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Back to the Dead: George Romero on Making Zombie Films

March 22, 2010

First released in October 1968, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead ends with its African-American hero (Duane Jones) shot by police (presumably) mistaking him for a zombie. In April of that year, Romero and producer Russell Steiner were driving to New York to meet with a potential distributor for their low-budget film. They heard on the radio that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. “Russell and I looked to each other and thought,” recalls Romero, “this could be good for us.”

Little did they know. Not only was the groundbreaking horror film viewed as a critique of racism, it was eventually seen as an allegory for just about every hot-button issue of the 1960s: the Cold War, Vietnam, social conformity, political disillusionment, you name it.

Today, Romero plays a bit coy about the film’s reputation as a work of social commentary. On the one hand, he says, “Everybody tried to figure out what zombies represented. We didn’t think they represented anything.” On the other, he says that he and his crew threw around a lot of ideas about what the film meant during the movie’s production, although he’s vague about what they discussed. As for the racial angle, he swears it was an accident of casting. “[Duane] was the best actor among our friends,” he says.

In his newest “living dead” sequel, Survival of the Dead (see review), the subtext is less obvious. Assuming the same narrative pattern as previous films in the series (six by Romero, countless by others), Survival of the Dead focuses on a small gang of survivors from different backgrounds who fend off zombies on a small island off the coast of Delaware. This time, the zombies are pawns in an ancient feud between two families with Irish accents and 19th century fashion sense.

“The film is not specifically about anything that’s happening today,” insists Romero, 70, and still apparently in robust health. “Doing it on that island, giving it that Western theme, gives it a more timeless feel.”

But true to exploitative form, he also suggests the film has something to do with the hysterical tone of political and social debate in contemporary America. “Anger is actually a headline these days. People can’t disagree without being disagreeable,” he says.

Whatever the message, Romero has clearly rediscovered the joy of making zombie films. After a 10-year hiatus following Night—“I resisted doing another one for a long time”—and a 20-year break after 1985’s Day of the Dead, Survival is his third sequel in the past six years. A large part of his enjoyment has to do with the conditions for his productions. His producing partner, Peter Westbrook, raises independent financing for all his films, giving Romero freedom from the kind of studio interference he experienced during the 1980s with Orion Pictures. He shoots all his films in Ontario, with the same crew. “I’m still having fun doing these,” he says. “It’s a gas.”

Freedom, though, comes at a cost, and that means scrambling for distribution. Like many other films caught in the mismatch between a large number of movies and relatively small number of screens, Survival will have its premiere on Video-on-Demand. It will then go to theaters in the top 20 markets. If it hits, it will expand. If not, it will close quickly, while Romero and Westbrook count the days until the film’s release on DVD. “For films like this, the largest amount of money is in DVD,” says Westbrook.

After going to Carnegie Mellon University for a degree in drama, Romero first worked as a courier bicycling newsreels to TV studios from Pittsburgh’s handful of film labs. His first job as a filmmaker was as a cameraman for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. After his uncle staked him to some equipment, he started a small company making commercial and industrial films for firms in the Pittsburgh area.

Inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, he and nine friends contributed $600 apiece to start shooting a low-budget zombie, ahem, “living dead” movie. (“I never thought of them as zombies,” he says. “It’s just the dead get back up.”) The budget eventually ran to $115,000, including $45,000 on credit. But the bet paid off—the film became a major hit, eventually grossing $44 million. Romero and his nine buddies, however, saw very little of that.

That’s because six months into release, the distributor changed the title from “Night of the Flesh-Eaters.” When changing the title, the distributor removed the original title frame—which included the producers’ copyright. The film has been in the public domain ever since. Apparently at peace with this fact, Romero encourages fans to mash up the film in any way they please.

He doesn’t, however, encourage fans to flock to his set to play zombies. The undead are all played by unionized extras from the Screen Actors Guild. Despite their essential role in his films, he doesn’t tell them anything more than “do their best dead.” Why doesn’t he offer more direction? “Because then you’d get 50 zombies doing the exact same thing,” he says.

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