||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. This time, splicing the undead with tropes of the western, we are transported to Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware. Set 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. With ageing patriarch Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) exiled to the mainland when he comes up against his rival Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), tensions rise when he returns with a band of mercenaries – led by Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead alumni Alan Van Sprang – who begin to play both families off each other. It all adds up to a typically taut horror work from Romero, laced with his trademark black humour – not least when one zombie is dispatched with the eye-popping force of fire-extinguisher foam. Below, Romero – who turns 70 in early February – talks about what inspired him to write and direct this latest zombie instalment, how he views the evolution of the genre in the last few years and how he feels about coaching extras playing zombies.
Q: Survival of the Dead is your sixth zombie film. Do you ever get tired of the genre?
A: 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!
Q: What social criticism do you seen in this film?
A: 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.’
Q: Why did you pick that?
A: Why did I pick that? I don’t know. 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.
Q: You made Land of the Dead with Universal. But this is an independent production. Which do you prefer?
A: Oddly, 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. So I had not a good time – 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.
Q: The film was entered into competition in Venice. How did that make you feel?
A: I thought they meant ‘Come and show it in the marketplace.’ But Marco [Müller] saw it and said, ‘We want to put it in competition.’ I don’t know if it’s the individual film or the body of work. I’m very surprised. I’m not sure it’s right!
Q: In what way?
A: There was even someone in the press conference saying there’s still a great discrimination against it, mentioning there are some people that feel rather insulted by these films. I think that has to do with genre…it’s an acquired taste. You have to be willing to at first suspend disbelief. A lot of people can’t see past the traditional horror elements – the gore. A lot of people can’t get past that. They think it’s not serious, or they don’t look for themes that underlie it. They’re not looking for the metaphor. They’re just looking at the movie and going ‘God, it’s horrible!’”
Q: One of the more amusing moments in the film is the death by fire extinguisher. Was this one you’d been planning for years?
A: 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.
Q: The film has Western elements in it. Are you a fan of the genre?
A: Well, the big American guys – 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.’
Q: Why did you always focus on zombies and not vampires?
A: I got stuck with them! I almost stole the idea for the original film from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, so I said, ‘He used vampires so I better use something else.’ I never called them zombies in that film. I was looking for something – ‘What would really change the world in a radical way?’ So I could have people not notice, have the humans make the mistake of not dealing with it, and I just came up with the idea of the dead coming back to life.
Q: The zombies in recent films like 28 Days Later seem different to yours…
A: Well, 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 Synder 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 – ‘Fast zombies suck!’
Q: What are your thoughts on CGI versus in-camera effects?
A: 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.
Q: Do you think Survival of the Dead will be your last zombie film?
A: 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.
Q: Maybe you could do zombies on Wall Street!
A: I can’t figure out how to crack that one. I’d love to. I just don’t know what they’d be doing. They’d have to be a little too smart. They’d have to be too devious. I like these zombies too – they’re not that devious. Even in Dawn of the Dead, you see there’s a flash of learning. There’s one zombie dragging his rifle around, all through the movie, and in the end he grabs the hero’s rifle and makes a choice. I’ve always tried to have that allusion there anyway. And in Day of the Dead, Bob is quite bright. So I’m speeding it along. I think what people took from the first few films is that it took years for them to evolve into that. This maybe happening a little more quickly. But I also needed it to serve the plot. These two old guys, even after they’re dead, are still aiming guns at each other.
Q: Dawn of the Dead obviously dealt with the effects of consumerism…
A: Right at that time – and that was the first big shopping mall that was built in Western Pennsylvania. Seeing the mall, I went to visit before it was even open. It’s what gave me the idea. It was the first one I’d ever seen – a big indoor shopping mall.
Q: Your first three zombie films were spread out between the 1960s and 1980s. But the second three have arrived in the space of a few years. Does this make a difference?
A: To some extent, having time between films, enables you to make them really different – stylistically and every other way. But some of it is just circumstance. Land of the Dead was also a long time since the last one. And I also had George Bush and Cheney and all those guys to kick around, so that was pretty topical. Diary was about the electronic and personal and alternate media, so it felt topical. Although I thought we would be the first ones, I didn’t know about Cloverfield. And this one is way more universal. The theme of it is much older and much more universal. It’s not specifically about anything happening today. We’ll see what happens.
Q: There seem to be a lot of zombie-type films around right now. Any idea why?
A: For some reason, the publishing world and gaming world and the movie world, they’re insisting this is the year of the zombie. I don’t get it. I think people are just grabbing onto that, going ‘Let’s do a zombie thing.’ It’s become a popular character, mostly because of video games.
Q: Do you ever play video games?
A: No. I was involved in developing the first Resident Evil film. I wrote several drafts. I loved it. Capcom loved it. The company that bought the rights, a German company Constantin, I don’t think the guy had ever played a video game and didn’t know what to expect. I’ve been in that situation so often. My partner and I had a deal at New Line for two years, when they gave us money and offices. But they never made a movie with us. There was a seven year period where we were making more money just developing things – Goosebumps, The Mummy – and nobody ever made a movie. But case in point – at New Line, they bought the rights to this book that I mentioned was really good, we worked on a screenplay with one of their executives and everybody was happy with it, and they took it into Bob Shaye and he said, ‘Ah, is this what this is about? I wouldn’t have bought this book if I knew it was about this.’ Boom – it’s all over. It could’ve saved them a lot of time and money if he’d even read the reader’s report.
Q: What would your version of The Mummy been like?
A: Mine was much smaller. It was going to be $12 million, and it was much more like the [Boris] Karloff. It was actually greenlit but we couldn’t get out of a deal at MGM. It would’ve been a completely different deal. My script was completely different – much smaller, creepier, and way more romantic. The ancient romance rekindled.
Q: How do you see the future of zombies?
A: 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.
Q: Any idea why zombies are so popular?
A: It beats me. The Fangoria people, they’re just in it for the gore. Some people are into my stuff because of the allegorical aspects of it. I don’t know why it’s become so popular that way. However, I say the same thing. It’s mostly video games. Most of the films have not made lots of money, compared to other big hit films. People don’t flock to see these things. There’s a central core of fans but the zombie has become familiar. The creature has become familiar. There’s a vampire on Sesame Street.
Q: What did you think of the dancing zombies in the Thriller video?
A: Oh boy! Don’t get me started on that! I don’t mind…I thought it was a good video, but I’m all over Landis for that.
Q: How quick was the shoot for Survival of the Dead?
A: This one? 25 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 – 28!
Q: And the post-production?
A: 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.”
Q: Are you involved with the imminent remake of The Crazies?
A: I have nothing to do with it. They pay you for it. My agent said, ‘Sure – why not?’
Q: Is it important for you to have strong women in your films?
A: Oh no, that’s not a conscious effort. I think I’m still apologising for Night of the Living Dead – the women is helpless and heels breaking off and falling all the time. When I wrote the remake, I made her the strong character. In Day of the Dead, there was a strong female lead – very heroic.
Q: What do you think of your characters in Survival of the Dead?
A: There’s these two old guys. They’re dead and they’re still shooting at each other, and it’s not going to go away. And the protagonists to me are more observers. They’re not pro-active particularly. Sometimes they do the right thing. Sometimes they do the wrong thing. There’s nobody I really like in this film! Tomboy maybe is the only one.
Q: How do you work with your zombie extras – do you coach them?
A: 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.
Q: Are audiences more receptive to horror films now?
A: I don’t know. Maybe some of the prejudice is wearing off – but I don’t know. Quantity I would agree but it’s definitely cyclical. In the days, when they were cranking out a Friday 13th every week, there were probably more horror films made then from all the different franchises.
Q: Do you see your films as similar to the Halloween franchise?
A: I’m not in that league. I’m not gambling at the same window.
Q: Do you not think of your films as a franchise?
A: Oh, yeah – but it ain’t Halloween, is it? 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.