[I conducted this phone interview with George Romero on October 5, 2005, in anticipation of the DVD release of Land of the Dead. It was originally published on GreenCine on October 18, 2005.]
36 years after shocking audiences with the unprecedented Night of the Living Dead and changing the face of American horror for good, and 20 years after his ambitious but budget-starved third installment Day of the Dead, George A. Romero returned to the genre with the fourth film in his epic series of society as we know it devoured by the hungry dead: Land of the Dead.
Though Night of the Living Dead and the sequel Dawn of the Dead are best know for pushing the boundaries of onscreen gore and reducing the body human into so much meat, gristle, and blood to be devoured by the hungry hordes, Night also connected with audiences when the horrors of Vietnam were first being seen on TV and Dawn evolved into a biting satire of consumer culture. In other hands, a zombie movie is just a zombie movie, but Land of the Dead, a horror film laced with rife with social commentary, political satire, and black humor, is not just a return to the genre he practically single-handedly created (or at least definitively redefined), but a return to form.
Romero’s commentary is pointed, to say the least. He sets the film in a literal gated community called Fiddler’s Green, a veritable feudal kingdom where class structure is strictly enforced and businessman warlord Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) rules. Brutal games and circuses are provided to distract the disenfranchised in the slums around the glowing glass tower where the rich and powerful live in luxury, and a militia keeps the poor contained as well as the city protected from the stenches. You can only take the metaphors so far, but loaded dialogue like “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” (bellowed by Kaufman when he’s extorted by a former thug that he’s just fired for daring to step up in class) keeps the satirical edge front and center. It may not be subtle, but how then how subtle can you be in a film that features scenes of mankind devouring itself?
In an all-too-brief phone interview, arranged in conjunction with the DVD release of Land of the Dead, we discussed his new film, the origins of his epic zombie series, and the marriage of horror and political commentary.
What’s different about the new “Director’s Cut” of Land of the Dead on DVD?
It’s not that remarkable, I’d have to see. I think the fans will be pleased because there are obviously a couple of gore effects that Greg [Nicotero] threw in there that I wouldn’t even have tried to get past the MPAA with an R. But mostly it’s the same film. I think that what’s the most fun about it are the extras. The guys from Shaun of the Dead came and shot a little film while they were on the set and Leguizamo made a little film of his own while he was on the set. I think that’s really the most fun, getting a glimpse behind the scenes. The intention of the film itself hasn’t changed. There are a couple of scenes that run a little longer, a couple of gore effects that we had to trim to get the R—the MPAA will never tell you to cut a scene, they’ll only say to cut some framage—and there are couple of scenes that we didn’t even try to put in the R because we knew they would never get through. But the intention of the film hasn’t changed. I was actually very happy. I keep saying I think I got away with murder. We defied the MPAA this time. The film was pretty much what I wanted it to be even in the theatrical release.
Dawn of the Dead was a sly and very funny satire of consumer culture. Land of the Dead is an even more scathing political satire of class conflict. Do you think there something inherent in horror films that is effective as a frame for political and social commentary?
Don’t you think that fantasy has always been that? Or should be that? The biggest disappointment to me is that people don’t use it that way. I’m sure the first tales that we told each other, when we first learned how to make fire, were scary tales: “What do think that sky is? What do you think that thing is up there, that comet screeching across the sky?” I just think that it’s really right for using it as parables. The biggest disappointment to me is that people don’t do it, you know? It’s always a guy in hockey mask with a knife. It’s just about trying to make you jump out of your seat. I think fantasy has always been and should be a canvas for, if not satirizing or commenting or criticizing, at least a snapshot of what’s going on.
Do you think the physical portrayal of extreme or transgressive violence on screen tends to lower audiences defenses to the subtext?
It might. When we made Night of the Living Dead, everyone said “You’re really pushing the envelope.” There was no MPAA in those days, and what we had in mind was “Why does everyone cut away right when the guy is being torn apart?” I grew up on EC comic books where people were being torn apart. They ripped a guy’s heart out and used it for home base in a baseball game. That stuff just made me giggle, so I don’t flinch at that. Maybe this is a justification, maybe it’s unwarranted, but I remember Robert Altman’s theatrical version of M*A*S*H. You laughed your ass off for 90 minutes and then all of a sudden you’re in the operating room and there’s blood all over the walls. It’s sort of a slap in the face. So, first of all, I don’t object to it and I don’t think it causes imitative behavior on the street, particularly when it’s in a fantasy context. And people expect that from me so I try to deliver it.
When you made the first Night of the Living Dead, were you consciously attempting to make a social commentary with your extreme gore and transgressive violence, or was it more of an instinctive way to push the boundaries and get under people’s skins and jolt them?
Mostly it was that. We lived in that farmhouse when we were making that film. We had no bread. We were literally sleeping out of that farmhouse, chopping ice out of the tank behind the toilet bowl in order to wash our faces, and we were taking baths out in the creek. And we sat around and we talked a lot about the themes that were in the film, the disintegration of the family unit and the idea of revolution and all that stuff. So we talked about it a lot so to that to some extent, at least, it was consciously in our minds. I think we knew that the film, to some extent, was about revolution. I ripped the original idea off from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend, which I thought was about revolution. In that book, the story starts when there’s only one man left on Earth, and I thought “Boy, it would be cooler to start this at the beginning and see what happens on a day to day basis.” And that’s where it came from. So that was always in our mind, that somewhere underneath was this concept of revolution. There’s a new society coming in, in this case literally devouring the old, and the old society being unable to process it, not knowing how to deal with it. That much of it was always in our heads. Not everything. I’ve seen stuff written about that film that makes me say “Oh, shit, where do you did this stuff up?” And there was Duane [Jones, the star]. I hate to call it luck, but to a certain extent it was luck. Duane agreed to play the role, he was an African American and he was the best actor from among our friends so we said “Okay.” When I say luck, I say it really backhandedly. We finished the film, threw it into the trunk of the car and drove it to New York. The night that we were driving that film to New York was the night—we heard on the radio in the car—that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. That’s why I don’t like to use the word “luck.” It was a tragedy. But I think that, to some extent, people latched on to the film because they thought that “Jeez, this is amazingly today.”
From Night of the Living Dead through all of the subsequent films, you make a point to never explain where the zombies came from. You hint that maybe it was some virus from outer space brought to Earth, but it’s all presented as speculation, and you never come up with any definitive explanation for the zombies or their motivation. American horror and American cinema in general tends to be a literal-minded construct where the film winds up to an explanation. You still refuse to do that. Why is that?
I don’t want to do it. I hate it! I hated the coda at the end of Psycho. You get through Psycho and all of a sudden you have to sit through five minutes of whatisname [Simon Oakland] talking about schizophrenia. That’s not my idea of a good time. Actually, in Night of the Living Dead, when we finally found a distributor, we had to cut 7 or 8 minutes out of it because they wanted a certain running time. Originally there were a couple of other explanations. The one that survived, and we left it in the movie because it had production value—we actually went to Washington D.C., just us kids, and shot this scene in front of the Capitol, so we left it in—it’s about this satellite probe that came back and maybe something was on that returning Venus probe. Now, even in TV Guide, the blurb is “A returning Venus probe causes the dead to come back to life.” So in Dawn of the Dead I actually apologize for that. I went for the mystical explanation. It doesn’t matter to me why it’s happening at all. It’s happening. Here it is. It’s a new world and we have to face it. What matters more is how people deal with it and in the end what happens. Not restoring order. That is the most important thing to me, is to not restore order, because that’s the other mistake that I think most of those films make. The giant tarantula attacks a little town in Texas and in the end, order is restored. I much preferred Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which leads to guys screaming at the end, saying “You don’t understand! There’s something wrong!”
In Land of the Dead, the extreme disparity of rich and poor in Fiddler’s Green is like an exaggerated America reflected in a satirically warped mirror. How exaggerated do you think your portrayal is?
Not much. I know that building, it exists. (laughs) I think basically we’re sliding down into that, sliding into the poverty of Third World countries. Not even Third World countries. Brazil has been split into the haves and have-nots forever. Big, powerful nations are sinking into that same problem, you either have it or you don’t. I don’t think it’s that off the mark. A lot people have been saying that this film is about 9/11. I wrote it before 9/11 and I literally sent it around a few days before 9/11 happened. Afterwards nobody wanted to make hard-ass movies. Everyone wanted soft, fuzzy movies, preferably with friendly Arabs in them, so I put it away for awhile. Then I just made a few little adjustments to reflect 9/11, and most of them corny. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” is a corny line. When I first wrote it, it was more about homeland problems, ignoring AIDS, ignoring homelessness, ignoring the fact that there is this strong disparity between the haves and have-nots.
Would that make the zombie the Third World scratching at the border for their share of affluence?
I don’t know. There’s a little problem, sort of a logic problem here, because who is the terrorist? Is it Cholo [John Leguizamo], the guy that uses the establishment’s weapons against itself, or is it the zombies? And I recognize that there is a little bit of a problem here but people don’t seem to notice it. I’m getting away with it. I have to tell you that even when we started to shoot, I was worried that this isn’t quite clear. Who are the terrorists, is it Cholo and his gang or the zombies? And it gave me a little pause, but we had to start shooting because we had the money. I’m being perfectly honest, I have to sit down and re-analyze it and figure it out. Sometimes you just run on instinct.
Is horror your chosen genre of filmmaking, or did it choose you after your success in the genre?
Well, you know, I’ve always loved it. As I said, I grew up on EC comic books and I’m old enough to have seen the old Universal Frankenstein and Dracula on the big screen in the theaters. That’s how old I am, man. I’ve always loved it. But no. We had this little commercial production, doing beer commercials and industrial films and like that, and I said “Hey, man, let’s make a movie,” and the movie I originally wrote and wanted to make was this sort of Ingmar Bergman-esque, medieval times coming of age film about these two young kids growing un in medieval times and facing all those problems, and when we tried to raise money, people said “What is this garbage? Nobody’s gonna get this.” So I said, “All right, let’s make a horror flick,” and that’s when I ripped off Matheson and started to write Night of the Living Dead. So we did that and initially, while it made a few dollars—it actually made money, we actually made a profit—it just released in neighborhood theaters and drive-ins and all that. It was overseas where it was basically discovered by the French. And Rex Reed read “Cahiers du Cinema” and he started to write about it and praise it and all of a sudden Night of the Living Dead was invited in to the Museum of Modern Art. So to that extent I dropped into it. I didn’t want to be just a horror guy and I tried to do several other films right after that nobody ever went to see [There’s Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch]. I don’t mind it. I keep saying I’m in a great position, I’ve been making money and I’ve had a career and all that, but of course you’d like to do something else. It’s just that you don’t get those phone calls. Nobody calls you up and says “Come and do Steel Magnolias.” The phone calls I get are all about horror films. You get cubbyholed and there is a certain frustration that comes with that but at the same time I have to say, how can I object to what my life has been? I’ve had a terrific run of it.