George A. Romero. The father of the modern zombie. Arguably the most influential filmmaker in the horror genre. Legend. Icon.
And, as it turns out, a pretty nice guy.
When I first launched this site, one of the biggest things I hoped it would eventually lead to was a chance to talk to George A. Romero (my very first post was a happy birthday message to him!). This past weekend, it did and I got 20 minutes with the man himself. It wasn’t long, certainly, but it was still pretty fucking great. We talked about The Walking Dead, video games, what he’s working on and lots more. I’m sure I don’t have to sell you on reading this — if you’re reading this site, you love zombies. If you love zombies, you’re going to want to read this. So onward…
IZA: I’ll be moderating a panel with you, Max Brooks and Steven Schlozman soon. How did you meet them and how well do you know them?
George A. Romero: From conventions and things, I’ve run into Max at a lot of these horror conventions I do occasionally. I don’t do them that often, but Max, I think, does more than I do and he’s been there several times. He actually hosted an awards thing I was given, and I’ve just known him over the years, and of course because of his work. I’m interested in anybody that’s crazy enough to go out with zombies. That’s really how I know him.
Steve called me up one day. He was writing this novel called The Zombie Autopsies and he called up to just pick my brain, just to chat basically. My partner and I wound up buying the rights to the book, so I’m adapting it right now into a screenplay. Steve and I, over the least three years or whatever it’s been, two and a half, have become pretty good friends.
And I understand that this is the first panel you and Max have done together?
Yes, it is.
And you mentioned you’re currently adapting Zombie Autopsies into a screenplay. Is that something you also hope to direct?
I hope so. But hey, if Brad Pitt wants to buy it … [laughs]
You’d be willing to let it go if the check was big enough?
I think so. I think both Steve and I would. We’d love to just stay in control of it, but I think, I have a suspicion by the time I am finished with it, it’s not going to be inexpensive. It’s not going to be three million, it’s going to be more like ten or fifteen. And that might make it something that I don’t even necessarily want to do. I’ve sort of gone back with my last several films — after Land of the Dead, man, I just dropped back into the backfield and I just so much enjoyed working with small budgets and with crews that I know and love. That’s been my thing for the last couple projects that I’ve done. I just don’t want that rat race any more. Land of the Dead was no fun.
I read a bunch of interviews with you from around that time and it seemed like that movie almost ruined zombies for you, at least for a short while.
It didn’t. Even while I was working on it, I had already had the idea. You know, what happens is it takes so long for one of those deals to develop. So we were working on that thing for, it seems like forever. And I already had the next idea, the idea for Diary of the Dead and I was ready to roll with it. It actually came pretty quickly after Land. It was the shortest period between my zombie films, and so was the next one [Survival of the Dead]. The same people financed it and they were standing by, ready with a check. So I was able to sort of knock those out pretty quickly, a year and a half apart. But that’s it, I think, for a while.
I had the idea for Diary, which was I wanted to do something about citizen journalism. That’s where that idea came from. And unfortunately, I wasn’t really ready for the next one [Survival], but I just made it a more general statement about tribalism and party lines. As it turns out, it was maybe a bit prophetic. Look what’s happening in the states now, with the left and the right.
Around the time Survival came out, there was some discussion of several more sequels. Whatever became of that?
Yeah, I was ready with it. I had started a script, and I was ready to roll and the same people were ready to finance it. But then, Survival just went out and Magnolia just trashed it. They just didn’t do anything with it. That’s the way it goes. So then nobody wanted gamble on another one quickly. But anyway, I’m standing by, waiting for something to happen.
Seems likely you’ll get another shot, as popular as zombies continue to be.
I know. I keep waiting for them to die. I somehow feel that, you know, I used to be the only guy doing this stuff. Now, everybody’s in my playground.
It’s true. I’ve been following zombie culture intently for five or six years, watching it grow and and grow, and I keep waiting for a backlash, for people to get sick of it and move on to the next thing. but it keeps not happening. Now, I don’t know.
I don’t know, The Walking Dead did the best opening numbers for a cable series, ever, for this opening episode. So it keeps going. And I don’t think it’s movies that keep it going, although The Walking Dead is really important. But I really think it has been video games that have kept zombies on the front burner, rather than films. None of the films has made that much money that it would cause Hollywood to react in a big way. World War Z is probably going to be — it is already — the biggest budgeted zombie film. I don’t know. You hear all kinds of stuff, you know, “Oh, it’s a troubled production” but that’s what they said about Titanic.
Do you follow The Walking Dead? Is that something you’re watching?
No, I don’t. Frankly, it pisses me off. It’s just not… I hosted, and I think they wrangled me into this, I did their Halloween thing last year and I hosted all their programs for the month, AMC. So I had to watch a couple, I watched the first two episodes. I thought it was pretty good, the first couple episodes when Frank [Darabont] was doing it. And I don’t know why they got rid of Frank, I don’t know any of the inside dope, but anyway, I find it … I think you could almost satirize it. You could almost make it a complete soap opera, with an occasional zombie attack. It’s just a soap! Anyway, it’s cool.
You got your start in television, right? Way back in the day you worked on the Mr. Rogers show, right?
Yeah, I did. I used to shoot, he had this thing called “Picture Picture” and I shot all the remotes. i was the guy that went out with film cameras and shot the remote things. “How do you make a lightbulb,” and “Fred gets a tonsillectomy,” things like that.
That’s quite a career arc, from Mr. Rogers to …
I don’t know why they called me. I guess they thought the tonsillectomy should be appropriately scary.
Given that start in TV, and The Walking Dead being such a huge thing now, if some bright producer came up with the idea of “Hey, why don’t we get George Romero to do a TV show for us,” is that something you’d be interested in?
Yes, we would be. And my partner is actually pitching an idea right now, I don’t know if it’s going to happen. But I wouldn’t resist it at all. In fact, we tried. We tried for years to pitch Night of the Living Dead as a TV series, which basically would have been very much like The Walking Dead. We wanted to do the same thing with it, have people roaming around — basically the concept of the graphic novels — living in trailer camps and whatever. We did try to pitch it for years, and we just missed the boat. I think it was the graphic novel that caused, I don’t know, somebody was able to go in and pitch it, maybe because they got Frank involved and Nicotero on the effects side, and now he’s one of the producers. It just went through the roof.
We’re trying to do something that’s the same but not the same. In the same ballpark, but not similar story wise. We have a pitch out there, but you never know if anyone’s going to [buy]. They may just say, “It’s too much like The Walking Dead” or they might say, “Hmm, maybe there’s room for one more.” You just never know until you’re at the meet.
You mentioned video games earlier, and it certainly seems like they’ve played a huge role in the popularity of the zombie. In the ‘90s in particular, there weren’t a lot of great zombie films being made, but the Resident Evil games kept zombies alive.
Absolutely. Absolutely. I was involved [with those], I wrote a screenplay for the first Resident Evil film. We thought it was a shoo-in. I though Capcom loved it, everybody loved the script. But the guy that runs Constantin, it just wasn’t the way he wanted to go. I don’t think he knew anything about video games, or anything else. This is the guy that made House of the Spirits and Das Boot and I don’t think he knew the spirit of the video game was meant to be. Frankly, and of course I have an axe to grind there, but I really didn’t like the movies.
I’d heard that before, and I have to say it is one of my eternal disappointments that George Romero’s Resident Evil did not get made. If I had to make a top ten list of movies I’d want to see that never got made, that would be right at the top. I’d have loved to have seen that.
[Laughs] Well, okay. Thank you. [Laughs]
Outside of the Dead series, you’ve touched on zombies a couple of other times, with Creepshow and Two Evil Eyes was sort of a zombie story as well.
Well, sort of.
Right, not your style of zombies, but your half of Two Evil Eyes is about a guy trapped between life and death
Well, it’s Poe. It actually is Poe. Dario [Argento] called me up one day and said [affects accent] “I want to make a movie with Poe.” He said, you pick a story and originally I picked The Masque of the Red Death and it turned out somebody [else] was [adapting it for film], so I switched to Valdemar [The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar] and that was it. Dario came in, he shot his in Pittsburgh, I shot mine in Pittsburgh, and we had a good time doing it. It was fun.
They’re not really zombies either. They’re … I don’t know. Are they ghosts? I don’t know what they are.
Some sort of revenant.
I love the shot where Leslie Nielsen shoots Ted Danson in the head and it doesn’t stop him. Tell me if I’m wrong, but I felt like that was a little wink to your other zombie work.
Yeah, a little bit [laughs]. Right.