Dead Director Rises Again
Produced piecemeal on a shoestring budget, George Romeros debut feature, Night of the Living Dead (1968), was a fever dream of EC Comics and old Universal horror, crossbred with the fleet realism of the television newsreels Romero had once bicycled from a Pittsburgh film lab to local affiliates. The tightly framed black-and-white images of walking corpses consuming the flesh of live humans shocked many. But already it was obvious that, for Romero, the real horrors of society needed no special-effects amplification. His undead were merely a prism through which to examine human behavior at a state of heightened anxiety. And by casting a black actor (Duane Jones) as Nights selfless hero, the film became, among other things, a blistering portrait of homeland race relations in the year of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination its final image, of Jones being gunned down by a posse of zombie-hunting yahoos, as potent a symbol of the blown-out American dream as the ending of Easy Rider. The film became a midnight-movie phenomenon, ensuring that Romeros primordial creatures would long continue to walk the earth. In contrast to Nights chiaroscuro terrors, its first sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), was a Day-Glo assault on American consumerism at the outset of the shopping-mall era, with asides on classism and feminism. One of the great films of the 1980s, Day of the Dead (1985) is a poetic, Hawksian horror picture (with allusions to the Frankenstein story) that questions what it means to be human while anticipating the coming culture wars between scientific rationality and religious faith.
By then, Romero was fully enshrined as a cult movie deity, and the ensuing two decades would see more than its share of respectful homages (28Days Later), comic send-ups (Returnof the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead) and blatant rip-offs (the Resident Evil video game franchise and its subsequent film versions) of his work, though, curiously, only four new features by the master himself. Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated, Romero deadpanned in a July 2000 welcome letter to visitors of his Web site. But, kidding aside, it was a low moment for the iconoclastic auteur, coming at the end of seven years spent on retainer to an assortment of major studios, during which time he watched several high-profile projects all come within a hairsbreadth of getting made. Eventually, with French financing, Romero managed to make Bruiser, a scabrous satire of the corporate workplace and the suburban American dream that couldnt help but seem influenced by its makers own season in development hell: In the film, the main characters figurative facelessness becomes a literal condition, allowing him to exact revenge on those who have sought to turn him into an emasculated drone. Like Romeros earlier Jacks Wife (1973) in which an underappreciated housewife liberates herself by becoming a witch the movie was so merciless and mordantly funny as to make American Beauty look like an I Love Lucy episode. Not surprisingly, no American distributor dared touch it.
In truth, Romero and Hollywood have never made for easy bedfellows. Only four of his 14 feature films have been released by studios, and one of those (his 1993 Stephen King adaptation, The Dark Half) became an unfortunate victim of the Orion Pictures bankruptcy. The rest of the time, he has worked from his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh to create a body of work as truly independent (both financially and ideologically) as any in American movies. And so it may be that no one is more surprised than Romero that his latest film, Land of the Dead, is being released today by Universal Pictures, on several thousand screens, at the zenith of the summer blockbuster season. It was very frustrating in those years that I never got pictures made, says the tall, ponytailed, rail-thin Romero, who calls money dough and refers to his collaborators as cats. But at the same time, he continues, I did work on some very big things, so I didnt feel like I was out of the game. It took me a long time to realize that, after a while, you really do drop off the radar.
Romeros return to movie and radar screens was consecrated last month by a standing-ovation tribute at the Cannes Film Festival, which included a sneak preview of Lands first 15 minutes an occasion that, for all its triumph, also pointed up the dismissive treatment genre fare like Romeros has long received from festivals and critics alike. Even for a lot of the industry, George Romero is a name, nothing more, notes Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux. When I was 17 or 18, I used to stay up all night with friends watching videotapes of horror movies, which was where I discovered George Romero. And to me, having him onstage was as important as having Abbas Kiarostami or Woody Allen. I like the fact that Woody Allen loves Bergmans movies and Bergman loves Westerns. This is something very important that to love cinema is to love all of cinema.
Romero paints with his boldest brushstrokes yet in Land of the Dead, blurring the line that separates zombies from humans while sharpening the one that divides societys haves from its have-nots. Set again in Pittsburgh, the film unfolds in and around a luxury high-rise called Fiddlers Green that has become the last outpost of moneyed (and white) high society in a world where money ceases to have any meaning (other than that ascribed to it by its bearers). Overseen by a venomous gatekeeper called Kaufman (a tip of the capitalist hat to the wealthy Pittsburgh department store entrepreneur), the Green towers above a Hooverville-like slum inhabited by those deemed unworthy of admission to Kaufmans shining planned community. All is enclosed by an electrified fence that has, until now, kept the undead at bay, forcing them into outlying areas where they are shot for sport by the rogue bounty-hunter types who keep the Green supplied.
But as Land of the Dead begins, the oppressed flesh-eating masses show unprecedented cognitive signs, and stir with revolutionary fervor as they rally behind a zombified gas station attendant called Big Daddy. For Romero, these once-fearsome adversaries now seem to represent all of the worlds displaced, disenfranchised people, from the streets of America to the contentious cities of the Middle East. Its more a reflection of the times than it is criticism, Romero says. I guess I was trying to say something about complacency, which has always been the case in America this idea that were protected, that we dont have to worry about things. As for the imagery, I dont know if people will pick up on all of it, but some of it is obvious to me the financial center being a high-rise, and a tank riding through a little village and mowing people down while we wonder why [the zombies] are pissed off at us. Indeed, in the world of Land of the Dead, its not just the zombies who must learn to be human again.
How often does a director on the wrong side of 60 get the budget and the resources he deserves for the dream project hes been longing to make? Not often, but Romero has done so and done it brilliantly. Land of the Dead is fast, mercilessly funny, gleefully gory and uncommonly thoughtful about the times in which we live a horror picture to shake audiences from the complacency engendered by so many Rings and Grudges. Promoted as Romeros ultimate zombie masterpiece, Land is a rare case of truth in advertising, little dulled by its arrival in the midst of so many other comers to Romeros throne. You know, Romero muses, people ask Stephen King, How do you feel about these directors ruining your books? And Steve says, They didnt ruin them. Here they are right now, on the shelf here. Last week, during his stop through L.A. en route to yet another career tribute (this time at Las Vegas Cinevegas festival), I talked with the director about the latest chapter in his ongoing zombie epic.
L.A. WEEKLY: The use of the original Universal Pictures logo at the start of the film is a nice touch.
GEORGE ROMERO: Its a way of saying, Guys, this is going to be a little old-fashioned here!
This is your first Dead movie in 20 years. Was it challenging to find a new approach to the material?
I always wanted to do another one and then we got hung up, my partner and I, in that seven or eight years stuck on projects. I fled after all of that and made this little film called Bruiser which nobodys seen. Then I started working on this script mid-2000 and finally got a draft and sent it out days before 9/11 after which everyone wanted to make soft, friendly movies. So I took it back home and, sometime after the invasion, dug it out and twisted it around a little bit.
Though the film is set in Pittsburgh, budgetary matters dictated that you shoot most of it in Canada.
I wanted to shoot in Pittsburgh. If we would get smart here, productions wouldnt keep going to Canada, but they offer such incentives over there, and they also take care of their personnel. The regs that we all complain about when we go up there keep those people working. I think they do a fabulous job.
Often, particularly in a film like Martin (1977), your work has contemplated the Pittsburgh landscape as a kind of Norman Rockwell town that never was, or that was once and then vanished.
Which it is. When I got there I went there to go to college and Ive lived there ever since the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, The mills will reopen someday. Dont worry about it. It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So theres a little bit of that in this movie too it just so happens that its now a reflection of the entire country.
Though the zombies have always been human on the outside, this is the first movie where we really sense them being human on the inside as well.
Exactly. I tried to throw that big ace out there right away, because Ive always had an African-American lead in the other three, which was a conceit. So this time I said, Okay, Im gonna switch sides with this guy. I do have this idea in my mind that if I go on, if I live to do another one, that the humans are getting nastier and the zombies are getting a little more human. Ive tried to follow a pretty clean line with it, though. Even in Dawn, some of the principals that get turned into zombies are showing cognitive signs, and at the very end of the film theres a zombie whos been dragging a rifle around not knowing what it is, who grabs the heros rifle and decides, That looks better! And then Bub in Day of the Dead hes an experiment, but hes basically imitating the scientist. Push the button, Bub. And he pushes the button. So now, therere other zombies that are imitative, up to a point, but they have Big Daddy to imitate now. So I dont think this has taken a giant leap forward. Its just the idea that theyre getting more dangerous.
Michael Moore notwithstanding, it still seems risky to make a movie this political in what is effectively a risk-averse Hollywood climate. Im thinking particularly of those scenes where we see captive zombies turned by their human captors into Abu Ghraibstyle sideshow freaks.
Im not sure if you showed this movie at the White House that anybody would get it, except when the money burns at the end then they might feel a little pang of sadness.
You were making short films from a very early age.
But I never thought I could have a career in it. I went to Carnegie-Mellon to study painting and design. My dad was a commercial artist, and I realized I wasnt very good. They happened to have a theater school, so it was just on impulse that I decided to transfer there. But then I had to take, you know, movement and speech and all of that shit. Pass! So I walked. Back then, cities the size of Pittsburgh at that time had film labs. I had an uncle who supported me, got me an apartment for a year. So I just went and spent a year hanging out at this film lab, back when the news was on film journeymen guys with cigarettes hanging over the flammable glue pots gluing together the shots.
One of the most distinctive aspects of your films, the early ones in particular, is the way they achieve movement through the cutting of what are mostly static shots. How did you develop that technique?
Its a little bit of a throwback to Michael Powells stuff, the war movies that he did, which were very much staged that way. It was also a little bit of ass-covering, in the early days, when I couldnt afford dolly track or a dolly. So I would just shoot a lot of coverage, and I developed more of an editing style than even a shooting style. It was really only with The Dark Half that I started to feel more confident, to shoot longer dialogue scenes and do things more efficiently. You know, you start learning some tricks. John Ford, after 150 films, probably had a bag full of tricks. Im still learning them.
Land of the Dead is the first of your films to be shot in the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio.
Ive always loved the frame. I grew up on all of those movies too: Ben-Hur and all of that stuff. Its always been either a little too expensive or a little hard to achieve. But now with the digital intermediate process, we shot film and did all the finishing digitally. That enables you to change the frame, do whatever. Its really like a darkroom; you dont have to time the whole shot you can go in and touch things up. That was fun, and we had a wonderful d.p. who got it and I think did a beautiful job with it.
Even with the comeback theyve made in recent years at the box office, horror films still tend to be looked down upon by many so-called serious film aficionados.
Its a shame, but I have to say that there arent a lot of people out there who are doing stuff with real heart. John Carpenter did a few things that I thought were wonderful. I loved They Live and The Thing. But theres not a lot of people doing Caligari these days.
How do you personally view the zombies?
I think of them as a primitive society. Its the quest for fire, putting two and two together. I always tell the actors, Just think of yourselves as infants discovering things for the first time, like when Big Daddy is looking at the real building and its reflection in the water. But theyre almost an external force. Its this incredible sea change in the world.
LAND OF THE DEAD | Written and directed by GEORGE A. ROMERO | Produced by MARK CANTON, BERNIE GOLDMAN, PETER GRUNWALD | Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide
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