We chat to master of the undead George A Romero about his latest zombie movie Survival of the Dead…
“If I have anything to do with it, [zombies will always] be slow!”
The sixth zombie film of his career, George A Romero’s Survival of the Dead yet again successfully reworks the genre that he almost single-handedly invented with his 1968 debut Night of the Living Dead. Set on Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware, just a few days after the dead began to rise up, the film follows two rival Irish clans – the O’Flynns and the Muldoons – as they fight over how to deal with the crisis. It all adds up to a typically taut horror work from Romero, laced with his trademark black humour. Here, Romero, who has just turned 70, talks to us about what inspired him to write and direct this latest zombie instalment, how he views the evolution of the genre and how he feels about coaching extras in how to play the perfect zombie…
Survival of the Dead is your sixth zombie film. Do you ever get tired of the genre?
No, I’m not getting tired of it. I love it. I love the genre. Always have. And I get a chance with these films to make my own observations, express myself a little bit, do a little social criticism…it’s a pretty good gig. I’m not tired of doing it. I love it. I love doing it. Maybe you’re getting tired of it!
Does this film have any social commentary, like the previous instalments?
It always starts with some sort of a germ about ‘What’s this movie really going to be about?’ And I think it started a few years ago with the US involvement in Iraq. These young guys going in there, faced with all this tribalism and conflicts that are never going to be resolved. Then I started to think, ‘This is such an age-old problem.’ I just happened to be thinking about the Northern Ireland problem. I wanted to write this character – O’Flynn – I just had an affection for him. You make these decisions, and you just make the call. You hope that it all somehow glues together. Probably one of the drawbacks of having complete freedom is that there are no police around – nobody to say ‘Wait a minute, you’re over-stepping the line here.’ I love it. These last two films, I’ve had so much freedom. I’m completely free to do what I want. So for good or bad, I’ve been able to do what I want.
You made Land of the Dead with Universal, but this is an independent production. Which do you prefer?
Universal was very understanding and they really let me make the movie that I scripted. Except for very early script notices that they gave us, they were very supportive. And everybody warned me. I’d had bad experiences – I’d made two studio films before. Creepshow was released by Warners but independently financed. So I made a movie called Monkey Shines and a movie called The Dark Half, both at Orion. And it was awful. Its supposed to be the filmmaker-friendly studio and it was just nothing but constant interference, changing their minds, wanting to do this, wanting to do that. They’d say, ‘Oh, let’s put in a scene that resembles that.’ The typical Hollywood craziness that you hear. And they forced me to change the endings on both of those films. So everybody warned me off. They said, ‘If you think that was bad, wait until you get in the hands of Universal.’ It wasn’t true at all. They were very respectful.
The problem with more money is that there’s way more responsibility. Everything gets bigger. The catering bill goes up thousands and thousands of dollars, and from a moment to moment basis, you’re not free to improvise. You have to get approval on any script change you want to make. You can’t be spontaneous. Those are the problems. And more money is often not enough. If you’re working with less money, and you’re controlling how you’re spending it, you can budget yourself and make it come out OK. But the studios are used to just throwing money at the wall. But it’s never enough, to really buy back the kind of freedom you have when you’re working on a smaller scale.
How quick was the shoot for Survival of the Dead?
Twenty-five scheduled days, and we lost about three days to weather. It was just hideous weather, and the financing group gave us back those three days. So it was 28 days!
And what about the post-production?
This is one of the disadvantages of having complete control. You tend to go slowly, try things, experiment. In the end, particularly with the editor that’s worked with me on the last few films, we have a great relationship and we can play around with things and there are no personality conflicts, so we were able to take our good old time with it and nobody cared. Just try to make the film better each time – a little shave here, a little shave there. Put this scene back in and take this out. I know it was pretty self-indulgent. In the end, I think we made big improvements. But the difference would’ve been negligible if we’d had a deadline. I think deadlines are good.”
One of the more memorable moments in the film is the death by fire extinguisher. Was this one you’d been planning for years?
No, when I was writing the script, I came up with that. But I had to talk to the CG guys. There’s a couple of gags in here that are right out of Looney Tunes. But that’s another thing; people don’t get the humour or aren’t willing to see that in the context of a horror film. Particularly recently, the last few years. It’s been so dark, the horror stuff that’s come out. I’ve always had a chuckle with it. Again, I go back to the early comic books before they were restricted. They were really, brutally gory but always had a moral. That’s what I grew up on, chuckles. It used to make me chuckle.
The film has Western elements in it. Are you a fan of the genre?
Well, the big American guys – [John] Ford and all of those boys. But the film that was our model for this, was a William Wyler film called The Big Country. All of the department heads, we all sat down and watched The Big Country. Physically, that was our model. Again, it’s a bit experimental. It seemed to fit in my mind. It seemed like American westerns have always been about individualism, and survival of the individual. Whereas traditionally zombie films, particularly mine, are more about revolution and identity taken away. I thought, ‘That’s an interesting contrast.’
How do you feel about zombies in recent films like 28 Days Later?
[They are] more aggressive, yeah. Of course, in 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, they’re not dead. They’re just real angry! So that’s OK with me. But when Zack Snyder did the remake of Dawn of the Dead, they all looked like the first thing they did when they woke up was go to the health club. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Their ankles would snap. It just makes no sense. There’s two different points of view on that. Some people think the fast-moving zombies are more terrifying. But what used to get me as a kid was stuff like The Mummy. Moving slow but he just keeps coming! It’s just the way I lean. Now it’s sparked this huge debate on the Internet about how a zombie would move. I have to defend my guys! I’ve actually seen T-shirts [that say] ‘Fast zombies suck!’
How do you work with your zombie extras; do you coach them?
You can’t do a thing. It’s purely, ‘Give me your best shot, do your best zombie!’ Otherwise, if I do anything, you get fifty people all doing exactly the same thing. And I find people being so inventive on their own. You just try to feature the best ones. Unfortunately, in Toronto, there’s an extras union, so it’s a little bit of a problem now and again. Most people in the extras union are used to being in restaurant scenes, sitting at the back.
What are your thoughts on CGI versus in-camera effects?
I would much prefer to do everything the old fashioned way, with prosthetic, mechanical devices. But it’s so much time, and it so often doesn’t look good, and there are some things like the fire extinguisher that you can’t do practically, but in instances like that, CG enables you to do certain things. But even if you’re just shooting a zombie in the head, when we used to load squibs and have to synchronise the gun flash with the squib, it invariably messes up and costs you an hour on the set. This way you don’t have to do anything. One actor goes this way, the other actor falls, and the gun flash and everything else is perfectly in synch. The wound splatters…so that’s all you have to do. So when you’re on the set, particularly when you’re working with tight budgets, the whole object is to get through the schedule. Mechanical effects really hang things up. Even for simple things like that it’s great to take advantage – but I’d never want to make a movie that was reliant on CGI.
Do you think Survival of the Dead will be your last zombie film?
No. Well, I don’t think so. That depends. So much of it is economically driven. Land of the Dead wound up making a lot of dough. That’s how Diary of the Dead happened. In the end, Diary made a lot of money – the worldwide video was extraordinary. And so they wanted another one. I had this idea brewing in my mind, and so I wrote this. Some of it is economics and some of it is contractual. They have the right to ask me to do another one.
How do you see the future of zombies?
If I have anything to do with it, they’ll be slow! But who knows? They can walk on ceilings now. Whichever way it’s going to go. Sometimes, if something goes out and makes money, then everybody wants to do more. I’m very cynical about that aspect. So I have my little gig going here.Thankfully, I have worldwide a lot of very enthusiastic fans that will always buy the DVD. At least I have that position – so that’s my calling card. None of these movies will ever go through the roof.
Survival of the Dead is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, and you can also Read Our Review
Interview supplied by Optimum Home Entertainment