George A. Romero on Diary of the Dead: The RT Interview
The zombie master on bringing his franchise into the age of information.George Romero has found a way to reinvent his zombie movies for every age. The original Night of the Living Dead was a simple story of survivors holed up in a house. Dawn of the Dead gave them a bigger space, an entire mall. In Day of the Dead, scientists began studying and trying to train the undead. In Land of the Dead, the zombie society began to overpower the humans.
Now Romero has gone back to the beginning. Diary of the Dead stars a cast of unknowns as film students shooting footage the night of the first outbreak. Their chronicle paints a portrait of how different factions of our culture handle a disaster of supernatural proportions.
Despite his graying beard and pony tail, Romero still knows how to do zombies in the modern world. He's still quite the showman too. His answers to each question have a beginning, middle and end, classic story structure, and he peppers in casual profanity to "keep it real." Most importantly, he puts on his spooky voice for key words like "blogosphere" and "production value."
You used to do one of these films every decade. How did you end up doing two within two years?
George A. Romero: I loved the idea that I could wait for something to happen out in the world and then talk about it. It seemed to need to be years apart in order for the culture to change a little bit, for it to look a little different and all that. But, when we were shooting Land, I suddenly was taken with the idea that God, this is so big and I don't know where to go. I don't know if I want to follow that line. There were those four films that were sort of going in a certain direction. I said, "Where do you go next? Beyond Thunderdome?" I didn't want to do that.
At the same time, before we even shot Land of the Dead, I had this idea that I wanted to do something about the blogosphere, about this new media. I thought I've got to do this quick. I also wanted to leave. After Land, I said, "Outta here, I want to go back to my roots. I want to do something small and see if I have the chops or the stamina to do it." I had this idea and I had it actually sketched out in a rough draft of the script. The moment we finished Land, I sort of refined the script a little bit. I was going to run away, literally run away. I wanted to do it at a film school where I taught a couple of classes way under the radar for a couple hundred grand. Do it with students. The guys at Artfire saw the script and said, "No, no, let's go theatrical with it. How little can you do it for?" Peter and I sat down and did the lowest budget that we could conceive. In order to do it union and legitimately, all of a sudden it's not 200 anymore, it's two million because of all of that. So we came in under four and the guys at Artfire said okay, and they gave me the controls, so I said sure. That's where it came from. I also felt that I needed to do it quickly because somebody was sure going to do something about it soon. God damn, who knew that Brian [De Palma] was shooting Redacted and Cloverfield was happening? We didn't know. We thought we were going to be the first guys. Didn't work out that way.
Is it good to know that Cloverfield made it cool to do the first person perspective, handheld camera sort of document style?
GR: I don't know. I can't think of it that way. Is it good to know? I don't know if it's good or not. I don't know. I think there's a collective subconscious and I think that that's where these films are coming from. All the world's a camera now and it seems like it's a reasonable way to do things. Maybe reality TV has turned into reality movies. I don't know. It seems an obvious way to go now, even though I thought when we first started to work on this and I first did the script, I thought it was a clever way to go, never seeing that there's probably going to be a lot of people thinking the same way. It happens so often. There is a collective subconscious out there. So I'm happy with my film. I haven't seen Cloverfield. I know what it's about of course but I almost don't care. I'm happy with what we did.
George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead
The big difference is that the characters in your film are filmmakers, so it's a filmmaker's aesthetic. The point of Cloverfield was it was untrained people doing the best they could.
GR: Well, there is [a filmmaker's aesthetic] and we were sort of aware of that. We left the film alone. We said, "We'll shoot the principal action and then we can finish it later. Then we can throw anything in there, because these kids are going to finish this film and do a presentation, the best presentation that they can." So we said we can do the same thing and we did. We left all the narration, all the newscaster voices, all that shit came later in post. That was the great thing about having control over it because we could just sit around and bulls**t and try things on for size, until we finally came up with what we thought was a good, appropriate set of tracks for it. It was great to just have the freedom and not have somebody breathing over your shoulder.
How did you get Jason's reflection in the monitors?
GR: He had to shoot it. Obviously he had to shoot it himself, but it was like a Madden football play. The DP was shooting it up to a point and right before Joshua Close went in front of the mirror, sort of handed off the camera and Joshua took it and shot that shot.
How did you find the cast of unknowns?
GR: Auditions. Completely auditions. One of them I knew from Stratford, a Shakespeare company in Ontario. One of them was actually in a film that we had done. Shawn Roberts is in Land of the Dead in a very small role, the first guy that dies in Land. I just loved him, he was great to work with and we said, "Let's go with Shawn." We talked about giving him the same name but then we thought, "Well, maybe that's too much of a connection." He's there. Other than that, it was all auditions. Lots of auditions.
Now that you've done these quickly, can we expect another one quickly? Will we have to wait 20 years?
GR: It beats the s**t out of me. 20 years, I won't be around, so you don't have to worry about that. Maybe I'll come back. No, man, I don't know. There's a hell of a lot of talk about a sequel and shooting quickly, maybe this coming summer even. You just never know. Maybe that'll be a reality. If it happens, it'll be the first time I've ever done a direct sequel: take the same characters, take the same situation and move it on from there, move it to the next square. There's a lot more that I'd like to say about this emerging media. We'll see.