Unpretentious, enthusiastic and still proudly waving his freak flag after four decades in the business, George Romero spoke in a recent phone interview about the joys of independent filmmaking and the origins of his career.
Creative Loafing: Can it be true that your first directing gig was on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood?
George Romero: Oh, yeah, anyone who worked in production in Pittsburgh started out with Fred Rogers.
Any dirt there?
Not at all. Fred was a great guy, wonderful and supportive to everyone. He was genuine in everything he did. I don't know how, but he always retained a child's sense of wonder. That's why the show worked so perfectly.
So how did you go from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to Night of the Living Dead?
It's all in the realm of fantasy, so it was a natural enough progression. I wanted to make a statement about the crazy times we were living in, and because my group didn't have any money, and up to that point had only made a few commercials along with the Mister Rogers show, we figured we could pull off a horror movie because expectations would be low. Remember, it was the late '60s, we were young and angry, we wanted to change the world. Plus, we were going to push the envelope in the horror genre with zombies like nobody had ever seen before. We didn't hold back on the very graphic horror, or the very pointed social commentary. Somehow the two parts worked well together.
Although you've said that fans can read a bit too much into your work.
Ha, yes, like the fact I chose an African-American lead for Night of the Living Dead. I've said over the years, sorry, guys, this wasn't a commentary on racism. It was more a budgetary thing. It just came down to Duane Jones being the best actor in our group.
In the various entries in your Dead series over the last 40 years, you've satirized government corruption, consumerism, abuse of power in the military, class warfare and other social themes. What are the targets in your upcoming film, Island of the Dead? [Note: Although the new movie hasn't been officially named yet, this is what it's being called by Internet film fans.]
As always, zombies provide the metaphor for a certain mindset. This new movie is about the kind of tribal mentality that leads to extreme violence around the globe. Two families are living on an island together, and it should be an idyllic place where everyone is safe. But war breaks out because the characters give into their baser instincts, and allow the desire for power to take over. It's a continuation of a theme I've been exploring for a long time now.
Any missed opportunities in your career?
Stephen King and I first met in the late '70s and really wanted to work together. He asked me to take a crack at directing his novel The Stand. But we finally arrived at the conclusion that the story is just too epic and massive for a feature film [it was later made by another party as a TV miniseries]. We did end up making Creepshow (1982), which was a blast, and we've remained close.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
Well, you have to make films! Really, there's no magic formula. Technology gives you the ability to shoot higher-quality stuff than I ever did when I was starting out. I tell kids to enroll in film school, or get your friends together and make the films you want to make. We didn't totally know what we were doing in the 'burg in the '60s, but we shared a belief and we made it happen. Look, I'm not some fierce indie film guy; my independence is very practical. The easiest way to have creative control is to look for independent money and produce the movie that's in your head. John Waters has done it that way, too. Look at us, we started out making movies with our little band of crazies in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, of all places. About as far from Hollywood as you can get.
Speaking of Hollywood, what's your take on how things have changed over the decades?
Believe it or not, I mourn the death of real feeling and even sentimentality in Hollywood movies. Things are more and more calculated these days; the rough edges are filed down. It's hard to make a movie with heart because heart has a tough time getting through a committee. Even 40 years ago, imagine me going to Hollywood to tell some producers I have an idea for a movie about flesh-eating zombies, but it's funny in a really dark way, and it makes digs at society and the government. And oh, yeah, it's going to be a big hit! I can just see their faces now.
When did you realize you'd made it as a filmmaker?
Honestly, I'm still waiting. You never stop learning your craft, improving, fine-tuning.
You're a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. What are you liking for this year's Best Picture?
Slumdog Millionaire. That's a rare contemporary film with heart.
As a gonzo horror movie maverick, what's the most surprising fact about you?
Well ... I love to play Scrabble.