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George A Romero Talks Gothic

As Winter storms rage and roar, what could be better than snuggling up in a darkened cinema with some old school horror movies? Luckily, this January, the British Film Institute will be continuing it’s epic 150-title Gothic Season – with a selection of films guaranteed to chill the bone as thoroughly as any Polar Vortex. To celebrate the Season’s launch, FilmJuice’s Christa Ktorides was at London’s BFI last December to chat to director-producer George A Romero – of Night Of The Living Dead fame – about his own contribution to the Gothic genre…

Why do you think people are so fascinated still with the horror genre?
Oh boy, that’s really a tough question. I don’t know why people are drawn to it in the first place, although it’s perhaps only a certain type of person, I think, who IS drawn to it … Some people like rollercoasters, some people like horseradish…

At the moment, just about every second horror film being made is a zombie film…

Why do you think that zombies have become so popular?
I think it’s [because of] video games, not movies … There’s dozens and dozens of video games out there that are apparently pretty good games! [So] all of a sudden it became viable to Hollywood. Really the first movie to break $100 million at the box office was Zombieland, and that’s recent. I think prior to that, the remake of Dawn Of The Dead did about $75 million. So that sort of started Hollywood taking notice.

What’s the best horror film you’ve seen in the past few years and what sort of horror do you personally like to watch?
I don’t know. I’d have a hard time picking one out that I’d really admire. I haven’t seen The Descent, but I hear is pretty good. I liked Let The Right One In but I don’t know if you can strictly call it horror. I don’t know ….

What about the films of, say, Del Toro?
He’s been doing this big splashy stuff … can you call Pan’s Labyrinth horror? It’s fantasy. I love Guillermo, I love his work – although I wasn’t a big fan of Pacific Rim. Sorry!

When you started out, you really became famous for having a message, a political message, in each film – particularly the first three – the Trilogy Of The Dead. Do you feel like that’s lacking now? Are we just not getting that kind of message in horror movies any more
I think it always has been lacking. I sort of start … try to map out a story around what I think I want to talk about. But very often it’s not there. Even in the classic horror stuff. Sometimes, of course, you can’t see it, or it’s not obvious, you know? Everyone talks about Gravity as if it’s fraught with meaning – I didn’t see it. I think very often that’s really what people are looking to do. Is there politics in Evil Dead?

Do you think it’s important for new audiences to see your films on the big screen?
It is a different experience and very often you see things differently [on a big screen]. For example, my wife, just a couple weeks ago, went to a screening of the scores from Creepshow and Day Of The Dead that were written by John Harrison. As part of this they had these screenings on one of the Los Angeles big screens Sue, who had only seen it on TV, said, “Wow it’s so much better!” I dunno; she may have just gotten used to me and to the line of work that I do, but I always say that my answer to that is that I don’t require it at all.
You never make a movie on a screen that size. We never see it that big when we mix it. We always have to extrapolate. We always have to figure what it’s going to look like big. But it’s in your mind until the first time you actually project it. ‘Cause, you know, no one actually projects anymore. Everyone watches dailies on the small screen. And it’s too expensive to get something projected. Too expensive to even have them printed so you can project them!

Why do you think that anthology films like Creepshow and Trick ‘r Trick don’t work?
[I think] there’s a prejudice among producers and certainly among Hollywood studios -they just don’t want to do it. They think it’s impossible to invest in characters in a short story form. They’re also afraid, “Oh you’re going to make five films? Come on.” Five different sets, and five different sets of sets. Everything sort of mushrooms that way. I think there are practical reasons for them to say it doesn’t work. Convenient reasons for them to say it doesn’t work.
There’s this prejudice in it, and you can’t really sell it at all. It became a device for television, you know? Probably because of anthology TV shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. But [short stories] are a great format for horror. I mean, you know, it’s like “The Monkey’s Paw”, right?

How did you end up working on the Empire Of The Dead comic book series?
Well I’m sort of running away from having to try and sell a zombie movie that costs less than $200 million with the greatest special effects ever seen.  I’ve just retreated. To do a comic book, is very much the same process. It’s working with an artist instead of a DP [Director of Photography], and neither of us has to worry about budget at all. Anything can go! 
It’s for Marvel, but they’re letting me write it absolutely in screenplay form. So I will come out with a screenplay. It’ll to be too long to shoot, and I doubt it’ll be a TV series, ’cause it’s 15 books. But I’m enjoying it, and I’m hoping the zombie craze will die down a little bit, you know? Although every year, at the zombie walk in Toronto, there’s at least a thousand more people every year.

What did you think of World War Z?
Well [the author of the book] Max Brooks is a good friend of ours (laughs) and that’s saying enough. Yeah, I didn’t like it. I just thought it was not at all like what the book was trying to do. I didn’t like it at all when I first saw it, but then we went to see Man Of Steel and World War Z looked quite good! (Chuckles.)

Do you think films and TV lost something when they stopped using practical effects?
I think you do, definitely, but it’s sort of the same thing that was lost when we lost stop-motion animation. Bit of charm lost. But also, the interaction of blood. Blood splats on a table when it interacts. It acts just the way you want it to. But computer graphics (CG) are the saving grace for low-budget films. When we did Diary and Survival, Diary [had a budget of] only a little over two million. Survival was a little over three. We had no time. The only way you can make it work on that kind of budget is to cut your schedule, and CG enables you to do that. If a squib doesn’t work, you gotta take 40 minutes or half an hour to clean it up. Whereas, you know, this guy points a gun, that guy falls down, you paint in the gun flash. There’s no chance of the gun not working, no chance of the squib not working and you’re out of it. And there are just some things that you just can’t do. There’s a scene in Diary Of The Dead where somebody throws acid on a zombie and you gradually, over the course of 40 seconds or so, you see it eating into his brain. And he’s still walking around until it goes too deep. It’s lovely to see it happen, and the only way to make it happen was with CG. So there are instances when that’s the only way you can do it. But, I think it’s just WAY overused … it’s just getting ridiculous.

How did you feel about Shaun Of The Dead, which was a clear homage to you …? Oh it was! I love those guys. They’re great guys and have become pals. They’re terrific. They sent me a copy of it when Universal first picked up the film. They got my address, I was living in Florida at the time, and they sent a representative from Universal handcuffed to the film [laughs]. He looked like he was carrying a Presidential nuke! I sat by myself and watched this movie and I was just cracking up. The Universal rep was in the back you know? Stone faced all the way. But I just loved it and I called them right away and we’ve been friends ever since.

The zombie genre feels particularly American, there aren’t a lot of British efforts. Can we call 28 Days Later one?
Well they’re not dead – they’re infected with a virus. Same with Zombieland. When they’re dead and they run..WRONG!

So the re-make of Dawn of The Dead with the running zombies must’ve hurt?
Not only did they run but they undercranked the cameras and they ran even faster! Give me a break! It’s the same with World War Z, they looked a bit like army ants. All I could think of was Naked Jungle! [laughs] Urgh. I don’t get it. Actually I think [Guillermo] del Toro started this trend of fast moving … They weren’t zombies, they were vampires in Blade 2. They were like insects all over the walls and I think that maybe somebody decided that’s the only way to do monsters now. Make ’em move fast. I think the ponderous thing coming after you like The Mummy, that’s what I grew up on, you can’t stop it. There’s a little bit of that in the first The Thing. It’s inexorable. It’s coming to get you [laughs]. “They’re coming to get you Barbara!”

You’ve done six Dead films. Do you have any inclination to do a seventh?
Oh yeah. Definitely. I thought that if Survival was a success … I tried to sell them the idea of shooting two back to back because I thought that they were different enough. Survival was a Western basically and I wanted to do one noir; black and white and do it in a Bogart style. As an expression of my love for those genres but also I thought that it would be fun and creepy and I’d love to get back to black and white. I would love to still do it but I’m afraid if I tell them I could do this inexpensively they’ll automatically say, “No we don’t want it to be inexpensive.” That’s what happened with Land of The Dead!

The beauty of the Dead series is that they’ve all been different. You’ve never repeated yourself …
I hope so. That’s what I try to do. I think that partly that’s why audiences stay away (laughs)! They discover it in later years on video. I keep saying, “Why didn’t you come out the first time?!”

The BFI’s Gothic Season runs until 31st January 2013.

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