INSIDIOUS INTERVIEWS: GEORGE A. ROMERO ON “SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD”
Survival of the Dead is George A. Romero’s sixth zombie film, and its imminent theatrical run in Toronto, followed soon after by its arrival on DVD and Blu-ray, meant that the legendary horror director, now relocated to Toronto from his long-time home in Pittsburgh, was available to talk.
Set a couple of months into the zombie outbreak, Survival follows a group of soldiers as they seek refuge on Plum Island, a remote piece of land controlled by The Flynns and The Muldoons, rival families whose decades-long enmity has barely been erupted by the outbreak of the undead.
Heavily influenced by the classic 1958 Western The Big Country, Survival is more black comedy than horror film, with Romero fully indulging his love of EC Comics and Looney Tunes cartoons in some of the more outrageous kills. As usual, Romero uses his zombies to help illustrate a larger social principle, rather than simply employing them as bringers of destruction.
Was it fun making Survival of the Dead?
[Laughs] It was, actually. We all had a pretty good time making it. We just got clobbered by weather. I guess this is my fourth film that I’ve shot in the Toronto area, and people don’t release cheques until September so we’re always shooting in October. So far it was great up until this point. Now we just had unbelievably bad weather. So it was a bit of a challenge.
But everybody was great about it. All the other aspects of it were really fun. The company was terrific, all the actors were really into it, no bad apples, and it was really fun.
Your first three Dead films are metaphors for contemporary social issues. Survival, though, is more generally about a lack of civility. Now that you live in Toronto, do you see that lack of civility as a specifically American problem or are Canadians just as much in need of anger management classes?
Oh, I think everyone is. [Laughs] I don’t know. You know, listen to the horns honking on the Gardiner [Expressway] and you get a little upset.
I don’t know. I think the whole world is just challenged by that. More so than anger management, it’s just this idea of conflicts that don’t die. You’re my enemy! Could be the US Senate or Northern Ireland or the Middle East. You’re my enemy, age old, and that’s it. ‘I’ll never forgive you.’ ‘For what?’ ‘I don’t remember, but I’ll never forgive you!’
I found Survival of the Dead more funny than scary, and you’ve talked about the influence of the old EC comics on this film. With Survival, were you less concerned with scaring audiences?
Yeah. You know, it’s funny. I don’t think my films for a long time have never been really scary, not the kind of scary that gets to you. And I’ve never sorta tried to do that. It’s the traditional jumps and startles and cheats basically. They’re just cheats to keep it within the framework of the genre. And I’ve always been more concerned thematically about what it’s about and the characters and all that.
And I went for some real Looney Tunes humour in this thing. So I hope that works. The biggest thing with having creative control is that you’re never quite sure, and it’s just all you. You can only blame yourself. The idea of making this resemble a Western just came from… I’d already written the first draft, and I had these two old feuding guys, and I happened to see an old Western that I used to really love, still do, called The Big Country. So I had the DP and the production designer, everybody come over and watch The Big Country with me.
That’s a conceit. It’s fun for us. Does it work? I don’t know! I couldn’t even answer that. I’m not sure if it works or not, but I hope that people forgive me. It makes it more fun for us as filmmakers to just sort of spread our wings a little bit.
Most fans and critics focus on the role of the zombies in your films, but they seem to be more the catalyst for the human story you want to tell. How important are the zombies to these new series of films?
I’m not sure exactly what you mean. They’re there. I can pull them out of a closet whenever I need to or want to.
Everybody says, ‘Oh, they’re really evolving now!’ Well, wait a minute. I had Bub in Day of the Dead and Big Daddy in Land of the Dead. They were evolving then, too. All I did was sort of accelerate it a little bit. This is meant to be a couple of months in or something, or shortly after the phenomenon started.
In my mind, it’s just remembered behaviour. And I did maybe a little more of that. I had the guy start his car because I wanted people to believe that a dead woman could actually ride a horse. I’m trying to stick with what are remembered behaviours.
I’m sympathetic towards them, of course. It’s the humans who are the jerks, always, and I’m very sympathetic towards the monsters, if you can call them monsters. I don’t think they’ve changed too much. My guys don’t run, they’re not just video game targets. They’re players.
Given that with Artfire you have control over these characters you have created, unlike the first four Dead films, do you feel reinvigorated to work within your own zombie universe?
First, let me talk about that. When we made Diary of the Dead, I thought of it as a one-off. When we were shooting Land, I was a bit… I can’t say disappointed in Universal because they were great. Even though everybody warned me and said these guys will chew on you, they didn’t. They really let me make the movie I wanted to make.
But there were a lot of fans that I think were disappointed and thought that maybe I’d gone Hollywood, and it was a really gruelling project. And then they sort of gave it short shrift when they released it so it was frustrating. And I said, ‘Who needs this? Let me go back to the roots.’
At the same time, while we were shooting Land, I had the idea for Diary. I wanted to do something about emerging media, citizen journalism and all that. And so I said I can do this for like two, two and a half [million dollars], and that’s how we met the guys at Artfire who said ‘well, we’ll go with you on this and give you the control.’
Because we made it on such little money and ended up worldwide making a huge amount of money on DVDs and all that, they said, ‘Let’s do another one.’ So then I had the idea, I said, ‘Alright, what if we do another one and it makes a lot of money, then you’re gonna want another one. So why don’t we plan on doing three? Potentially, it may not happen. So I came up with three ideas that involve minor characters from Diary, and I had this idea that I could do a little four-film saga where I could have characters appear, re-appear, use story points from other films which is something I’d never been able to do because the first four films are all owned and controlled by different people. So I was attracted to that.
So this is the first of maybe three. But if this one falls on its ass, maybe the other two won’t happen. But I’m sitting here armed with these other two story ideas, and in the meantime I’m writing something else right now. We just have to wait and see what happens.
Your living characters in Survival turn against one another when they need each other most. Has your faith in humanity lessened over time? Are you more cynical about the essential goodness of mankind?
[Laughs] More cynical? I don’t know, maybe it’s just suspicions confirmed.
To answer that question simply I would say yeah. I think time just makes you realize that you were right, people disappoint and are not as reliable as you’d like them to be.
And so I suppose in the strictest sense just because of all the time that I’ve spent on this planet, yeah, I think I’m probably a bit more cynical. I’m always a bit more surprised when somebody comes through and proves themselves to be a good friend or whatever.
Survival of the Dead screens for one week at Toronto Underground Cinema (186 Spadina Avenue), starting this Friday, August 20, before hitting Blu-ray and DVD on August 31 through eOne Entertainment.