George Romero stands tall in the VIP Suite at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport, his long grey hair pulled back in a ponytail, his head leaning forward to look over the rims of his large black-rimmed glasses, and a small group of adoring fans standing casually around him.
A young man with a mohawk animatedly tells him about how Romeros business partner once gave him grief over requesting an autograph on his copy of “Night of the Living Dead.” Turns out the video, which he received when he was just 8 years old, was a bootleg. Romero smiles and they all have a carefree laugh at the story.
Romero was the guest of honor at Haunt X this past weekend in Los Angeles, and one thing I noticed observing him at the party, the two Q&A panels and the autograph table, was how quickly and easily he smiled, showing off his dimples. He seemed a man at peace with his life. Maybe thats because hes going back to his filmmaking roots with his current project, “Diary of the Dead.”
“It goes back to the first night when the dead arose,” he told a room full of convention attendees. “It’s very small and I have complete control over it.”
The project is an effort to re-establish copyright over his work – “Night of the Living Dead” is now public domain due to a mistake made when the title was changed from its original “Night of the Flesh Eaters.” His partner controls the rights to “Day of the Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead,” and Universal Studios controls “Land of the Dead.”
“It is very character driven,” he said. “It is much more like the original film.”
The story follows some film school kids working on a class project when the fateful night begins. “They are shooting film when it all happens.” He likened it to “The Blair Witch Project,” only more scripted. “Its theatrically staged.”
“Diary,” which is now in the can with re-dubbing sound work in progress, is independently financed and already has European distribution deals in the works. However, Romero doesnt know when it will be released in North America. Theyre still working on getting a North American distributor.
Someone in the audience raises his hand. “What do you think about Shawn of the Dead?” Romero laughs as he points out the red “Shawn of the Dead” button on his olive-colored fishing vest. “I love it!”
Someone else asks, “Why do the dead come back?”
“Why does it matter?”
He went on to explain that they left the part about the downed Venus probe in the movie because of production value. They had gone out of their way to shoot those scenes in Washington, D.C. and didnt want to waste the effort. There were other scenes with people speculating that were cut. “I think of it as God changed the rules.”
Why zombies? “I never thought of them as zombies in the classic sense,” he said. “They were ghouls, flesh eaters.” He got the idea for the script from Richard Mathesons classic novel, “I Am Legend,” which has been made into a couple of films, including “The Omega Man” starring Charlton Heston. “I basically knocked it off,” he said. Where Matheson used vampires, he used flesh eaters.
“Horror grows out of frustration and anger,” Romero says. “It breeds these kinds of ideas.”
He uses zombies to take a sort of snapshot of what is going on in the world at the time, socio-politically. “Its my gimmick.”
He said “Diary” is his commentary on the media. “It talks a lot about the explosion of things like the Internet and YouTube,” he said. “I have a lot of strong feelings about that.”
What makes royalties very complicated these days are all the new markets. “It started with video.” These days, everyone is fighting over the rights of alternative media, he said, such as cell phones, YouTube, etc. “But no one knows what that market will be like.”
He added that half of what you find on the Internet is bullshit; the other half has some truth. “You talk about a project in a coffee shop one day and the next day its on the net.”
I asked him about something I had read – that a “Mister Rogers” episode featuring a tonsillectomy was what inspired him to pursue horror. He laughed.
“They misquoted me,” he replied. “I did a lot of the Picture, Picture” segments for ‘Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.’ One was the tonsillectomy. What I said, probably, was that it was the scariest thing I had filmed.”
Romeros favorite “Dead” film is “Day of the Dead.” “Its not so much about it being a better film,” he said. Rather, “its often about the experience of making the film.”
Does he plan to do something for Showtime’s “Masters of Horror”?
“I havent because of lack of time,” he said. Theyve sent him scripts to direct, but he doesnt want to do the show unless he can direct one of his own scripts, he added.
He said hed love to do a video game, but none have come about. “I dont know anything about the gaming aspect, but Id love to write the premise.”
Romero thinks that film editors should get royalties because they can make or break a movie. “A lot of good performances are ruined by bad editing,” he said. “I always encourage editors, but they seem reluctant to offer their opinion.” He added, “You can be very easily fooled by your own work. Im always open to opinion.”
Making a movie is a collaborative effort. “Being an auteur is having a vision, knowing where you want to go, and nothing about the craft of it,” he said. “That requires everyones talent, from gaffer to editor. It really should be a collaborative medium.”
Romero has done most of his films on a small budget, and when asked what he would do if money was not an obstacle, he said he couldnt imagine what that would be like because he would be a different person by then.
“Its disheartening that its easier to get money for a remake than for an original idea,” he said. “Its frustrating.” He feels that it is better for everyone, the audience and director included, to work on low-budget films. It forces you to make a tighter story. It also frees you to pursue your own vision. “The way to freedom, in my opinion, is under the radar with less money.”
Carma Spence-Pothitt is a special assignment reporter for Airlock Alpha and Rabid Doll.
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