George Romero is the godfather of zombie films. He is a living legend in the horror community. His films have influenced countless filmmakers. The director made his first trip to Sweden to be the guest of honor at the Fantastik Filmfestival in Lund.
I was able to sit down with Mr. Romero and talk about his infamous glasses, living and making movies in Canada, making the switch from film to digital, writing screenplays, what his favorite films are he’s directed, Knightriders and more. It is a very candid interview with the director and you discover he’s more than just zombie films.
S.H: Welcome to Sweden.
G.R: Thank you.
S.H: Thanks. So I was doing some research for this interview, and reading the interviews you’ve done over the past years, and the one thought crossed my mind was: “You’ve got to be tired of zombie questions.”
G.R: Yes. But you know what are you going to do?
S.H: Yeah, so the good news is I don’t have any zombie questions for you.
G.R: Oh, great… great.
S.H: When people think of you, of course they automatically think of zombies, but they also think of your glasses. They are such an icon. Where do they come from?
G.R: I don’t know why. I like big. I guess I’m big so I’ve got a big watch, and I’ve got big eyeglasses, but I don’t need them anymore you know? I mean I don’t need them to read, I mean these are bifocals. I used to need them for reading and for middle-distance. Now I’m a little fuzzy on the long-distance, but I guess that all turned around with old age, so I don’t need for these reading but I’m thinking of just taking the lenses out, because I’ve got to wear them for photographs; everybody says, “Where’s your glasses?”
S.H: Where do you get them? I’ve seen several places online asking, “Where does George get his glasses?”
G.R: Well, it’s a place called, well they are called Goliath… Goliath Two and we got them at an antique, Sue’s family’s, newish frames; I mean I have some old ones, but they’re getting squeaky, and she found them at an antique place in Montreal.
S.H: So you moved to Canada recently?
G.R: Yeah, nine years.
G.R: Been there nine years… yeah.
S.H: So you like it there?
G.R: I Love it. I just love it.
S.H: What attracted you to Canada?
G.R: Well initially it was money. I did a little film. My partner and I spent five years in Hollywood doing development deals and writing scripts that never became movies. Out of frustration I wrote a little script called Bruiser, which we financed through a French company called Canal+. It was a $5 million dollar budget, and in Canada $5 million became $6.5, because of tax credits and rebates and all of that, and so that’s initially why I went.
Then when the next project came up, I just loved the crews, and I’m still using that same DP, and a lot of the same set designers, the same people. I just fell in love with the work ethic and there’s much more interest than in just doing the work up there. I’d gotten to the point in the states where I was strictly Union, and I didn’t have clout, I didn’t have the kind of clout. So I found that a lot of people were just sort of coming to work and doing their job and not particularly interested in what was going on, or in the project itself. So I fell in love with Canada. Money is not an object now; I mean the rate of exchange is almost at par. There are still tax incentives, but you can get those now in the States, many of the States, but I just love it there.
S.H: The time between I guess The Dark Half and Bruiser, was that when you were in Hollywood trying to get things going? Because I was wondering why there is a seven year gap between the two.
G.R: Yeah, it was a long time. Well it was at least five years of just doing the work and all that and then we started to try to promote the Bruiser project to get it out. I guess it takes about a year and a half to get a film made and out. But it was just the most frustrating time. We were on really good projects, we were on The Mummy, and we were on Goosebumps, you know stuff that looked sure fire, going to go, and for one reason or another it just never went.
S.H: That’s unfortunate.
S.H: With the advent of digital filmmaking, with the shooting and editing, and effects work, has that really changed the way you shoot films or make movies?
G.R: Me, yes and not so much because… I’m not doing space odysseys or anything like that, so I don’t really need that kind of special effects work; I don’t need Transformers. But what it does, if you have a limited budget and you only have twenty days or so to shoot, and particularly when you have to do practical effects, like shooting a lot of zombies and having their blood go everywhere, it’s just easier to have an actor point a gun, have the other actor fall down, paint in the gun flash, paint in the blood splat and you’re done; you’re off the set. Whereas if you try to do it practically, even though I think it looks better, because the blood interacts with everything, you got to clean up if it doesn’t work, and that’s forty-five minutes until you can go again. So those are the kinds of little practical advantages I take advantage of.
S.H: Do you think it makes filmmaking a little more impersonal, since you don’t have as much interaction with people such as practical effects artist’s on the set?
G.R: Well we still have them on the set. Obviously there are a lot of things that you have to do practically, and we interact with the CG guys. Those guys are there and in fact they are more tuned in probably than the practical guys. I would still work with Tom Savini if I could, but that sort of ended when I made Land of the Dead because it was a big budget and it was at Universal, and they wouldn’t hire Tom because he had nothing; they couldn’t sue him. He owns nothing. So you know what I mean, I’m being a bit facetious, but that’s it, they want a company.
Actually one of Tom’s assistants went on to be one of the members in this company called KNB, which is a big special effects company in Los Angeles: Greg Nicotero. So he’s always around when we shoot, and he’s still there, and he sort of godfathers a lot of the effects we do. But the CG guys are also on the set you know, and they are setting things up and making sure that it’s all being done right, so I don’t find a big difference in talking to Tom or talking to these guys from the CG Company.
S.H: Several of your films have been remade. Are you really personal with your films or do you not care if they are remade?
G.R: I don’t care.
G.R: I really don’t care. My films were made awhile ago, and I don’t see the reason for remaking them sometimes. Dawn of the Dead I can understand, it was a title that had I guess some value. But it wasn’t the same film. I mean my original Dawn of the Dead was all about consumerism, was a satire about consumerism and the remake had nothing to do with that, except that there’s a few sequences in a shopping mall. But it really was not at the heart of a film at all, and so I don’t know, I don’t get it. I also really don’t care. It’s like Steve King says, “How do you feel about Hollywood ruining all you books?” He says, “They’re not ruined.” Yeah they are.
S.H: I notice that a lot of seventies films, even the ones that maybe have a good idea but aren’t fully conceived. When Hollywood takes or remakes them, they just go for the base element. They don’t add any modern spin on it or set it in society or have a message anymore, it’s just very surface, very shallow.
G.R: And that’s it. That’s all they care about. Even the Halloweens, like Halloween, the original Halloween, John’s Halloween, started a whole genre which I think has been way more important than the zombie genre or… way more important over the years. It was everything, Friday the 13th movies, all those Freddy movies, all of that stuff came from Halloween, and to sort of treat it shabbily with these remakes, to not sort of respect what it was, and what it should have been. They didn’t even go for the gut scares of it you know. That’s a scary movie, and they didn’t even go for that, they just sort of you know broadly, broad strokes and ugh. At least I think John still has a little piece of the action.
S.H: Well that’s good. A few points here or there. What films inspire you these days? Have you seen anything recently?
G.R: Not particularly. Not really. First of all I have a bad memory. I don’t know. I love Guillermo del Toro’s work. I love Pan’s Labyrinth. I haven’t seen very much. Particularly in genre, in fantasy that I cared about. I loved Hugo. I thought that was sensational. I don’t know…nothing.
S.H: Any films you like to go back and watch before you start a project?
G.R: No, I don’t do that at all. In fact, I avoid looking at films cause I would rather not be influenced by anything. Sometimes I get worried. I had this idea. Should I see if anyone has done it. I wrote a sequence in Land of the Dead. That I thought was going to be fabulous. With zombie walking under the water to get across the river cause I said “they can walk under water, right? they don’t need to breath.” And then all of a sudden and we were in pre-production and Pirates of the Caribbean came out where they’re walking under the water. Maybe had I looked at that I would have changed my idea. But uh, I don’t know. I would rather not be influenced.
So many influences. Even lighting styles in the film, not even film anymore but it’s all digital now. The way the digital images are manipulated now you know you can just see style coming into it. I think there is too much of that. Too much clean looking stuff. Like I thought everybody got excited about this movie The Artist. I just thought it was way too clean and had nothing to do with the silent era. In fact, I vote for the Oscars and I voted it last just to spank it. Again, I guess I have a thing for tradition and I just thought it was a gimmick.
S.H: You write all of your own screenplays. Why is that?
G.R: I don’t know. Actually, I don’t know. I’ve adapted a couple things. I adapted Monkey Shines from somebody else’s stuff. I directed Creepshow which was written by Steve King and then I wrote Creepshow II, which was directed by someone else. I don’t know, I guess I just find it more interesting to do it myself. You get a little more control and you don’t have to worry as much about hurting anyone’s feelings. Or anything like that. It’s just easier I find.
S.H: You mentioned Bruiser earlier, which I think is a pretty interesting film. I think very few people seem to talk about.
G.R: Cause very few people have seen it.
S.H: It’s not easy to find, I’ll give you that. How do you feel about it in hindsight?
GR: I love it. It’s one of my favorite films. One of my three favorite I think of the films that I’ve made. I don’t know why…it’s very hard to say why, maybe it didn’t get the proper distribution. You know, I can understand why maybe it’s not a big hit, but it should have had a little audience, you know, somewhere. I think sometimes it’s about how it’s distributed. When we made the film, it was Canal+. It’s the film I was talking about. Then it was Canal Plus. By the time we finished the movie, they were owned by Vivendi and then Universal. They were bought out basically, merged. And so, we showed the movie to the executives at the end. It wasn’t the same guys that approved it in the first place and nobody got it. You could just see, in the room. The room just deflated because I think what they wanted from me was more rock ‘em, sock ‘em, blood and guts gore, you know and all that. It’s what they were expecting and they didn’t do anything to promote that film in any serious way. And so, sometimes that happens.
Same thing basically happened with Land of the Dead. They trashed it. Universal just threw it out there in the middle, a week after Batman and a week before War of the Worlds.
S.H: I remember when that came out. It did feel like it was just kind of dumped. Because Universal was just like, “we know people like zombies but, eh, we’ll let people figure it out.”
G.R: Yeah, that’s right. That’s it, just exactly. They should have waited. It was originally slotted for the fall, which was when Dawn had opened. They should have just waited, but they slapped it in there right in middle. The poster campaign hadn’t even started. The theater chains have these magazines that come out, next month. They didn’t make any of that cause they rushed it in. Ugh, just awful.
It turns out that all they wanted was a companion piece for Dawn. They put this two-disc set out, which is the most irritating thing that has ever happened to me. Two-discs, right at the top, GEORGE A. ROMERO DAWN OF THE DEAD. Not my Dawn of the Dead. And then Land of the Dead. And then I just thought it was the cheesiest, sleeziest thing anybody could have done.
S.H: Wow… that’s really… that’s harsh.
S.H: One last question for you, of all your films, Knightriders seems to be the most different from anything you’ve done. It’s not really a horror film per se. Where did you get the idea and how did the project come about? It’s quite fascinating and I can’t find a lot of information out there about it.
G.R: There’s probably not a lot I’ve said about it. I love the movie. It’s again one of my top three. Martin, Knightriders and Bruiser in that order, my favorite films that I’ve made. I wanted to do a thing about a group called The Society for Creative Anachronism.
S.H: The SCA!
G.R: Yeah, better known as… that sounds like a government agency. They go around doing Renaissance Fairs, right. I had the same basic story and wrote a script about just these guys going around but just not on motorcycles. And Sam Arkoff of all people, said to me, when I was pitching it, “put them on motorcycles and maybe then I’ll look at it.” And I was so pissed off when he said that, then I started to think about it and said why not.
And so I rewrote it with bikes and that’s really where it came from. We were lucky enough, a guy named Salah Hassanein, who had a little distribution company, who picked up Dawn of the Dead for U.S. and did really well with with it, said “Ok, let’s make some movies.” He gave us a deal to make three more films. Knightriders was one. And so I was able to make it.
It’s a little disappointing that it didn’t do well. Again it was dumped by the distribution company. I don’t know that it would have ever really done great. I think maybe there was a little audience there for it. It’s amazing, my stuff seems to have a shelf life.
S.H: When I was in college in the 90’s, Martin was just this underground film that was from this guy that did Night of the Living Dead. Now it seems like everyone is very familiar with it. I think Knightriders is on it’s way up as a higher profile cult film.
G.R: It’s incredible. Anyway, I guess I just have to stick around a little. Live a few years longer right. Till these movies start getting seen by people.
S.H: Thank you for you time and I hope you get to enjoy some of Sweden.
GR: Maybe I’ll see you at Vampyr.
Listen to the full interview at 15 Minute Movie Podcast.
George Romero is the special guest at the Fantastik Filmfestival in Lund, Sweden. The festival runs 20-29 September. Go to fff.se to see the full festival schedule.