Interview: George A. Romero on Blood, Digital, and ‘Survival’

By  · Published on June 4th, 2010

George A. Romero has another addition to his Dead series currently in theaters and it’s one to search out. Survival of the Dead is another solid addition to the man’s filmography. If you’re a fan of his work that’s tonally more similar to Day of the Dead, then you’ll enjoy Survival.

This is his most obvious zombie western to date, and I had plenty of time with Romero to discuss it, along with digital filmmaking, practical effects, and more.

When I talked to you a few weeks back you spoke briefly about the troubles of getting financing, but did the success of Diary of the Dead make it easier for you?

Well, we were working with the same group, so it certainly made it easier. That makes it automatically easier. The same people were willing to gamble again on us, give us creative control and give me final cut. They’re great partners and really good people. Hopefully we’ll do more together and I think we will.

Before Diary though and after Land of the Dead came out, were you having trouble?

After Land of the Dead, no. That’s actually exactly when we met these people. I had that idea of doing Diary of the Dead even before Land. I wanted to do something about emerging media and citizen journalism. I had the idea and they stepped up to the plate. I met them right away so I hadn’t really had financing problems, but I think what I meant or was talking about was that, at my age, I don’t want to go out to Hollywood pitching something for a year and a half, having people wanting to screw with it and then at the end have it not happen.

I don’t have the time to mess around with stuff like that anymore. It’s tough. You never get a platinum card out there. It’s always project by project. Everyone wants to know what’s the hook of a story and all those behind-the-scenes horror stories you hear are usually true.

Didn’t you have a good experience on Land though? I mean, that was a pretty sizable studio movie for you.

On Land I did. In the end, I had a great time. The thing is that we had an independent producer who was a very powerful guy. He actually used to be president of Universal and he was the one who actually bought the project originally, not Universal. Once Universal got involved I was really worried, because I have had really bad experiences with the studio that did Dark Half. When Universal first got involved I freaked out. At first, I thought it was just going to be that producer who initially picked it up.

It became the big elephant in the room.

Yeah, man. They gave us notes right away upfront within the first two weeks. It was mostly about making sure it was R-rated and they had a few story concerns that were easily dealt with. After that, they completely left me alone. I don’t know if it was just our producer Mark keeping the wolf away from the door, but they really let me make the movie I wanted to make.

Now, there were restraints because of the budget. There was money that was spent that I wouldn’t have spent. It wounded up being in the mid-twenty range, which was the biggest budget I had ever had for a zombie film. If I had the control of over how to spend that money I wouldn’t have spent half of it on stars, entertainment, catering and all of that. I would’ve put more of it on the screen and bought more days to shoot. Those are the constraints that comes automatically when it comes to making a studio picture.

You’ve talked about how certain people labeled that film as “selling out,” but it sounds like the opposite.

I didn’t have final cut or anything, but it turned out okay. The way the film turned out was pretty much the way I cut it based on what we had shot. They didn’t make me change anything and they didn’t even make us show it to preview audiences to fuck around with it and all of that stuff. I think it’s pretty good. I know that I have fans out there who think it’s too Hollywood. This isn’t the complete case, but what I’m seeing is that people who really liked Land hated Diary and people who hated Land loved Diary.

They like this one even more because it’s sillier and a little closer to what Dawn of the Dead was. What I always say to those people is that they’re interfering with me more than the studios do! They want me to make the same movie over and over again. It’s this odd television mentality. They wanna watch CSI every week and it’s the same goddamn show. It’s important to me to make these things different and as different as possible. It’s also about finding different ways to make it different.

You seemed to change things up early on in your career. Night of the Living Dead was a bleak horror movie and then you, sort of, transitioned went the fun horror route. What made you wanna get out of that darker territory?

You know, when we made Night of the Living Dead I thought we were just making a movie and that would be the end of it. I wasn’t even thinking about zombie rules. In that movie they were eating insects and now people look at this and say, “Oh shit, they’re eating a horse!” They act like it’s totally new and it isn’t at all. I really didn’t have any rules. I didn’t start to think about that stuff until Dawn of the Dead. After that, I thought I had to find some rules to stick with and live with for a number of years. I think if I made Night of the Living Dead a little frostier and lighter it wouldn’t have been “Night of the Living Dead.” In a certain sense I’m lucky that way. When I got to Dawn of the Dead I went back to the old comics I read and I thought I had to make it more fun. I had to lighten the load a bit and just go back to the shit I grew up on which were comic books. It was Tales from the Crypt and all that stuff.

Could you compare what it was like working back then with no preconceived notions or rules about zombies as opposed to today? Do you feel tied down to them at all?

Well, not expressly. A lot of people have different ideas about what zombies can do. Like, how there’s fast zombies and slow zombies. There’s actually debates about this type of shit and I think it’s hokey (laughs). I think what happened was video games and comic books. Video games more so because they made zombies fast. They made it this thing where it’s all about hand eye coordination with the whole “bring them in as quickly as possible and see how many you can kill!” With that it ends up becoming more of an action movie.

A lot of people have obviously been calling Survival of the Dead your Western, and it is, but this really harkens back to some of your 80s work, like Day of the Dead.

I think Day of the Dead was also influenced the same way that this film was with The Big Country. This film is completely influenced by that. Stylistically, when we made Day of the Dead I was in that mindset. The films that I was digging were stylistically done that way. I think that’s maybe the resemblance you’re connecting to.

When it comes to blood, there’s some practical, but there’s also a good amount of digital used. Was that a stylistic choice or was it to save time?

Oh, yeah. Completely. The most expensive time spent is when you’re on set. I would love to do all practical effects, but there’s just some shit you can’t pull of. You can’t pull off the fire extinguisher gag practically. Some of that stuff CG enables you to do it. When it comes to the squib work and gun work it’s a lot of time. If a gun doesn’t go off right it takes twenty minutes to redo it. If the squib goes bad you gotta clean it up, take it off the walls, and reapply the squibs. That’s another thirty to forty minutes of time. It’s much easier to have one actor point the gun and just having the zombie fall down. You paint in the flash, you paint in the splat and that just enables you to get off the set faster. Whenever possible we used real squibs. You can tell the difference and it’s more interactive. You see the dust flying and it feels more well.

We tried to mix it up too, even in the editing. We’d do a couple of low ball ones and a few more that are a bit more solid. Sometimes, you just can’t control that stuff.

You’ve also gone into digital filmmaking now with both Survival and Diary. Why’d you make the change?

We shot this and Diary digitally. Land of the Dead was the last film I shot on film. I love it, man. What I love about the RED is that the resolution is unbelievable. You can blow the shots up and they go to fifty percent without losing integrity. Also, you can just fuck with it so much. It’s like having a dark room. I used to love being able to dodge it, change it, put shadows into it and all that stuff. Now, you can do that again with digital. In the old days, with film, you couldn’t: you have a frame and a shot. With film, all you can do is dissect a shot one way or another, unless you wanna buy fancy optical work or you’d have to use CG anyway. You’d have to use CG if you wanted to mess with it in any serious way. It’s also another time-saving thing. If I want to light a room I can light it completely black and put the shadows in later. There’s incredible flexibility in digital.

Do you think you’ll go back to film?

I love to shoot film. I love to edit film and I just love the whole process. You can’t even do that anymore though, man. All the flash heads are gone. They’re probably in somebody’s junkyard.

If you actually ended up getting to make a film in black and white like you want to- which is a difficult thing to get made now – would you shoot it with film or go with digital?

No, I’d wanna use the RED. No one will ever let me shoot a film in black and white anyway, though. I think I’d have an incredibly hard time convincing them to do let me do that, even if I had creative control. What I could do is what Darabont did with The Mist: how he shot it in color and then converted it into black and white later. With the RED the images are so great, the blacks are so solid, and you could really make a beautiful black and white image from it. I think I’d shoot with the Red again. If they won’t let me shoot it that way, then I’d convert it. I mentioned how I wanna do those other two films and I’d like to do one as a noir. One of my story ideas about those African-American National Guard guys would be them taking over an apartment building, and having the whole film take place in that building. Do it in an old building with steel elevator cages and all of that shit. I think that would be fabulous if I could do it with a real noir feeling.

You’re also about to do a 3D film for the first time. Is that true?

I don’t know. Do you mean the Deep Red thing?

Yeah. That’s not just a rumor, is it?

It’s not a rumor. I’ve been talking to Dario Argento’s brother Claudio about this and he sent me the script they have for it. I haven’t spoken to Dario about it yet and I haven’t signed a deal yet. They really jumped the gun on that. I know they were at Cannes selling it and it got all out on the media. There is no deal. If Dario doesn’t want it to happen, then I won’t do it.

Before I wrap up, I definitely want to ask about your original script for Day of the Dead. You’ve said before it was much more elaborate. What changes were made?

It was just much bigger, but I don’t think it changed the tone of the film. The film that we wound up making was in someways stronger. That script was just bigger. There was an aboveground instillation that they did the same sort of experimentations with the zombies on. There was also a motor boat chase scene. What happened was that film would’ve cost between six to seven million. That’s what it was when we budgeted it, but the company that was financing it wanted it to be Unrated. They thought it would be better if they released it Unrated, but there were economic restrictions when releasing a film without a rating. Because of that they didn’t want to spend more than three million dollars. I ended up sitting down and just writing a smaller version of basically what was the same story.

Well, thanks again so much for your time, Mr. Romero.

Thank you, man. One of these times we’re going to have to get together for a beer.

Survival of the Dead is currently available on Video On Demand, Amazon and is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.