Exclusive: Looking Dead Ahead With George A. Romero

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On Survival of the Dead and beyond

George A. Romero once went 20 years between Dead sagas. Now, just two years after he decided to chronicle a new zombie outbreak with Diary of the Dead, Romero’s back with a sequel, Survival of the Dead.

For his sixth Dead – and the second in a proposed four-film cycle focusing on minor characters from Diary – Romero abandons the previous film’s “the zombie apocalypse will be streamed live” documentary style approach for an old-school, narrative-driven showdown between a handful of rogue National Guardsmen, two warring families, and an ever-growing number of the undead.

Survival drops ‘Sarge’ Crocket (Alan Van Sprang) and his men in the middle of a Hatfield-McCoy-ish feud between two families on an isolated island off the Delaware coast. Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) wants to put every zombie back in the grave. Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) protects the zombies in the hopes a cure can be found. He even fancies himself an amateur scientist when he begins to conduct experiments designed to help humanity coexist with the zombies.

After Survival received its U.S. premiere last week at Fantastic Fest, Romero sat down with ShockTillYouDrop to discuss his new Western-flavored zombie epic, which draws inspiration from William Wyler’s classic The Big Country. What follows is an abridged version of the conversation.

ShockTillYouDrop: When did you decide to do three Diary of the Dead spin-offs, focusing on its minor characters, rather than a direct sequel?

George Romero: When we made the sale to the Weinsteins…I started to think about it. I said to myself, I don’t really want to go anywhere completely new, and if it looks like there’s going to be a few more of these, maybe I could use this device of taking a couple of other characters in Diary I would like to track. I had had sitting in a drawer an idea about doing something about war, this idea that conflicts never end, the fact that people can’t reconcile their differences.

Shock: So it was a given you would bring back ‘Sarge’ Crocket and his rogue National Guardsmen.

Romero: The moment I got the idea of doing that I thought of him. If you know Diary, there’s also the black raiders and the blonde. Those were the characters that came to mind.

Shock: What was it about the Hatsfield-McCoy feud that intrigued you enough to make Survival all but a zombie Western?

Romero: I wanted to do something about unresolved conflicts that just go on and on. All of a sudden anger management is required on the planet these days. People can’t disagree anymore. If we don’t learn how to disagree without shooting at each other, everything’s going to blow up sooner than later.

Shock: In the case of Survival, it leads to an old-fashioned Western shootout.

Romero: It was great fun to do, but we’ll see if it flies. I’m obviously thinking about what can I do, where do I go next, how can I freshen it up again. I’m confident I can find something.

Shock: Muldoon is a difficult man to like. He’s uncompromising, unless it suits him to break his own moral code. Does that make it harder for the audience to understand the good he’s trying to accomplish?

Romero: Most audiences just take him as the pure villain. I wrestled with that. It’s like the Burl Ives character in The Big Country. You tend to like Burl Ives because he’s the colorful character, but there’s a lot of things Charles Bickford says that is reasonable. [Muldoon] becomes the villain because he’s archetypically villainous. He’s got a point, and the point is made at the end: what if he’s right?

Shock: After six Deads, is it hard to come up with new ways to kill off the undead? In Survival, you seem to have found inspiration in the Looney Tunes cartoons.

Romero: Sometimes we brainstorm it with the D.P. and the special effects guys, but it’s usually [dreamed up] in the shower. Then you start investigating if there’s anyway of pulling it off at a reasonable cost and making it look reasonably good. Like the heads on the sticks [in Survival] – we just didn’t have the dough to make it look as strong as it could have been.

Shock: That aside, CG must allow you to do more today than you could 30 years ago.

Romero: You could never do some of those things mechanically. So it frees it up that way. I know a lot of people feel that it’s got to be [special effects and makeup guru Tom] Savini, it’s got to be prosthetic to be any good. I don’t agree. It also really enables you to get off the set quicker. Head shots, gunshots – you could lose three hours just shooting a guy in the head if the squib doesn’t work.

Shock: You have already experimented with one Dead by shooting it documentary style. Do you consider experimenting against and shooting a Dead sequel in 3-D?

Romero: I just don’t want to make a 3D film for the sake of making a 3D film. If it ever gets to the point where it has to be in 3D, sure, I’ll enjoy doing it. But I don’t have any ideas that require it or are begging for it in any way.

Shock: Where do you stand on U.S. distribution for Survival?

Romero: There are several people that are interested. I’m not involved in that; I’m just going around with the movie. There’s always hesitancy with a smaller film; you know, we don’t have [Zombieland‘s] Woody Harrelson.

Shock: Were you surprised by the poor job Weinstein Co.’s Third Rail Releasing did with Diary?

Romero: Everybody always has a reason for doing it their way. It’s reasonable, but you never know whether it’s going to work or not. They said the way they wanted to handle the film was to let it grow. But there was really no opportunity for it to grow. Nobody knew it was around.

Shock: You never did two zombies films in a row until Land and Diary. Survival makes it three. Do you want to strike while the iron is hot and do a fourth Dead in a row?

Romero: If this film makes enough money to warrant it, what I would love to do is shoot them back to back just to get them off my plate. What I would most want to do personally is go off and do something else and then come back, but that’s all driven by the business.

Shock: So you would prefer to give yourself a break from the Dead?

Romero: Sure. [But] if the money’s there, you almost have to do it. Also, there’s this whole other motivation: my partner and I and our financial partners own these films. This is for the first time out of everything we have ever done, so that’s additional incentive.

Shock: What non-Dead projects are you pursuing?

Romero: I have a couple of scripts my partner Peter [Grunwald] and I are kicking around. One old one that we have gotten back. It’s about 10 years old, so we’re going to update on it. It’s a ghost thing, one that almost got made but never did. Then we have a new idea that we’re playing around with – not zombies, more fun. And we do have a zombie project as well that is unrelated to the Dead series. It’s a balls-out comedy. It was in the works after Shaun [of the Dead], but it’s not like Shaun. It’s its own banana. I can’t really say what it is because it gives away the gag.

Shock: Where does Diamond Dead fit into the scheme of things?

Romero: That’s long gone. They did something Off-Broadway with it. It was just something nobody got. It looked great there for a while. Ridley Scott was going to produce it. We couldn’t get a deal, even with Scott Free.

Shock: You’re listed as an executive producer of The Crazies, but you mentioned last night [before Survival‘s U.S. premiere] that you have nothing to do with the remake. Regardless, is this post-9/11 political environment ripe for a Crazies remake?

Romero: [The original] grew out of a particular kind of paranoia, the idea of bio-weapons. I don’t know what they’re using; I don’t know what this one is about, so I don’t know.

Shock: How do you feel when someone remakes one of your films?

Romero: What are you going to do? I honestly don’t care. I made my film, there it is.

Shock: Do you have any curiosity how these remakes – such as the proposed 3-D CGI Night of the Living Dead: Origins – turn out?

Romero: None whatsoever.

Shock: You enjoy the freedom that comes with being an independent filmmaker. But was it hard going from Land‘s $16 million budget to budgets in the low millions for Diary and Survival?

Romero: We had a harder time doing Land with all that money. It wasn’t quite enough money. The remake of Dawn had twice the budget we had – it was $33 million or $34 million. Land was a real struggle. Diary was not. This was because we really got kicked in the ass by weather. It’s easier when you controlling [the budget], and when you’re controlling how it’s spent, you can do whatever you want. You can make it stretch if you need to. You’re not spending it all on catering.

Shock: Do you find any irony that the success of Resident Evil – which you were once attached to direct – and the Dawn of the Dead remake may have allowed you to make more Deads?

Romero: The Dawn remake caused Universal to buy [Land]. But Mark Canton wanted it right away. So it fast-tracked us once we got to Universal. Videogames had much more of an influence than those films. When you think about it, what zombie film went out and made really big money, I mean big money like Friday the 13th-type money. Nada…. I think it’s been the videogame that’s kept the zombie going.

Shock: Is there any desire to return to the original Dead series?

Romero: I don’t know where go. And all those films are owned by different people; it’s too confusing. I can’t even use characters. At one point I had this idea of doing this Steve King thing, like his Castle Rock – he’s got all these books about people who live in Castle Rock. I’d look to have this broad mythology where the characters recur, but I can’t get permission. I can’t get the rights. It’s far too complicated.

Shock: If you painted yourself into a corner with Land, are you aiming for a truer sense of closure with this new franchise?

Romero: I hope so. That certainly will be in my mind. I’d like to do this portrait of here’s the world, here’s where it stands, see you later. Or not.

Source: Robert Sims