Dead Director Rises Again

George Romero on zombies, politics and his own second coming

Produced piecemeal on a shoestring budget, George Romero's debut feature, NightoftheLivingDead(1968), was a fever dream of EC Comics and old Universal horror, crossbred with the fleet realism of the television newsreels Romero had once bicycled from a Pittsburgh film lab to local affiliates. The tightly framed black-and-white images of walking corpses consuming the flesh of live humans shocked many. But already it was obvious that, for Romero, the real horrors of society needed no special-effects amplification. His undead were merely a prism through which to examine human behavior at a state of heightened anxiety. And by casting a black actor (Duane Jones) as Night'sselfless hero, the film became, among other things, a blistering portrait of homeland race relations in the year of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination—its final image, of Jones being gunned down by a posse of zombie-hunting yahoos, as potent a symbol of the blown-out American dream as the ending of EasyRider.The film became a midnight-movie phenomenon, ensuring that Romero's primordial creatures would long continue to walk the earth. In contrast to Night'schiaroscuro terrors, its first sequel, DawnoftheDead(1978), was a Day-Glo assault on American consumerism at the outset of the shopping-mall era, with asides on classism and feminism. One of the great films of the 1980s, DayoftheDead(1985) is a poetic, Hawksian horror picture (with allusions to the Frankenstein story) that questions what it means to be human while anticipating the coming culture wars between scientific rationality and religious faith.

By then, Romero was fully enshrined as a cult movie deity, and the ensuing two decades would see more than its share of respectful homages (28 DaysLater),comic send-ups (Return oftheLivingDead,ShaunoftheDead)and blatant rip-offs (the Resident Evil video game franchise and its subsequent film versions) of his work, though, curiously, only four new features by the master himself. "Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated," Romero deadpanned in a July 2000 welcome letter to visitors of his Web site. But, kidding aside, it was a low moment for the iconoclastic auteur, coming at the end of seven years spent on retainer to an assortment of major studios, during which time he watched several high-profile projects all come within a hairsbreadth of getting made. Eventually, with French financing, Romero managed to make Bruiser,a scabrous satire of the corporate workplace and the suburban American dream that couldn't help but seem influenced by its maker's own season in "development hell": In the film, the main character's figurative facelessness becomes a literal condition, allowing him to exact revenge on those who have sought to turn him into an emasculated drone. Like Romero's earlier Jack'sWife(1973)—in which an underappreciated housewife liberates herself by becoming a witch—the movie was so merciless and mordantly funny as to make AmericanBeautylook like an ILoveLucyepisode. Not surprisingly, no American distributor dared touch it.

In truth, Romero and Hollywood have never made for easy bedfellows. Only four of his 14 feature films have been released by studios, and one of those (his 1993 Stephen King adaptation, TheDarkHalf)became an unfortunate victim of the Orion Pictures bankruptcy. The rest of the time, he has worked from his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh to create a body of work as truly independent (both financially and ideologically) as any in American movies. And so it may be that no one is more surprised than Romero that his latest film, LandoftheDead,is being released today by Universal Pictures, on several thousand screens, at the zenith of the summer blockbuster season. "It was very frustrating in those years that I never got pictures made," says the tall, ponytailed, rail-thin Romero, who calls money "dough" and refers to his collaborators as "cats." "But at the same time," he continues, "I did work on some very big things, so I didn't feel like I was out of the game. It took me a long time to realize that, after a while, you really do drop off the radar."

Romero's return to movie and radar screens was consecrated last month by a standing-ovation tribute at the Cannes Film Festival, which included a sneak preview of Land'sfirst 15 minutes—an occasion that, for all its triumph, also pointed up the dismissive treatment genre fare like Romero's has long received from festivals and critics alike. "Even for a lot of the industry, George Romero is a name, nothing more," notes Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux. "When I was 17 or 18, I used to stay up all night with friends watching videotapes of horror movies, which was where I discovered George Romero. And to me, having him onstage was as important as having Abbas Kiarostami or Woody Allen. I like the fact that Woody Allen loves Bergman's movies and Bergman loves Westerns. This is something very important—that to love cinema is to love all of cinema."

Romero paints with his boldest brushstrokes yet in LandoftheDead,blurring the line that separates zombies from humans while sharpening the one that divides society's haves from its have-nots. Set again in Pittsburgh, the film unfolds in and around a luxury high-rise called Fiddler's Green that has become the last outpost of moneyed (and white) high society in a world where money ceases to have any meaning (other than that ascribed to it by its bearers). Overseen by a venomous gatekeeper called Kaufman (a tip of the capitalist hat to the wealthy Pittsburgh department store entrepreneur), the Green towers above a Hooverville-like slum inhabited by those deemed unworthy of admission to Kaufman's shining planned community. All is enclosed by an electrified fence that has, until now, kept the undead at bay, forcing them into outlying areas where they are shot for sport by the rogue bounty-hunter types who keep the Green supplied.

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