Q & A with Writer-Director George A. Romero

“Survival of the Dead” writer-director George A. Romero

“Survival of the Dead” writer-director George A. Romero

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-director George A. Romero about his zombie thriller “Survival of the Dead,” opening May 28 in New York and Los Angeles via Magnolia Pictures.

Written and directed by George A. Romero, “Survival of the Dead” is from Artfire Films, Romero-Grunwald Productions and Devonshire Productions. Produced by Paula Devonshire, it was executive produced by George A. Romero, Peter Grunwald, Artur Spigel, Ara Katz, Dan Fireman, Patrice Theroux, D.J. Carson And Michael Doherty. Starring are Alan Van Sprang, Kathleen Munroe, Kenneth Welsh, Athena Karkanis and Devon Bostick.

The Story (spoiler alert): Immediately following the events of “Diary of the Dead,” “Survival of the Dead” is George A. Romero’s sixth film set in a world where humans are in the minority and zombies rule.

Off the coast of Delaware sits Plum Island where two families have been locked for generations in a struggle for power. The O’Flynns, headed by Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), approach the zombie plague with a shoot-to-kill attitude. The Muldoons, headed by Shamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), believe the zombies should be quarantined and kept ’alive’ in the hope that a solution will someday be found.

The O’Flynns, who are clearly outnumbered, are forced to exile Patrick by boat to the mainland, where he meets up with a band of soldiers, headed by Guardsman Sarge (Alan Van Sprang). They join forces and return to the island, to find that the zombie plague has fully gripped the divided community and the battle between humans and zombies is escalating.

George A. Romero is considered by many to be the father of the modern horror film. His first feature, “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), redefined the genre, not only with its explicit violence, but also with a satirical view of American society that reflected the turmoil of the times.

Known for his intelligence and originality as a filmmaker, and his uncanny ability to scare, Romero made shorts, industrial films and commercials before co-writing, directing, filming and editing “Night of the Living Dead” on a budget of $114,000. A stark parable of the American family consuming itself, the film still has the power to shock and surprise.

Romero solidified his reputation as a master of the genre with “Martin” (1978), a lyrical, deeply disturbing story of a lonely boy convinced he is a vampire; and “Dawn of the Dead” (1979), in which a band of survivors trapped in a shopping mall is beset by zombies and their own personal demons. A powerful action film spiked with Romero’s signature pitch-black wit, “Dawn of the Dead” became one of the most profitable independent productions ever.

“Knightriders” (1981), one of Romero’s personal favorites of his films, is based on Arthurian legend. Ed Harris plays the leader of a troupe that stages medieval fairs with knights jousting on motorcycles instead of horses.

In 1982, Romero made “Creepshow,” a smart and boldly stylized film featuring a script by Stephen King and a cast of well-known actors, including Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook and Leslie Nielsen.

“Day of the Dead,” a progressive and eerily claustrophobic film was released in 1985. In 1988, “Monkey Shines” became Romero’s first studio-produced film and introduced him to Peter Grunwald, with whom he eventually formed Romero-Grunwald Productions. “Two Evil Eyes” (1990), made with Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, comprises two vignettes based on Edgar Allan Poe stories. 1993’s “The Dark Half” starred Tim Hutton in a dual performance. In 2000, Romero made “Bruiser,” a taught, frightening tale of revenge.

Romero’s “Land of the Dead” (2005) was released by Universal Pictures and garnered critical acclaim in addition to becoming one of his most successful films at the box office. “Diary of the Dead” (2007), Romero’s most personal project since “Night of the Living Dead,” marked his return to his independent filmmaking roots and launched a new cycle of zombie films in the genre he invented.

“Survival of the Dead,” the second film in his new cycle, had its world premiere at the 2009 Venice International Film Festival and its North American premiere during Midnight Madness at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.

Q: So we’re back in zombie land for the sixth time.
A: When we made the first one I never thought I’d still be around doing these, but that’s the way it goes. The last two have been lower budgets and sort of back to the roots and I’ve really had a great time doing them, working with good friends. It’s been really nice. I enjoy it.
Q: How did this one come about?
A: The first four zombie films that I did were 10 years apart from each other or more. I had this conceit that they were about different decades. I could talk about different things allegorically. But then I wanted to do something about emerging media, personal journalism and all that, and I thought I had to do it quickly because somebody else was gonna beat me to it. Shortly after “Land of the Dead,” which was the biggest one I ever did — and I didn’t know where to go from there anyway — I came up with this idea to do “Diary of the Dead.”

I said, “Well, we’ll start over on the first night. We’ll do it really low budget, all subjective camera.” And I had a great time doing it. We did it so inexpensively that even though it had a limited release, it wound up making a lot of money. And that’s really the reason this film exists. I’m not used to just saying, “Hurry up and do another one” purely for the commercial interest of it. But I got the idea that if this film does as well as “Diary” and there’s demand for another one, maybe I could do this little set.

I actually have two more script ideas, all using minor characters from “Diary,” and I would wind up with this collage of what the (zombie) world looked like. And then, maybe, I could walk away from this genre once I’ve sort of painted the whole portrait. I’ve never been able to pull anything together (because) the first four films are all owned by different people. So I’ve never been able to do sort of Steve King’s Castle Rock idea and have recurring characters and have a world where the pieces connect. So that fascinates me. We’ll see. It completely depends on how this film does.
Q: How did you start making movies about zombies?
A: You know, in “Night of the Living Dead” I never called them zombies. I never thought of them as zombies. I called them “flesh eaters” or “ghouls.” I just wanted some sort of real game changing event. I had read a Richard Matheson novel called “I Am Legend” and he used vampires. It was about revolution, I thought. Everyone in the world has become a vampire through some contagion and there’s one man left on earth.

I read that and I figured it would be nice to do something that would start on the very first night and watch the collapse of society. Why is this able to take hold? Well, because people aren’t addressing the problem with any intelligence and they’re still trying to carry on and keep their own agendas going. They’re sort of hoisting themselves on their own petards by not believing this is a real game changer. And that’s where the idea came from.
“Survival of the Dead” — in theaters in Los Angeles and New York May 28

“Survival of the Dead” — in theaters in Los Angeles and New York May 28

Q: Who started calling them zombies?
A: I think the French did. (The French film magazine) Cahiers du Cinema might be the first piece written about that film that called them zombies. I’m not certain about that, but that’s when I remember them taking hold.
Q: Did you then start calling them zombies in your next film, “Dawn of the Dead?”
A: We did. We called them zombies in the second film.
Q: You’ve said that “Survival of the Dead” is about more than just killing zombies.
A: On the surface, it’s about these wars that never die. I’m just using the classic Hatfields and McCoys model — a feud that’s never going to end. If you want to look at that and think of it as Ireland or the Middle East or whatever, it’s a little bit about that. But lately, too, it seems like all of North America needs to take an anger management course of some kind. It’s unbelievable. It’s all a topic of conversation just how angry and how rude and uncivilized (we are today). We can’t disagree without being disagreeable, apparently. So there’s a little bit of that in there.
Q: Did it take long for you to write the screenplay?
A: The idea came to me pretty quickly so it didn’t take me very long to write it. The whole thing came together quickly. It was all motivated because "Diary" did so well.
Q: How quickly is quickly?
A: I’d say four or five months from the time I actually sat down at the computer and we got it going. But, you see, we didn’t have to go pitch. We already had the financing. So that shortened the process considerably.
Q: Who financed it?
A: A company called Artfire Films. They did “Diary of the Dead,” as well. Start-up costs are high in any relationship so it’s great to repeat the process with people that you know and trust and get along with.
Q: What kind of budget did you have?
A: I don’t know exactly where it came down. It think it was almost double “Diary” so I would have tell you that I think it’s around $4 million. “Diary” came in between $2.5 million and $3 million. The problem is the conversion to Canada when $4 million in Canada means $6 million (in U.S. dollars). So it’s hard to calculate.
Q: What would you estimate it cost in U.S. dollars?
A: Probably just over $4 million — $4.2 million, something like that.
Q: That’s really not a lot of money to make a movie these days.
A: No, it’s not. It does convert up although the Canadian dollar’s pretty strong these days.
Q: Where did you shoot?
A: Toronto. You wind up suddenly with more money. There are tax incentives. There are rebates for Canadian content. There are all kinds of good reasons to make movies up there. This was a completely Canadian production — an entirely Canadian cast. Even the special effects people were Canadian.
“Survival of the Dead” — in theaters in Los Angeles and New York May 28

“Survival of the Dead” — in theaters in Los Angeles and New York May 28

Q: How long did you shoot?
A: We shot 25 days.
Q: So you had to move pretty quickly.
A: Oh, yeah. You know, it’s dedication. Wonderful crews up there. There’s a tremendous amount of dedication that went into this film. It looks more like $10 million or $15 million.
Q: And clearly there was a lot of preparation on your part that went into it.
A: You try to plan it to within an inch of its life, but then all of a sudden it snows on you!
Q: How do you work so you can make every hour on set count? Do you storyboard or shot list?
A: Mostly, I shot list. I use overhead maps of the sets and say, “Here’s the camera” and do it that way — except for elaborate effects sequences. I prefer to actually storyboard them. You have to so that everybody really knows what the angle is and where they can put their wires and where they can hide their gizmos.
Q: Did you shoot 35mm?
A: No. We shot with a Red Camera.
Q: It seems like that’s very popular now.
A: Yeah. First of all, I love the look of it. I know there are these purists who say you can’t beat the film look, but I think it’s like being in a darkroom. If you have a good digital original, you can go any which way but loose with it. I love that the blacks are so rich. I mean, it’s beautiful. When it comes back to film, I confess that I can’t quite see the difference. I couldn’t tell you that this is digital and that one was film.
Q: What exactly is the Red Camera?
A: It’s digital. It’s all electronic. It’s all information storage.
Q: Is it easier to edit from that?
A: It is, but basically the editing process is the same as it’s been since people started to use electronic editing even if they shot film originally. The process, itself, is the same. Once you have it all transferred and you have it on your Avid or whatever (computer equipment) you’re using it’s the same process once the info is all in the editing machine.
Q: Looking back at production, what were some of the big challenges that you faced?
A: It was mostly weather challenges. I’d have to say that that’s really all it was. The cast was great. Everybody was really cooperative and very willing. But we had tremendous weather problems.
Q: What time of year were you shooting?
A: It was October.
Q: So you probably would have thought you’d be ahead of the bad weather.
A: We would have. This is my fourth film that I’ve done in the Toronto area and they’ve all involved shooting in October and I’ve never had anything like this. We actually had snow. We had a minor typhoon. We had driving rain, unbelievable wind storms. We hit every conceivable thing.
Q: And a great deal of this movie involves exterior scenes.
A: It was tough. You can see it. If you really look at it you can see a cloudy day turn sunny and wind is up, wind is low. I can see it.
Q: Well, yes, but it probably doesn’t stand out as much as you think.
A: I’m sure it doesn’t.
Q: Do you plan to do another zombie film?
A: If this goes well, yes, I’d like to do a set of a couple more. But it all depends on how well the film does.