EXCL: Dead Man Walking

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George Romero carries his zombies into the tech-savvy generation

Las Vegas is burning. Or so CNN wants you to think. I’m sitting in the Delta Terminal at the Salt Lake City airport, eyes fixed – like so many around me – on the flat screen television hanging from the ceiling. My curiosity and concern are amplified by the hellish visions onscreen. Wolf Blitzer’s white Muppet head is telling us there’s a casino fire. Behind him, on a monitor, there’s the proof: The Monte Carlo has been adorned with a fiery crown. A surface fire, really. Everyone inside is safe and systematically evacuated. In fact, the fire’s been out for hours, but Blitzer is reminding us of what the scene looked like when the top of the Carlo was roasting. The anchor then introduces a series of MOS (“man on the street”) videos – images captured via cell phones and digital cameras of the casino by the Everyman, a testament to the MySpace and YouTube generation where instant gratification comes but with the click of an “upload” button.

Vegas was never razed in a hellish inferno, needles to say. The Carlo suffered a few blackened blemishes (its poker tables to be populated soon enough). However, I couldn’t help but think the whole incident is an apropos end to my trip to Sundance where, just days earlier, George Romero and I sat down to discuss Diary of the Dead.

The latest entry in the “horror gets real” trend (see: Cloverfield, Rec, The Poughkeepsie Tapes and, naturally, The Blair Witch Project), “Diary” is now the fifth cogitative chapter in Romero’s undead saga – a smaller, more intimate approach than 2005’s divisive Land of the Dead. Here the director, who started this whole “zombie thing” in ’68 with Night of the Living Dead, returns to Night One. You know, when the dead start walking among the living and society uniformly erupts with a panicked “WTF?!” and collapses.

Romero trades in the one-location scenario that dominated his first three “Dead” films, and gave them a delicious taste of claustrophobia, for something more akin to a road movie structure: Skimming across the back roads of Pennsylvania dazed and confused, a small indie film crew huddle in their RV trying to make sense of a sudden zombie outbreak. They’re led by director Jason Creed (Joshua Close) who is determined to document their journey (for a film called “The Death of Death” – a moniker used by Romero for his DC Comics series “Toe Tags”) and post his findings regularly via a MySpace page. This doesn’t sit well with Creed’s girlfriend (Michelle Morgan) or pal (Shawn Roberts, encoring in a different role after a bit part in “Land”). Relationship rifts grow. Creed’s obsession intensifies and he places a blinding responsibility on himself to right the misinformation being spread by the mass media concerning the severity of the situation.

Approaching 68 (at the time of this writing), Romero is no less spry and humble than when we last saw him in Toronto just before he embarked for Land of the Dead. Gone is the trademark tan fishing vest – with the “Aim for the Head – Shaun of the Dead” promo button attached to the chest pocket – we’ve seen him wear so often. It’s goddamn cold in Park City, Utah and even here the Zombie Godfather fights off a chill only one of his shambling corpses would love.

“I’m feeling a little older, man,” he answers, sitting down next to us when we ask how things have changed for him personally since Land of the Dead bowed to a critically lauded reception. Following “Land’s sour box office turn, rumors circulated Romero fell into a lugubrious state, disappointed by its performance. He subsequently packed his bags and left Pittsburgh (where so many of his films have been set) heading north to Toronto where he now resides. If any low spirits clouded him, they’ve evidently been expurgated as he explains age is the only change he’s feeling these days.

“I’m still very inspired to keep going. Land of the Dead…Universal was terrific and they let me make my movie. I like the movie,” Romero states looking at us over his signature wide, well, we’ll just call ’em “grandpa glasses.” “I know a lot of fans didn’t because maybe they thought it was too big, that’s not why I did Diary of the Dead. It was just so hard. I started to say to myself, ‘Where do I go [with the next film]?’ What am I going to do – Mad Max? Because I started this whole thing with just a bunch of people in a farmhouse.”

Out on the press tour for “Land,” Romero hinted at a direct sequel (the first of its kind in the franchise) that would pick up with the film’s crew of the Dead Reckoning (Simon Baker, Asia Argento, et al.) as they trekked across a zombie-ridden land – hence, the Mad Max overtones. Universal didn’t exactly come knockin’ for a follow-up, however.

“All of the zombies films I’ve done have grown out of what’s happening out there in the world. It’s not like I sit there and think, ‘Oh, I just found a new way to kill a zombie – let’s make a movie!'” What Romero became more in tune with in the wake of “Land” was the feverish explosion of new media. “Everyone was becoming a reporter.” Not only that, but videos posted on the web from all over the world revealed the wide spectrum of content – from a dumb-ass on a trampoline being struck by a crowbar to brutal executions on a far away continent – that was easily available to anyone willing to watch.

“But I’m more concerned about ideas and about people being so captivated by it. Thinking, or being fooled into thinking, they’re doing the right thing when in fact they’re not and that’s what I wanted to talk about in [‘Diary’],” he explains. “The Presidential debates – the questions are not being asked by anchors anymore, they’re being asked by people in the blogs. But what I found was that I sensed some danger in that. People being captivated by it, people more than willing to do it. There could be a lunatic out there – a Hitler of today…he doesn’t need people in a town square, he could throw up a blog now. It’s dangerous. You can say anything and get a million followers. If you sound halfway convincing, you’ll have a lot more.”

“I had a sketchbook for this film, had some notes and concept pages worked out already,” he continues. “I sort’ve said, one day in the shower, ‘This all comes together!’ I can use film students and go back to the very first day when the dead start walking and they’re out there with a camera shooting a project and they start to shoot what happens.”

Diary of the Dead, Romero says, was to feel like a vacation next to his experience on “Land” – during which he supposedly walked off of the set out of exhaustion (or was it frustration?) one day. “It’s always difficult to make a film – it’s night, it’s cold, all that shit,” he grumbles with a smile. In his head, he envisioned “Diary” as a true guerilla filmmaking effort: Shot under the radar, raw and without even the vaguest hint of a theatrical release planned.

“There’s a film production school in Florida called Full Sail and I wanted to go there and shoot with the students. I’ve gone down there and lectured a few times – made a film down there with the kids. I just wanted to do ‘Diary’ absolutely low budget, just to do it. Just for my soul. And I would basically make a partnership with the school and say, ‘Maybe, because of my name, people could make some money on it and we can split it.'” Artfire Films ultimately sunk its teeth into the script and presented a modest budget for Romero to play with. “I said, ‘I don’t want a lot of money because I want people to leave me alone. Basically, we wanted freedom – to get it as close as possible to the way we would have done it at the school.”

Filming began in the fall of 2006 in Toronto and Romero describes the experience as “absolutely great. It was light-hearted for everyone involved, the actors were sensational.” Everyone involved immediately fell into the groove of the extended takes that were required to pull off the home video effect Romero was reach for. “We were shooting shots that were eight pages long. There were a couple of days when we did nothing but set the shot up and then shoot only one shot that day, but it’d be eight pages. So, I think this cast, if I asked them, ‘We’re gonna do the whole movie in a single shot,’ they would’ve done it. Never was a shot blown because an actor blew their line. It completely reminded me of the days on Night of the Living Dead where it was just friends coming together to make a movie with no interference.”

Before our conversation is called to an end, Romero leans in and inquires about that “other” vérité-flavored film Cloverfield robbing all of the entertainment headlines. “I didn’t know there’d be all of these movies coming out – who knew?” he shrugs. “I didn’t know about Cloverfield, Redacted…maybe there is a collective subconscious. Now there are all of these films using helmet cams and handheld news stuff. We’ve seen all that news about these soldiers in Iraq with helmet cams – that’s how we found out who did what to who [on the battlefield], it’s a bit like Rashomon.”

Diary of the Dead opens in theaters February 15th with a sequel currently in the planning stages (more here). Appropriately enough, the film’s most heavy campaigning is taking place via its MySpace page. Check back soon for more with Romero as he talks about the changing face of zombie cinema.

Source: Ryan Rotten