A visit with zombie-film king Romero

George Romero has been working with zombies for over 40-years.George Romero has been working with zombies for over 40-years.
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The great-granddaddy of zombie cinema, George Romero, has had a 40-year-plus love affair with his undead creatures.

The famed director and writer of “Night of the Living Dead” and other zombie movies such as “Dawn of the Dead” and, most recently, “Survival of the Dead” has built a career scaring and grossing out audiences with his post-apocalyptic visions.

The septuagenarian recently talked to Zadzooks about his life, his work and the pop-culture evolution of those lumbering, human-stalking, flesh-eating creatures.

So how sick are you of zombies? I never get sick of them, just like taking a vacation. It’s very liberating working with them in film. I can write political and social satire and not get berated on my dialogue or thematically, so I have been getting away with murder over the years.

Although, I was sort of sick of them when we made “Land of the Dead,” it was a bigger production under Universal, and I was sort of disappointed in the way it was released.

Why do you think folks have been so fascinated with zombies over the years? I think it has not been the movies or me. It’s video games that have popularized this creature. They are perfect for a first-person shooter, and also, video games make them move fast like spitballs.

What is the impact of the creatures in entertainment? It is amazing to me how deeply into the popular culture the creature has become. There are zombie walks in every major city. I live in Toronto, and last year 3,000 people came out dressed as zombies. I could not believe it. I even do telephone introductions. I did one last Halloween for Budapest. I had to call in and say, “Hey all of you Hungarian zombies, how are you?”

I do not get it. Maybe it’s an easy costume: Splash some ketchup on and rip up your jeans — although most people already have torn jeans — and you’re done.

I half expect a zombie to show up on “Sesame Street” and hang out with the Count.

Do you have a limit to the level of grotesque images you are willing to put in a film? I don’t think I have a limit; at least I have not reached it yet. I grew up on the old EC horror comic books. They had all sort of moral tales and you waited for the bad guys to get their comeuppance, and you chuckled when the guy’s heart was torn out and the baseball team used it for third base.

The grotesque has never really affected or frightened me. I guess it’s real-life stuff that frightens me much more. But I have never had an idea to make the grossest movie I can make. I don’t think that way.

I think of the thematic — what the movie will be about — and glue the other stuff onto it. I try to temper the grotesque with humor and try to make it silly or outrageous so you don’t think people can be that cruel.

Who are your zombies? They are almost like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. Zombies are there to be damaged, and whatever you do to them is OK. Just like you can blow the coyote’s legs off and people chuckle. I have sort of avoided that level of realism and whatever the trend is. I also don’t get it. It’s no fun for me. I see no allegory, and is not the way my mind runs.

Are the zombies the bad guys? I sympathize with the zombies and am not even sure they are villains. To me they are this earth-changing thing. God or the devil changed the rules, and dead people are not staying dead. My stories are much more about the living people. I will never make a film where zombies are threatening to take over the planet. A zombie film is not fun without a bunch of stupid people running around and observing how they fail to handle the situation.

I read where [zombies] started as being the silent majority, but that is missing the point. The rules change, this amazing thing happened, and people can’t adjust to it. They keep on with their own stubborn agendas. That’s what my stories are about. Zombies could be a hurricane or any disaster that people fail to address.

Why did you read comics as a child? It was the adventure. Comic books and radio were my escape. I even remember 3-D comic books where you put on the red-and-green glasses and Mighty Mouse would punch you in the face.

It was the literature of the day for kids my age who were too bored with listening to “Peter and the Wolf” on the record player.

What is your opinion on the current wave of 3-D movies? I believe and hope that we are in the gimmick phase. I was the first kid in the audience during the first wave. I saw films in 3-D that no one knows were made in 3-D. “Dial M for Murder,” “Hondo” and Brando’s “Desiree” were all in 3-D.

Every time I left the theater, I would hear dozens of people say, “Oy, this gives me a headache.” People would take the glasses off and watch the double image instead of watching it with the glasses.

When I came out of “Avatar,” I heard the same complaints. When they convert 2-D films into 3-D — like “Alice in Wonderland” — and the cuts are so quick, I saw people leave the theater.

They need to perfect the technology and take away the headache factor.

What would it take for you to do a 3-D zombie movie? It would take somebody with a checkbook. I don’t know. What I would like to do is one of those theme-park attractions like Captain EO or Honey I Shrunk the Audience that is a real sort of experience.

What are your thoughts on computer effects in films? The two great things about computer CG stuff are I can now do gags I would never have dreamed of in the old day. There are a couple of gags in “Survival of the Dead” that I could not do practically because actors will not allow you to do that to them.

And, it really enables you to get off the set quickly. When you are working with low budgets and you have a gunshot with a squib and it goes wrong — the gun flash does not synchronize with the squib or whatever — it takes half an hour or 40 minutes to clean it all up and reset it. It’s much easier to use a computer to paint in the flash and splatter.

Still, I would much rather do everything mechanically, much like I prefer the original “King Kong” to Peter Jackson’s version. There is something charming about the original, and you can appreciate the craft of the people doing the animation.

What’s the future for zombies? They are just part of the mainstream. I think the craze will die down, but then someone will make another zombie film, and it will be back. And, they won’t have the same start-up costs I had. They do not have to explain what they are; everyone already knows.

Mr. Romero’s latest film, “George Romero’s Survival of the Dead,” is now available on the Blu-ray and DVD format from Magnolia Home Entertainment.

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