GEORGE A. ROMERO Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
June 16, 2005
Largely credited as the filmmaker who defined horror's subgenre of zombie flicks with his classic trilogy of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, writer/director George A. Romero returns to the trenches of undead cinema after a lengthy hiatus with Land of the Dead. In this chapter of his ongoing signature series, the world has been overrun with legions of the walking dead. Only pockets of humanity still exist, holed up in walled cities and scavenging for resources. But even in this apocalyptic, alternate reality, money talks, and huge economic disparities separate the haves from the have-nots.
The opportunistic Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) oversees Fiddler's Green, a secluded community where society's elite live in obscene luxury high above the less fortunate, who wallow in poverty and hopelessness. When Kaufman backstabs the equally opportunistic Cholo (John Leguizamo), his artificial paradise is threatened, and he must resort to enlisting the help of Cholo's former colleague, Riley (Simon Baker).
Unlike many other writer/directors who lace their films with social commentary, George Romero uses good humor and over-the-top comedy to disarm any heavy-handedness there may be in his own embedded messages. And while he has a passion for his work and is grateful to his fans, he also doesn't take the face value of his storylines too seriously, joking, "it's a ridiculous premise to begin with." Clearly, he understands the merit in horror and utilizes the genre's unique ability to present entertaining and effective metaphors for contemporary issues. In this interview, the iconic director talks about the making of Land of the Dead and the business of zombie flicks.
GEORGE: Hello everyone.
MEDIA: Congratulations on your return.
Thank you. I didn't know I left. [laughs] Thank you.
How has the story of Land of the Dead evolved since you initially conceived of it?
I started to write this and wound up having something that I thought was presentable, and sent it around literally a few days before 9/11. And then everybody just wanted to make soft, fuzzy movies, so I put it on the shelf for about a year and a half, and then came back to it with the idea of reflecting the "new normal" and the war. So in a way, it's, I think, a much more interesting film now. Initially, it was about ignoring the problem, and there was the Kaufman character and there was Fiddler's Green, but it was more ignoring social ills like AIDS and homelessness and just telling people, "don't worry about it, that's their problem." And I think this is more impactful. And I don't try to put it right in your face. I just try to get it in there. Maybe it's a little too on-the-nose when he says, "We don't negotiate with terrorists." But I have to say, a reporter that I talked to earlier today said, "Boy, that truck...when it comes down the little street in that town, you can't help but think of Iraq." So I guess the stuff does get noticed. But I try not to put it right up in there.
Are there plans for a Land of the Dead sequel?
If this opens strong, I might be in a situation where I will be asked to do another one of these right away. I'd want to almost make a chapter two of the same movie if that happens, and just sort of finish the story. I have an idea of how to go with it, and I would think of it, in my mind, almost as one film.
Compared to your earlier zombie movies, did this one feel like a big budget Hollywood production?
I don't think necessarily in those terms. The scope of this film was much bigger than anything else, and so it needed money, although we still weren't rich. We're under 20 even after they threw money at it in order to get it finished. They had everybody working overtime, but it's still under 20. And it was still pretty much guerrilla filmmaking. So on the set, man, there was basically not a big difference. We had 42 days to make this film. The crews were fabulous, the cast was great, nobody finked out, everybody was there to do it. And it was all night. Like of the 42, we only had, I think, 8 days indoors, and it was all night in freezing Toronto weather. So it was very, very hard.
Did you consider updating the zombies and making them more similar to the undead of newer horror films?
I haven't really changed my attitude toward the zombies. They don't run. I say facetiously that my guys will take out library cards before they join health clubs. I'm more interested in their mental evolution. And I also don't find them as threatening when they're running at you. I say it's like a first person shooter game or something. I grew up on Frankenstein monster and the mummy--these things that sort of move at you slowly, but they're hard to stop and you gotta find the Achilles' heel. So that's just my personal take.
What do you try to do with the zombies that many other filmmakers in the genre do not?
As I say, I like them being personalities. I think that maybe what I've done, that I haven't seen in some other films, is they're not just a pack of people all in clothes from The Gap. I think you can give them personalities with wardrobe, and one of the first things that I asked the wardrobe designer to do was make sure that we know who they are--because they're us, from different walks of life. I started doing that really with Dawn. But I also treat them like real characters. And in this case, I think it's shooting them, giving them close-ups, treating them like real players, which they are. And, of course, I was really trying to work with that on this. Big Daddy and his central core of people that come from town all have distinct personalities.
What do you know about filmmaking now that you perhaps didn't know back when you made 1968's Night of the Living Dead?
Mostly what I've learned has been more about craft. I still feel like I'm learning. John Ford made a couple hundred flicks, you know. You develop a lot of tricks that you can keep in your hip pocket. I think I know how to move the camera better, I'm more sure of myself. I know that if we're pressed for time, I can eliminate this shot, that shot, and still tell the story. Also, I think as you get older, you feel less intimidated. You worry a little bit less about protocols, and so you feel freer to be yourself, which is just something that comes with age.
How did the success of 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake impact this film?
I think that because of the success of those films, Universal was more willing to pony up a little more dough, which they did even during the shoot. And then at the end, when they saw the film and liked it, they gave us a little more money to go and shoot three more days.
Were there scenes cut from the theatrical release that may find their way onto the DVD?
There were a few things. There's one scene in particular where Cholo, before he meets Kaufman, he goes into a neighboring penthouse and finds a human that hung himself and has to kill him. That scene was one that we didn't think turned out as effectively as it could have, and we didn't think it was necessary. So that's really the only major scene from the original script that's gone. The DVD version...We're working on it now. I think it's about six minutes longer. But it's all just adding back some effects that were excised and bits of dialogue in existing scenes that we cut out just to tighten the pace.
Of all the recent zombie movies, which do you like the most?
[answers quickly] Shaun. [laughs]
Was it difficult to get the guys from Shaun of the Dead to do a cameo in your movie?
Oh, man..."difficult"? They flipped! They sent me a [Shaun of the Dead] print, actually, before it was released here, so I watched it and flipped for it...called them up right away. We've sort of been in touch ever since. They're great guys. They would have been there hell or high water.
What is the significance of having money play a role in Land of the Dead, and how is this theme reflected differently in your previous zombie films?
In Dawn of the Dead, it's about the stuff. It's about consumerism. This is much more modeled after this administration, where it's all executive. Now the stuff is all fancy stuff for people who can afford it. It's the administration doling out little bits to keep people off the streets. The service personnel are relegated to a very different lifestyle. It's Halliburton. So it's a different era. In Day, it was this little community living down there...it had nothing to do with money.
Was Dennis Hopper purposely cast as the villain because he's a Republican?
Who knew, huh? [jokes] "Easy Rider's a Republican, goddammit!" He came in knowing what it was, and the first thing he said to me...he said, "People want me to play my villains way over the top. I'm not gonna do that here. This guy has to be Rumsfeldian! I'm not going to go over the top with this at all." He got it, you know.