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Turn me on, "Dead" man

Before George Romero, (with a nod towards Richard Matheson’s  1954 sci-fi novel “I Am Legend”) zombies were just bit (no pun intended) players in the horror genre, inert, usually voodooized automatons that with few exceptions (i.e, Jaques Tourneur’s “I Walked With a Zombie”(1943), scheduled for a 2009 remake left little impression. George Romero made them an icon, indeed, an industry. He also showed the potential of graphic gore. So you might say he’s responsible for about 90% of the horror industry since 1968 when he made his debut, “Night of the Living Dead.”

Not that he’s profited much by it. Though hundreds of millions or more have been made on films inspired by if not directly imitative of his work (including remakes of all of his “Dead” movies to date), he has yet to make a big killing from the property. Maybe it’s because he has too much respect for the dead. Each of his “Dead” films aspires to social commentary, even philosophical profundity. His latest, “Diary of the Dead,” is no exception, commenting on a voyeuristic, solipsistic culture of self-devouring media.
Well, let him explain it. I talked with him on the phone last week. As usually happens, I was starting to warm up to some of what I thought were the more interesting questions (Did he think his own films could be responsible for the current fad of torture porn? What would he do if he were indeed president, as a cult T-shirt suggests? What’s his cat’s name?) when unseen powers cut me dead.
PK: Did you ever have any idea years ago when you made “Night of the Living Dead" that this concept would catch on as it did?
GR: Absolutely not, no, not at all. I was amazed even when the first film…You know it was a little film we made in Pittsburgh, a bunch of young people, that, you know, we had a commercial production company, doing beer commercials and industrial films and the like. So we had the equipment and lights and camera and so we tried to make a movie. All the sudden it went out, became a movie, it was “Night of the Living Dead.” Not all of a sudden actually. Initially, you know, it went to drive-ins and neighborhood theaters for 6 months and then it was gone. We thought that was the end of it. It did return some money, and we were working on our third film before the French discovered it and brought it back from the dead. I resisted doing another one for years until I had another idea. I mean there was such high-minded talk about how it was such a political film and I was very reluctant to try to tackle another one until I had an idea that was interesting enough, something I wanted to tackle.
PK: Were you worried also, you didn’t want to get stuck in the rut of making the same movie all over again?
GR: Yeah, I wasn’t so much worried about being stuck in a rut. I love the genre, I grew up on EC comic books and I love doing it. I had this conceit that it would have to be about something, have at least some social satire. It wasn’t until I socially knew some people developing this indoor shopping mall around Pittsburgh, that was the first temple to consumerism in the area. That’s what gave me the inspiration to do the second film. All of them have been motivated about what’s going on in the world, rather than, oh I gotta make another zombie movie.
PK: It seems like every incarnation confronts some kind of topical issue of the time. How would you describe the issue that is behind "Diary of the Dead?"
GR: I just was starting to get concerned, noticing this media explosion, alternate media, the blogosphere and all that, and it just occurred to me that there’s some dangers lying here potentially hidden. It just really struck me that this was what was going on in the world now, everyone’s a camera, everyone’s a reporter, and people seem to be obsessed by it. And you know that tube has a sort of power, and people believe and buy in to what they heard. People that tune in to Rush Limbaugh already know what he’s going to say and already agree with him. A lot of these blogs that are going up, the people that subscribe to them are already believers and it strikes me as creating new tribes. It seems to me any lunatic could get on there and suddenly have a following. I’ve joked about it, if Jim Jones had a blog, we’d have millions of people drinking kool-aid. Or if Hitler was around, we wouldn’t have to go into the town sPKuare; he could just put up a blog. If it sounds at all reasonable to enough people, all the sudden you have all these followers.te —
PK: There seems to be a conflict between the legitimate media  — which you have in the background of all the Dead movies, the TV and radio, which are giving reports and getting more despera and then you have the blogosphere or the Internet. Your feelings about both seem to be ambivalent. Can you talk about that?
GR: A bit. The character in the film is obsessed with what he’s doing, so obsessed he forgets about his own survival. I find that the line in the film, if we see a terrible accident we don’t stop to help, we stop to look. I’m not ambivalent to that. Maybe he started out well-intentioned but forgetting about your own survival, it’s a bit too late to be helpful in that way. It strikes that everyone is just out there looking for a shot. People are invited too. The set of tornadoes, last night on CNN, they’re saying, be careful, but if you can get a good shot, send it in.
PK: They don’t want to get paid for it, they just want the notoriety.
GR: Yes, it’s a kind of graffiti. I think this whole blogosphere is a kind of graffiti. It’s impersonal, identity, some sort of quest for personal identity. The problem is all the sudden people jump on it and a lot of people are listening to you.
PK: On the other hand, it’s suggested, at least by the Jason character, that the legitimate media is covering things up. It presents the blogosphere as an alternative way of getting to the truth, and that’s his purpose for doing what he’s doing.
GR:Yeah, but that’s what’s happening, right? In the world, there used to be three networks, and everything I’m sure was being controlled and spun. And now there’s all this freedom but now there’s no management and it’s not even all information, a lot of it is opinion, viewpoint and I don’t know, which is worse, I certainly don’t have any solution. It strikes me as being one great big muddle. I don’t know if people are ready for it. People should take the responsibility to dig into things a little bit but they’re very happy to keep on dancing and have a beer and listen to what someone has to say on that tube. And follow along, instead of doing any real investigation, or digging, or finding out about the issues.
PK: So you think it’s a culture of hedonistic voyeurs with a short attention span?
GR: Yeah, I think so, for sure. And a perfect willingness to follow whoever stands up and takes the reins.
PK: So it’s even more pessimistic than “Land of the Dead” where there’s a sense of proletariat uprisings. Are you more pessimistic now than when you made that movie?
GR: I don’t know if it’s pessimism. I think all of my zombie films are just sort of snapshots of the time they were made; I don’t expect them to be much more than that. I guess I have launched some criticism of the way certain things are done, the government, some institutions, but they’re really just snapshots of what’s going on. And it does strike me as a mess, the whole world just seems to keep chasing it’s tail and eating itself up by its tail.
PK: I read somewhere that you said the whole Dead series could be seen as a secret history of the country for the past four decades.
GR: Yeah, not so secret. If there’s anything that I feel sort of proud of, it’s that I’ve been able to take genre stuff and still sort of express myself a little bit. We do these little snapshots of the era, and I try to do it stylistically with the films as well, I try to make them look like films of that time. And so this one fell right into place that way. The subjective camera and everything. It’s part of the collective subconscious these days, everyone seems to be doing it— “Redacted,” “Cloverfield,”  “Vantage Point.” I think there are several others as well.
PK: You must be a little irritated by “Cloverfield.” You had the idea first, do you feel like they’re usurping your notion?
GR: You know it was surprising, that someone else was doing it, I didn’t think it would necessarily hurt us. I mean that’s a big film, I have this niche, we’re not competing against that, the 4000 screen blockbusters. Again, it’s a smaller film. My fans, and those interested in stuff I’m doing, will hopefully go out and see it. But you know, I’ve never felt competitive with the big Hollywood stuff.
PK: This one was a real return to your independent roots.
GR: I wasn’t frustrated during the making of “Land of the Dead,” I just saw it getting too big, approaching “Thunderdome.” It had lost touch with its roots. Its roots were us in the ‘Burgh, making a little film. So the characters in this film remind me of us, so there was a certain sort of nostalgia, going back and doing that. But it was also great, working on a low-budget, we only used as much money as we absolutely needed. And I was able to make the film I absolutely wanted to make. Luckily, thanks to the Weinstein company, they thought it would get distributed. Initially, I was ready to knock on doors and try to raise a quarter of a million and shoot this at a film school way under the radar and then the people at Artfire saw the script and they said, let’s do it union, and get a theatrical release. Because of the amount of money involved they gave me the same freedom.
PK: What was the budget?
GR: Under 4.
PK: You sort of set it up for a sequel at the end, it looked like.
GR: I mean, not intentionally, maybe there’s going to be, since “Night of the Living Dead” all have been set up for sequels with survivors but I’ve never done a direct sequel from one to the other. In this case, if it happens, it will be quickly, it probably will be that, continuing on with the same characters. There’s a lot more I could say about the emerging media, a lot I didn’t get into. You just never know.
PK: It also draws on the first person shooter games. You get the sense you’re going into all these situations where you have to confront them, except with a camera and not a gun —
GR: That’s part of it, too. There are times when he’s shooting, particularly in the end, why don’t you just help him? But he’s completely lost in it, to his own downfall.
PK: What do you think of all the remakes that have sprung up over the past decades of your films? All of the Dead films have been remade.
GR: That doesn’t give me joy, but I really don’t care, I don’t have regret. My films are my films. If they want to remake them, that’s fine. I’ve been in interviews with people quoting remakes to me.
PK: Do you get any money from it?
GR: No, not involved at all. In “Dawn of the Dead,” I have a piece of the action there, but it never brings in anything substantial.
PK: You know in the DVD version of that, one of the extras is a video diary of one the survivors. Have you seen that?
[Interrupting publicist]: Sorry! We’ve got to stop now. We’re out of time.
PK: What? We’re done?
GR: I’m sorry, I could talk all day…
IP: We’ve got a crazy schedule.
PK: Okay. Thanks.

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