The Film Prof's Drunk, and the Kids Are Not All Right

George Romero's latest state of the union via flesh-eating legions of the undead

George Romero directs <i>Diary of the Dead</i>.
George Romero directs Diary of the Dead.

Perhaps it's prankishly appropriate in the time of viral video "2 Girls 1 Cup" that what we actually get for our ticket to Diary of the Dead is not exactly a new Romero flick but rather The Death of Death, a polemical, media-obsessed student video from inside Romero's bloody, funny B-movie universe – tacky horror repurposed as documentary of the apocalypse when zombies attack. That the director himself turns up – in an emergency broadcast as a military officer presenting zombie attack footage altered for some nefarious purpose we'll never know – only adds to the film's pleasurably disconcerting unreliability. This one's strange and despairing and all messed up, my own personal favorite since at least as far back as Romero's Arthurian biker legend, Knightriders (1981), so I enjoyed the chance to ask just a few of the many questions it provokes.

Austin Chronicle: The movie itself is supposedly edited by one of the characters. What would you characterize as the difference between you and Debra [Michelle Morgan], who edits and narrates?

George Romero: I woulda used faster cuts! Everything was pretty much mandated by the form, having to work with longer, single takes. ... Aside from all the free-form montage stuff, it was pretty well dictated by the way it's shot. ... I used to cover my ass and shoot coverage of everything, even the clock on the wall, so I'd be able to cut anywhere I wanted to cut, but this was a bit more challenging. All the narration, we put that in later.

AC: Yeah, it's a really big change for you, really long shots and intricate staging and pacing to get from here to there, and maybe it was under duress because of the form, but I thought it was particularly successful in this film.

GR: Well, not exactly under duress, but yeah, the form insisted on it. But, man, there's a scene where they go into Debra's house, come in the door, they go into the kitchen, out to the garage, and around a car, and the car filled that garage with just a couple feet to either side of it. The actors come back around it, go into the house, and then she gets attacked, and it's a single shot! I mean, I never imagined that we would be able – I mean where do you hide the lights? And we had stunt guys running around under the lens, cast with lights running around the camera. We were back to simple solutions, sort of the way we would have done it in the old days, and it was like a flashback to good times. Let's just do this. And I had to basically figure out where it was possible.

But we did this one more like a play. And I have to give a lot of credit to the actors. ... It was the best overall troupe of actors that I've ever had on a film. I mean, if I had to ask them to perform it all from Page 1 to Page 90 all in one take, they would have been able to do it. We never blew a take because an actor didn't know their lines. I mean, I've worked with some big Hollywood mainstream actors who can't string three words together. Film actors [who] have a lot of experience may know that they're shooting this moment and only this moment, and they don't know what's coming next or what just came before. I feel like I'm always having to remind actors about that. They're spoiled, basically, into doing moment-by-moment performance. But this cast, being fresh and new and having a lot of stage experience ... it was a dream. They actually were reminding me what had just come before and what was coming after.

AC: Okay, but so beyond the technical challenge, how did you distinguish between yourself as storyteller and Debra as the storyteller?

GR: Well, I didn't, particularly. We knew all along that she was going to be the person who was going to end up finishing the film, and we knew we could do it, if we could just get the principal action in the can. She was supposed to pull music and get footage off the Web, and we just left that for ourselves. Get it together, assemble it, just feel it. Push it around like clay. We were able to leave it to post, you know, flying on instruments and instinct. ... I didn't know exactly what perspective to view it from; I really didn't. And then trying to make her me and me her was the challenge in post, and we really tried a lot of things on for size. You know I wrote more pages in post than were contained in the original script, all the narration and broadcasts.

But you know, it's gut. We're going: "Is this too preachy? Maybe, maybe not. Go with that; go with this." Tried this, tried that, tried all this news stuff, trying to make it sound real, and recorded it all. The whole thing was a real flashback to Night of the Living Dead, all really guerilla stuff to solve the problems. But you wonder: Is the audience that tuned in? How much is too much?

AC: And it's tricky, too, because of how she chooses to represent herself: There's a moment when she's about to take over the making of this video project that she's been against the whole time, and the music she puts in and the tone of the moment plays like a corruption, like she's Michael Corleone or something.

GR: That's an interesting observation. That was there. Like I said, we shot all the footage of the actors before we ever wrote the guilt speeches and stuff in the narration. But she's hesitant. She's willing to shoot, but it's a pretty interesting thing when she picks up the camera. First she points it at Jason and makes fun of him, and then she films the attack, and then she has to put the camera back down.

AC: And like with Dawn of the Dead, 1978, there's a sort of vaudeville-style horror and melancholy and slapstick mashed together – even though this one's from a camcorder and should be more "real."

GR: I just can't resist that stuff, man. I grew up on EC comic books, and it's all gags and puns. I don't think of my films as particularly scary. There are startles in them. I think maybe Night of the Living Dead is the only one maybe that gets under your skin a little. ... The Amish farmer, though, I really sweated that one! Because of the format, I thought, "Can I really do something that silly?" Obviously I came down on the silly side. ... Sometimes you get wacky ideas and think, "I should probably throw that out." But it could be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I mean we all know it's a movie. Gimme a break. Let's just have as much fun as we can.

In this context, though, I was a little concerned because I didn't know if it would really beat against the format, but I went with it anyway, and I think it helps. Up until Toronto it was really hard to see, see it objectively because we were changing it all around every day, and it was me and [editor] Michael Doherty doing all the voices ourselves, trying everything on for size, and ended up for a while with a track that was just us! Then I got the idea, I'll call Steve King and get him to do some of the voices. And when he said, "yes," I was emboldened to call some of these other cats, and it was a wonderful vote of confidence from my old buddies that they all did voices.

AC: But you're also in there as this official speaking on TV when they realize this footage they're seeing has been fucked with.

GR: Well, I had to do that guy, but you know up until Martin, maybe Dawn – yeah, I was in Dawn of the Dead, and it was always this Hitchcock thing. But after a certain point, I said, "Nah, I'm too goddamn busy, and I'm not looking as good anymore, so forget about it," and I stopped doing it. But on this one, since we were going back to the beginning, I have to maybe show up here somewhere, and, of course, I picked an unsavory guy.

AC: The students remind me of the ensemble in Knightriders –

GR: Man, you have tenacity or endurance or a death wish or something –

AC: No, I love Knightriders. It has a sadness, but this one is sadder. I mean, these kids don't seem to have had any kind of golden age that's ending. Or maybe it's worse if, you know, this is their golden age.

GR: [Laughs.] Maybe that's my view of life. Maybe it's all about the Sixties not working. That could be it. I'm a Sixties guy. We thought peace and love [were] going to change the world, and then turn around, and there's a new war and rioting in the streets again, and maybe it even looks like things are getting even worse. There's this great deal of disappointment there. That really is held over from that. A bunch of us that got together making the original film, we were ... thinking we were part of something and that somehow the world had improved, and it really hadn't.

AC: I think that kind leads into the issues of race in the films and how the representation of black people has changed in them over time and how that is a commentary of where we are now. Like in Land of the Dead, we have a sort of throwback to Thirties and Forties movie images of servile roles; even Big Daddy, the zombie revolutionary, is a gas station attendant. And in Diary, you've got a more nostalgic sort of anachronism going with this impressive militia group that kind of suggests the Black Panthers. You know, that's kind of troubling.

GR: I'm glad you feel that way. Again, I'm taking some heat for that. I don't know if you know the stories, but when we cast Duane [Jones] in Night, he was just the best actor among our friends. We didn't even realize the resonance, maybe because we were too naive and too late-Sixties. But we didn't rewrite it for him. And in later years, I've thought maybe we should have. Because he makes a lot of mistakes and acts on anger, you can see it coming from racial tension, which underlies it, I guess. Some people say that's implicit. But the ending, I mean, that guy got shot by the posse in the script back when it was supposed to be a white guy! We really can't take credit for that.

But on Land of the Dead, you know everything old is new again and comes back around. Universal wouldn't let me use an African-American to play Riley. They would not. There was still that prejudice. Unless you get Denzel. And Denzel ain't comin' around to play Riley. [Laughs.] So there's still a problem with that. Maybe the first time it was an accident, and then it became a conceit with the others. In the case of Land, I wrote him as a black guy and wasn't able to cast him that way because the producers wouldn't go along with that. So, you know, I said: "You know what? I'm gonna make him the lead zombie! It's about time to switch allegiances anyway!" So it's sort of poetic justice in a way. So Eugene Clark and I – Eugene played Big Daddy – we talked about that. And you know, I used to always say they weren't zombies, because to me zombies were the guys in the Caribbean, you know, the Serpent and the Rainbow guys. And so we had some discussions, and he said this was a sort of throwback to that, you know? And then I was actually delighted, and I thought it worked much better to switch allegiances that way.

And in this one, it was very Katrina-motivated. I mean, this whole idea of people scramming and leaving the less-advantaged to fend for themselves, and I wanted to just go with this as a disaster. Because, you know, people are always asking what do the zombies represent, and to me they can be anything. They're a disaster. They're this major, earthshaking change, and my stories are about the humans and how they react or fail to react, react improperly, whatever, and I thought it was perfect post-Katrina, in "the new normal" for these guys to be smart and okay guys. So I was pretty satisfied with that.

AC: There's always a great reflexive humanism in your films, whatever the amount of gore. We get this great, nasty pleasure of seeing bodies torn up and blown apart spectacularly, but then we're always hit with a moment of identification with the undead, or else the characters who enjoy the violence and carnage too much see unfortunate consequences as a result.

GR: Well, I've always liked the zombies, tried to give them a bit of character, even if it's just a wardrobe trick. You know in the remake of Dawn, everybody's in Nikes and jeans, and there's no real telling them apart, no sympathy for them at all. But when you have a nun or a softball player or something, that humanizes them a little. Because, you know, my thesis is they're just us. A changed version of us. And the stories are about the humans that aren't ready to meet the change or address it. They've been evolving. ... In Dawn, I tried to give them a little intelligence. In Dawn, there's a zombie carrying around a gun through the whole movie, not understanding that it's a rifle, but then near the end when he can get Peter's gun, he makes a choice and picks the better-looking gun. So people say, "Well, Big Daddy in Land of the Dead, all of a sudden he's smart." But I just have to go, "What about Bub?" in Day of the Dead. He's always my favorite zombie.

AC: Hang around a film school these days, and everybody's making zombie movies.

GR: I'm telling you, it's just unbelievable. I'm at the signing table at a convention, and I get a pile of DVDs: "I made a movie; will you look at it?" And they're all zombie movies! But you know, I'm going: "Do you're thing. You can't just make it about the ketchup. You've gotta have some idea or reason for doing it or some kind of story." But that's the thing people forget, and that's a actually a bit disappointing if people think it's only about going out and putting gray sludge on the neighbors and bloodying them up. Not about what's really driving you to make movies, the heart and soul of it. But you know, that's true of the mainstream, too.

You know, I went to see Atonement, and I took a box of tissues waiting to get a couple tears, and nothing! Didn't give me anything. But on the other hand, I caught Now, Voyager on TV this week, and you giggle at the style and giggle at everything. But at the end, you've got a tear in your eye. And it seems like people now are afraid to cross that barrier; they're afraid to go that longest yard into emotion. I don't know. Some fear of expressing that or being too corny, but you know, that's what makes a story work.

AC: There is that bit in Dawn, just five seconds where the leading woman – I'm forgetting her name – where she looks through the glass at this zombie in a baseball uniform, and they just share a look, and it's kind of –

GR: Beautiful, yeah. I mean not that that'll make you cry, but there are moments.

AC: But so at the end of it, why another zombie movie now, why not another, say, Martin, 1977?

GR: Well, I'm glad you mention that one and Knightriders, because they're actually my favorites for whatever reason. I don't know, I mean, why should you like one of your kids over another? But I don't know, man. First of all, I mean, there's a part of me that loves that I'm able to do this. I have this sort of franchise, that I never thought of initially that that's what it would be. But you know, I don't know, I'm the Michael Moore of horror or something.

And it's nice to have a vehicle to keep going back to and consistently getting financed as long as you put zombies in it. And you can put zombies in anything. It's as simple as that. And if that's what it takes for me to get a deal, and I don't have to make a movie about a guy with a knife or something shallower, then I'm stuck in a happy place. ... You know, I really respect craft and craftsmanship. And that's sort of what keeps me going. John Ford made 200-plus films. I've made 17. I don't have all those tricks yet. I don't have 'em in my hip pocket. So I think that's really what keeps me going, trying to make a really well-crafted film.

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George Romero, Diary of the Dead

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