I’m not saying you shouldn’t try and get an education, but so few people are mature enough when they go into that situation. This teacher is telling me this, but he’s telling me a standard thing that doesn’t necessarily apply.
RR: Go to class and just weed out what’s relevant to you.
GR: Yeah, there’s definitely value in it. Ed Wood could teach you a lot about the biz and certain things, but when he starts trying to teach you about other things… [laughs]
RR: Getting back into your stuff…we’ve been hearing that a Creepshow 3 is in development at Taurus Entertainment.
GR: I don’t know, I think the rights are pretty tied up. Richard Rubenstein may have a lasso on it, and might be able to do it. I’d love to be involved and do another Creepshow if Stephen King was involved. With what you could do today, the CG? I mean, we were literally cutting out those comic book patterns in the original film and trying to get red light to cut through sunlight. But what you could do today, not just CG for eye candy, but to enhance the comic book thing. I’d die to do that.
RR: One other King project you have on tap is Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
GR: We’ve been working on that for several years and nobody gets it. They say, ‘Well, this isn’t really hard ‘R’ I mean, did they see Stand By Me, did they see Shawshank?
RR: Did they read the book?
GR: Did they read the book?! So, we’ve been coming up against problems on that, it still looks like it might happen.
RR: You’ve got two cast members already locked in for that one, don’t you? Laura Dern and Dakota Fanning, how’s that working deal-wise with you going off to work on something else?
GR: We’re actively trying to finance it. We’ve got a lot of financing in place. What happened with Dakota is she agreed to do it, then along came Cat in the Hat and Man on Fire. She changed management, then she got a little too hot for this small-ish project.
RR: Maybe she’ll come around by the time you get to the movie.
GR: It’s funny how things happen. Just the fact that I’m making a movie again. If you sit between Bruiser and now, it’s been four years. Now the phone is ringing off the hook, why? I’m the same guy, I was here two years ago. But now it’s, ‘Oh, somebody’s giving him money to make a movie, that means it must be safe for me to give him money to make a movie!’ It’s just so fuckin’ crazy.
RR: Back to Land of the Dead for a second, when it was being kicked around at Fox, I heard they were trying to keep the Living Dead name.
GR: Initially Fox wanted to call it Night of the Living Dead. I’m like, ‘I’ve already made that movie…twice!’ [laughs] So they wanted to do a colon title. Night of the Living Dead…teeth in the night or something like that. [laughs] Then we ran into problems with the title, you could blame Fox for that, we resolved that. But then we got another offer, the check was on the table.
RR: Well, I saw that Fox had released a colorized version of Night on DVD, I figured they were trying to sink their teeth into ownership of the name…but that would be impossible ’cause the rights are all over the place, right?
GR: They are. I mean, it has taken me years to resolve the title issue. I have it now under the MPAA, Image Ten, and Columbia so it’s sort’ve now in my hands.
RR: Can you explain a bit what this City of the Dead video game is? We know that American McGee is developing it and that you’re somehow involved, that’s all.
GR: I don’t know if that’s gonna happen. It’s an old, old thing. I didn’t sign a deal to do City of the Dead. I signed a deal to do “George Romero Presents…” which gave these guys the rights to do three video games using my name and they had a six year period to get it off the ground. Then they designed a thing called City of the Dead, which didn’t alarm me at first, because at the time my dead movie was called Dead Reckoning. I didn’t think there was a conflict, then, my film’s title changed to Land of the Dead. The company I signed the deal with, I don’t know if they even exist anymore.
RR: It looked a little advantageous to see City get announced around the same time as Land.
GR: I think it got activated because the movie got launched and we got the front page of Variety. I’m hoping Universal will take the whole thing over, it’d be great if they just gobbled it up, that way there was no conflict. I mean, I didn’t write City, I didn’t do shit.
RR: Thanks for clearing up the gray area.
GR: They basically bought my name for George Romero Presents. And I had approval over the games. I’ve never seen the games to say whether they were shit or if they were cool. Never heard from them until this movie got announced.
RR: Of course you’ve got a game system in the Romero household so if it does get made you can play.
GR: My son does. I’m still trying to figure out how to play chess on the computer. That’s about my speed. It gives you five minutes to think about your move.