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Produced piecemeal on a shoestring budget, George Romero’s 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 Night’s
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 Romero’s primordial
creatures would long continue to walk the earth. In contrast to Night’s 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 (28 Days
Later),
comic send-ups (Return of 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
couldn’t help but seem influenced by its maker’s own season in “development hell”:
In the film, the main character’s figurative facelessness becomes a literal condition,
allowing him to exact revenge on those who have sought to turn him into an emasculated
drone. Like Romero’s earlier Jack’s 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 didn’t 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.”


Romero’s 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 Land’s first 15 minutes — an occasion that, for all its triumph, also pointed up the dismissive treatment genre fare like Romero’s 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 Bergman’s 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 society’s haves from its have-nots. Set again in Pittsburgh, the film unfolds in and around a luxury high-rise called Fiddler’s 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 Kaufman’s 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 world’s displaced, disenfranchised people, from the streets of America to the contentious cities of the Middle East. “It’s 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 we’re protected, that we don’t have to worry about things. As for the imagery, I don’t 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, it’s not just the zombies who must learn to be human again.





[



 Dead
man talking:
George Romero
Photo by Kevin Scanlon




How often does a director on the wrong side of 60 get the budget and the
resources he deserves for the dream project he’s 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 Romero’s “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 Romero’s throne.
“You know,” Romero muses, “people ask Stephen King, ‘How do you feel about these
directors ruining your books?’ And Steve says, ‘They didn’t 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: It’s 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 nobody’s 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 wouldn’t
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 I’ve 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.
Don’t 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 there’s a little bit
of that in this movie too — it just so happens that it’s now a reflection of the
entire country.




[



 Daddy
breaks loose.




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 I’ve always
had an African-American lead in the other three, which was a conceit. So this
time I said, “Okay, I’m 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. I’ve 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 there’s a zombie who’s been dragging a rifle around not knowing what
it is, who grabs the hero’s rifle and decides, “That looks better!” And then Bub
in Day of the Dead — he’s an experiment, but he’s
basically imitating the scientist. “Push the button, Bub.” And he pushes the button.
So now, there’re other zombies that are imitative, up to a point, but they have
Big Daddy to imitate now. So I don’t think this has taken a giant leap forward.
It’s just the idea that they’re 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.
I’m thinking particularly of
those scenes where we
see captive zombies turned
by their human captors
into Abu Ghraib–style sideshow
freaks.

I’m 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 wasn’t
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?

It’s a little bit of a throwback to Michael Powell’s 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 couldn’t 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. I’m still learning them.



Land of the Dead is the first
of your films to be
shot in the 2.35:1 widescreen
aspect ratio.

I’ve always loved the frame. I grew up on all of those movies too: Ben-Hur
and all of that stuff. It’s 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. It’s really like a darkroom; you don’t 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 they’ve
made in recent years at
the box office, horror
films still tend to be
looked down upon by many
so-called serious film aficionados.


It’s a shame, but I have to say that there aren’t 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
there’s not a lot of people doing Caligari these days.



How do you personally view
the zombies?

I think of them as a primitive society. It’s 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 they’re almost an external force. It’s 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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