While some of his peers have more or less sat the decade out, George Romero has had a second wind as of late, giving fans a whopping THREE zombie flicks in the past 5 years. His latest is Survival of the Dead, the 6th in his long running series, and like its predecessors, it’s not just a cookie cutter zombies vs humans movie. George has always had something to say with his films, and Survival is no different, tackling the notion that nowadays people have to go to war over pretty much everything, and spend so much time trying to prove that the other side is wrong that they lose sight of what they are fighting about in the first place. Our own BC sat down with the master to discuss this, as well as some of George’s other projects, and of course, the future of the Dead…
BD: You had said that the film was inspired by The Big Country, which came out in 1958 – was this a concept you had been considering for a while, or did it just come to you recently?
George Romero: No… the idea was to make a film about war or entities that don’t die, conflicts, disagreements that people can’t resolve, whether its Ireland, or the Middle East, or the Senate… that was the idea. And then I decided that was the best way to depict it. And then I had this other idea about an island would be a logical place for people to go, an idea I sort of played with in some of the other films. So I said OK, the best way to tell this story I think is to have a protagonist go to the island only to find out that it’s in the middle of basically a war that won’t die, between these two old guys. And the moment that came together I remembered The Big Country. And I’m always looking for something different sort of stylistically with these films so that they’re not the same which makes it more interesting for us as filmmakers. All the people on the set, production design, DP, good friends of mine, we sort of work as a big family. So we all sat down and I made everyone watch the big country. And then my thought was “Hey why don’t we go full on with this, go widescreen, not mute the colors, really try to make it look like William Wyler”. So that was something we did as a fun exercise to give it a different taste.
BD: So was that the motive for shooting widescreen? Most of your films are the smaller ratio…
GR: Yeah, 1.85. Land was 2.35, but that was more of a studio decision than mine. I was OK with it though, because that film was the most like a Hollywood action film, you know?
BD: Do you find that you like the wider frame now?
GR: I do, I do like it. I remember Cinemascope man; I was a kid seeing the first one, The Robe I think. And it blew me away. And then Cinerama and all those formats… I always loved it.
BD: You mentioned Ireland, was that the reason for the Irish accents?
GR: In a way… I said “How can I put a little more salt and pepper on this?” I can’t make the two guys an Arab and a Jew! (laughs). So I thought of Irish families. There’s a couple islands off the coast of New England that are largely Irish populated. I just thought it made the most sense. I also loved Kenny Welsh, and I knew that he could really cut that. I didn’t know he’d say yes to DOING IT, but I was hoping!
BD: And the other lead, Alan Van Sprang, he was in Diary, playing the same character – this is the first time, I guess apart from Savini, that you brought a character back. Was that something that when you were doing Diary that you felt you wanted to do more with this character?
GR: No, because… after Land of the Dead, which was the big budget thing, I felt a little bit as if I’d sort of lost the roots of where I started this whole thing, and I wanted to go back to doing them smaller. And I had the idea; I wanted to do something about emerging media, social journalism, citizen journalism… and I needed to do it quickly because other people were surely going to do it too. So we found this company who was capable of financing small budget films internally, and willing to take the gamble; finance it and sell it later. So that was hog heaven for me, because I knew I could do that film for around 2.5 million. And it so cost so little to make that even though it had a limited release, it still made lots of bread worldwide, with DVDs and TV. So they wanted another one, and the one thing I’ve never been able to do with the first four, is cross collectivize, re-use characters. I mean, Savini we had to get all kinds of special permissions for that little cameo [in Land]. So I’ve never been able to do that. So I said “OK, here’s a deal for you!” And if this makes a lot of money, they’ll want another one, so I sort of set my mind on using three minor characters, with ideas for two more that would use my characters from Diary, and it would become this collage, the four films would be a unit.
BD: So Diary‘s kind of like “The Hobbit” and these three are “Lord of the Rings”.
GR: Yeah, exactly. And I don’t know if it’s going to happen, it depends on how this film does, I’m sort of standing by in case it does. And we’ll see! In the meantime my partner and I are developing a couple of other things, another horror idea that’s non-zombie, and then I have another idea, non horror – a small personal film. Again, on a scale that I think I could get the financing. I just don’t have the energy anymore, or the desire, to come out here and pitch for 2 years. Or the time left. I think I’ll stick with what I’m doing, you know? Smaller scale stuff, doing it at home with friends, have as much fun with it as I’ve been having.
BD: Seems to be working, this is the 3rd zombie film in 5 years – you’re really making it up to us for missing the 90s!
GR: (laughs) All those down years!
BD: Given a choice, would you jump right into the zombies again for your next film, or would you want to work on those other two ideas you mentioned first?
GR: If it was MY choice? If this makes enough money I’d say let’s do both of them, and do them together as one production, and get it off my plate. And then meantime try to develop these others ideas. I don’t know how many films I have left, you know? Three, if I’m lucky…
GR: I don’t know about that, I smoke! (laughs).
BD: And you were working on a novel at one point, is that still in the works?
GR: Yeah I was contracted, but I didn’t SIGN the contract, by the publishing company, to do a zombie novel. Everybody seems to be doing it; it’s a little frustrating for me – what can I say that Max Brooks hasn’t already said, or some of these other guys. So I don’t know, I’m sort of idly working on it. I didn’t sign the contract because I didn’t want a deadline, I didn’t want the obligation to deliver, but I am working on it. I got about 150 pages finished. We’ll see. It’s really hard for me to get my head into that. On one hand it’s easy because I know I don’t have to shoot this shit, I can write anything! (laughs). But trying to do something UNIQUE with it, what’s NEW about these guys? I don’t know. Just trying to sell this more mystical idea… I don’t like these rage zombies or virus zombies. My stories have always been people stories, the zombies are an annoyance. It’s all about people, how they address the situation, or fail to address it. That’s the most fun for me. And I don’t want to know what caused it!
BD: The thing is, at this point, after six films, most of us fans don’t really care anymore what caused it. Maybe back with Dawn, we were looking for a big explanation, but by now they’re just THERE, and we don’t care why. So it’s interesting that you brought up the virus type, because that’s pretty much what they did with The Crazies…
GR: (rolls his eyes)
BD: Oh man I wish this was on video now! But anyway, they did that, they’re remaking Night of the Living Dead again, there was a Day remake a couple years ago… do you take it personally when they do these remakes without you, or would you just rather NOT be involved?
GR: I don’t. I just think some of it… sometimes it’s just stupid to do it. My ex-partner did the Dawn remake himself, and he had the rights, when we split up he had the rights to Dawn and Day. He told the Day rights to someone, I forget who. I wouldn’t have done it. I don’t know why. And he’ll probably end up remaking Martin and Knightriders.
BD: He has those too?
GR: Yeah, he has everything we did together. It was part of the “divorce” settlement; it was a public company. So he could take those assets. So we’ll see, I don’t care, you know? My stuff is my stuff! It’s like people asking Steve King, “How do you feel about Hollywood ruining your books?” And it’s like, “They’re not ruined, they’re right there on the shelf.” I sort of feel the same way about my films. My films are what they are. Crazies was a bit of a disappointment, I thought I would have more involvement in it. They made a deal with my agent, they paid me some money to be an executive producer on it, so I was hoping I’d be involved, but all it meant was “Stay off; we’ll call you when we need you.”
BD: With something like Martin, if they offered you to be involved, would you want to? Or would you just rather stay clear?
GR: I wouldn’t want to touch it. Particularly that one. And Knightriders, those are my two most personal, heartfelt films. They’re ME. I don’t know how you can remake them without me, without my motivation. But sure, go ahead and try. There’s only one film, I made a film called Jack’s Wife when I made it, I think it’s called Season of the Witch on video. That’s the only one I’d want to revisit. We ran out of money, or actually, the people who were financing it never came across with the rest of the money; the acting’s not good… it was me trying to do this women’ lib thing and I was very uninformed about certain issues (laughs), and I think it could be stronger today, so I’ve actually toyed with the idea, I thought it would be interesting. That’s the only one that I would consider. And I do have access to the rights to that one, because that one was pre-Richard. So maybe, maybe, maybe… I don’t know. Again, I sort of have to pick and choose what I want to use my time on.
BD: One final question, I have to know, what it’s like working with such a prima donna actor like Uncle Creepy Steve Barton?
GR: (laughs) Hah! Gave me more trouble than anyone! No, what a sweet guy. He was like a pig in shit. He just couldn’t believe to do this, particularly this big gag, tearing this guy apart. But he was loving it! And I tell you, it was FREEZING, we had some really cold nights, and they couldn’t feel their fingers. He and Mike Felsher, they were right in the heart of that rig. They had a hard time because the stuff was freezing on them. We never really got a good shot of it, it was a great effect – the actor was actually there, but the zombies sort of cover it up, because they were having such a hard time they had to hunker in to get a good grab!
BD: Well thank you for your time, sir, good to see you again.
GR: Good to see you! Take care.
SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD hits theaters May 28. It’s now available on VOD, Xbox, PS3 and more.