Why George A. Romero Believes He Hasn’t Made a Scary Film Since “Night of the Living Dead”

By U.J. Lessing and Dan Lybarger
Posted 10/11/06 11:17:53

He stands about 6’ 5” and sports a flack jacket with a button for “Shaun of the Dead.” But he also has a long, grey ponytail. If someone were to dub him a 60s relic, he'd probably wear the term like a badge of honor. George A. Romero is visiting Kansas City in September for the Kansas International Film Festival, and we are both decidedly nervous upon meeting such an important and curious figure in the horror movie genre.

You would be too. George A. Romero has made movie theaters a little less sedate for almost 40 years. Since his 1968 debut Night of the Living Dead, Romero has made horror films that are as political as they are unsettling.

Night of the Living Dead and the four Romero-directed sequels that followed not only set new standards for screen gore, but they also reflected:

*the social unrest of the 1960s (Night of the Living Dead)
*the soul-deadening effects of consumerism (Dawn of the Dead)
*the dangers of militarism and ethics-challenged science (Day of the Dead)
*and a thinly-veiled critique of George W. Bush’s America (Land of the Dead).

In addition, Romero has become a favored adaptor for legendary horror scribe Stephen King (Creepshow, The Dark Half) and injected some fresh blood into the vampire film with Martin.
We are both excited by the prospect of Romero discussing both the films he's known for and some lesser-known efforts that are worth investigating.

“I don’t want to restore order. I would just as soon have things fly apart”

We both come armed with theories and patterns we have found in Romero’s works. For example, in both his Dead series and in Martin, the characters live in a world that is disintegrating, a theme that repeatedly shows up in his films.

But Romero will have none of it, and describes his choices as less conscious and more artistic. Romero explains, "I’ve talked in a lot of films about religion and communications, lack of communications, just between people that are in relationships. And it’s all just shuffled together in my head. I haven’t ever consciously set out to write a treatise about one specific thing. It’s really just shuffling a bunch of stuff in there.

"…It’s riffin’. It’s almost like playing jazz. You shuffle notes in, and you don’t exactly know where they’re coming from."

Romero is clear that he isn’t interested in heroics. “ …I guess when I sit down to write a script, I have no preconception of this is the hero. I don’t want to restore order. I would just as soon have things fly apart,” Romero explains.

“I can have a couple of these people survive, and I don’t have to restore order in the world.

“(That) started with Night, and that was the only way to end Night, which was tragically. And when I wrote the script for Dawn, I did the same thing. I said well this is the sequel; I’ve got to have everybody die. And so I wrote it with everybody dying. And then I said ‘Well, wait. I don’t have to do that. It’s a different movie. It’s a different personality.’ It has a completely different kind of head to it. It’s more of a comic book.”

We ask Romero about the element of race in Night of the Living Dead, and his response is unexpected. His choice to cast an African-American actor in the lead was not intentional. Romero explains, “Duane (Jones) was the best actor from among our friends. And so when he agreed to do it, cool. We thought we were
being way cool by not changing the script. And now in retrospect, particularly in the last 10 years or so, I was wrong. There’s a theme there that we missed.

“We thought we were being way hip, but I think we missed the real point, though. I think that a member of the minority sees certain things a lot more clearly.”

When we ask Romero about the future of the Living Dead movies, he offers us some good news: a new zombie film titled Diary of the Dead that’s unlike it’s predecessors, “I’m going back to the roots. I’m doing this way under the radar, low-budget thing. We lost our copyright on Night of the Living Dead, so partly I’m trying to reestablish the copyright, reestablish the franchise.

“Even though I made the four different films, they were all for different people. There are owned by different people. None of the originators have anything to do with any of it. It’s pretty frustrating.

“So we’re trying. We’re doing a new thing going back to the first night and with a whole new cast of characters. There’s a series of two books of short stories by a number of writers including Steve (Stephen King) called Book of The Dead and Book of The Dead II. They are zombie stories happening around the same time, and so that’s what we’re doing. We’re doing this way low budget.”

“It’s the movie of mine that I’d really like to remake because we ran out of money.”

Romero is particularly enthusiastic when we bring up Season of the Witch. This was Romero’s second horror film and follows a bored suburban housewife who attempts to escape from her unsatisfying life through witchcraft.

Romero reflects, “I guess it reflects an unhappy or unsatisfied me. I don’t know. I think since the 60s, my friends and I, we all thought we had effected some sort of change. There was no change. Things just seemed to keep spiraling downward. So, I think there’s a fair amount of anger and cynicism…

“It’s the movie of mine that I’d really like to remake because we ran out of money. There was a brokerage that was supposed to raise $100,000, and they bailed out at about 80. And we had to struggle just to finish the film.”

“I’d really like to re-shoot it and contemporize it. I think it could still work. I think there are a lot of women who are still in that situation. The world theoretically has been changing. The glass ceiling may have a couple of cracks in it, but it ain’t broke.”

“You know, I get together with guys like Steve (King) and (Tom) Savini, and we giggle at all the scare stuff.”

Later this evening, Romero is going to introduce his tribute to the EC Comics, Creepshow at the Kansas International Film Festival. The film is broken into five segments that contain exaggerated frights and thrills. One of us confesses that it was the first horror film they ever saw, and that it still scares him.

Romero explains, “That has to be old reflections, because I don’t think that I’ve made a scary film since Night of the Living Dead…To me, they’re more funny than they are scary, particularly that one.

“You know, I get together with guys like Steve (King) and (Tom) Savini, and we giggle at all the scare stuff. So it’s hard for me to take it really seriously. It’s old EC comics. The old stuff that’s scary, by definition, was not really scary. At least it doesn’t get me in the gut.”

So what makes Creepshow stand out in Romero’s mind? “The big difference for me was that I got to work with name actors. So that was a big difference.

“There were no brats in that cast. I ran into a few brats later on in life, but no man, everybody there came to play. Everybody was mature, was secure and mature. So there weren’t any explosions or conflicts. It was great. They made it easy for me. …I dipped my toe for the first time in that Hollywood scene. And all those people really made it easy for me.”

“I think that actors like to do something just a little bit outside the box, to get a chance to overact and have it work.”

“I got my ass kicked all over the Bronx.”

George Romero’s Catholic upbringing may have contributed to his cynicism towards systems, “I was raised Catholic and gave up on the church at age seven or something. I had just been taught that you could be a wonderful person all your life, and steal a baseball and get hit by a bus… and you’re going to Hell anyway.

“My grandmother had died right when I had been taught that. I went to the funeral home, and the whole family was there. And everybody was saying, ‘Well, at least, she’s in heaven now.’

“And I went, ‘Not necessarily. We don’t know what she did in those last moments.’ I got my ass kicked all over the Bronx!”

Our time is quickly running out. We ask Romero doubtfully if he truly believes that Night of the Living Dead is only scary film he ever made.

Romero smiles and replies, “I think so, and I can even see that and appreciate why people think it’s so scary. It’s their neighbors.”

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