In 1968, George A. Romero invented the zombie movie — and nearly half a century later nobody will let him make a new one. The mastermind responsible for Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and a slew of other horror greats has somehow fallen out of step with a trend that wouldn’t exist without him. So he’s begun to turn instead toward new horizons: comic books, digital shorts, a TV show he hopes to write and direct. The maestro is 75 years old. He’s still got innovation in him yet. We caught up with Romero at the 50th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, in the Czech Republic, where he delivered a fascinating masterclass in filmmaking. We sat down with him between events to talk about the current state of movies in America, how his work has been misread, and his ideas for the next installment of the Dead series.
It’s been just about 50 years since your first film. Quite a span of time, especially in movie terms: it’s half the time the cinema has been around. I know this is a broad question, but how do you think the movies have changed in that time?
That is broad. [Laughs] But in my life? Except for the exigencies of what happened within the genre that make you able to work or make it impossible to work, which is just a personal effect that it has had, not much. I still watch the oldies, man. You know? My viewing habits have never changed. I still prefer all the oldies. Occasionally something wonderful happens. All across all of those years, that’s been the story: You can count on your fingers the good films any given year. So…50 years, maybe 500 movies that are worth watching. And I think I’ve seen ‘em all.
That’s still a good amount of films.
It’s a good amount, but there’s so much stuff out there being made. I mean, we have these cable services now — Shomi, Netflix, and Apple TV, you know — and you just look at the array of stuff and you realize how much has been produced. Misguidedly produced. And then you realize that 500 films is nothing.
What about as a filmmaker? Is it easier to make a movie now or harder?
Easier to make — harder to distribute. There’s no independent distributors. I mean, a bunch of us, a bunch of filmmakers who were once young — Carpenter, Craven, Sean Cunningham, Coppola, Scorsese — we were a certain generation. I was on a much lower totem than those guys but we were all sort of in that same era, where something was in the air. It gave us the desire and the stick-to-itiveness to try to do it. That process hasn’t changed at all. It’s just harder now. There used to be independent distribution companies that actually many of us in that group started. But now, forget about it. You can’t get screens. None of those independent companies exist. I remember there was Canvas, Walter Reade, who did Night of the Living Dead, Libra… all these little independent companies that were actually able to get screens. Forget it now.
I guess the thing that’s replaced it is video on-demand. But that’s not the same thing.
It’s not the same thing, no, because at the end of the day, there's’ the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain and it’s the same guy! [Laughs]
But it seems to a lot of people like a frontier: anyone can make a movie.
Well, let me tell you: we were just out in Los Angeles right before we came here. And we went to these so-called new companies. We have this little concept for something digital: It’s like the Coyote and the Roadrunner with a zombie and a human. So we’re pitching it to these young, hot-shot digital companies, and all of a sudden you find out, “Oh, these guys are owned by Disney, these guys are owned by Universal, these guys are NBC.” It’s like…it’s the same six people!
So what kind of challenges does that present to you?
It’s just super frustrating, actually. I guess I’m the eternal optimist: I always say, somewhere we’ll find a home for this, or somebody will come along and say, You know, this is a good idea. And across my whole career somehow that has happened. And so I haven’t really lost faith, because it’s always turned out okay. I guess just because I got super lucky with my first film. People take my phone calls! And so maybe that’s a big part of it. I’m able to at least remain sanguine that I’ll be able to work next week.
It would be a sad state of affairs if George Romero couldn’t get work.
Yeah, well, listen: It’s hard. [Laughs] The last two zombie movies I did, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, I did for $2 million and $2.5 million. Now you can’t sell that for beanstalk beans. They say, “Well, you gotta make it World War Z, you gotta spend $200 million in order to make any kind of money. And that’s the big problem. That’s why I said, Forget about it. I’m doing this comic book now, Empire of the Dead. It’s been picked up by Demarest. Again, I’ve been lucky enough to get work.
They’re turning it into a TV show, right?
They’re trying to. They’ve hired me to write a pilot, but who knows.
Would you be directing?
I’d love to. But first they have to find somebody to say, “Okay, we’ll make it.” We’re not even at that stage yet.
It’s ironic, because zombies have been more popular, culturally.
I know, but my zombies, my kind of zombies, it’s not what anybody wants.
They wouldn’t have the other zombies without you!
That doesn’t matter! [Laughs] It doesn’t matter to those boys. I’ve always used them for social satire. Now, nobody thinks of that. It’s pure entertainment. Like the zombies in World War Z, my God, that could be a remake of Naked Jungle. They look like army ants.
I think the most scathing thing I read about The Walking Dead was that it was as if you took George Romero and removed anything intelligent that he has to say about the world.
In listening to you talk about Night of the Living Dead I was surprised to hear you discuss the racial aspect of the film — you’d said race was never meant to be an issue. Of course I’d always thought of it in those terms, and even studied it that way in film school.
I know. Let me tell you, though, it was not deliberate. Duane Jones, the actor, was the only guy on the set who was aware of it. Duane was going, “You know what’s gonna happen to me when I walk outside the theater and I’ve just punched out a white woman?” Duane was very worried about all of that, but we never picked up on it. We were all sitting there going, “Come on, man, it’s 1968, nobody’s gonna give a shit! [Laughs] Come on, that’s gotta be behind us.” Of course it’s still not. Still not. It was never discussed. There’s never a slur in the movie. Even Harry Cooper never calls him a n*gger, you know? It’s not an issue. It was never meant to be an issue. It was supposed to be them arguing over their own personal concerns while the world is changing. That was it. That was the only thing.
But in Dawn of the Dead, there’s this consumerist angle. That was surely deliberate.
It is, it is completely. Night of the Living Dead actually made a little money for us, and we were going, “Yeah, this is easy business.” I was working on my third film when Night of the Living Dead became, you know, “Night of the Living Dead” — the thing. Rex Reed actually showed up at my house when I was shooting Season of the Witch. He said, “Do you know what’s going on with Night of the Living Dead?” I became self-conscious about it. People were taking it as a really important film, so if I’m going to do this again I need to have something to say. That’s where the idea came: I could use this genre for social satire, social commentary.
That was the early days of the shopping mall in America.
That was the first one we’d ever seen. It was the first mall in Pennsylvania. Indoor shopping? It’s hard for us to even conceive, but there was nothing like that before. Even in the film, one of the characters, Scotty…
“It’s one of those new shopping malls!”
Exactly! It was great. I waited another 10 years to do the next one, intentionally. I just waited. I got this conceit that maybe if I did one every decade it would be good, but then I got thwarted by 9/11 and a bunch of other things.
So we’re now into the new decade. Is the TV series and the comic book going to focus on the current zeitgeist?
No, they’re not. That’s a different world, it’s completely different. It’s after the apocalypse, after the zombie apocalypse. It’s a class thing again, very much like Land of the Dead, except that the ruling class is vampires — they have the experience, they’ve been around, they know how to work the tables. Zombies are third-class citizens. Humans are somewhere in the middle. It’s a bit political, but it’s much more of an entertainment. If I were to do one today, God, I don’t know. How do you do it?
How do you ever do it, though?
Well, it’s hard. I’m torn, actually. Sometimes I think maybe it has to be about immigration, or borders. That’s one hot topic, at least in North America. How do you do the financial collapse? You can’t have zombies typing on adding machines.
Zombie economic collapse. Zombie recessions.