Dead Director Rises Again

George Romero on zombies, politics and his own second coming

But as LandoftheDeadbegins, the oppressed zombie masses show unprecedented cognitive signs, and stir with revolutionary fervor as they rally behind a zombified gas station attendant called Big Daddy. For Romero, these once-fearsome adversaries now seem to represent all of the world's displaced, disenfranchised people, from the streets of America to the contentious cities of the Middle East. "It's more a reflection of the times than it is criticism," Romero says. "I guess I was trying to say something about complacency, which has always been the case in America—this idea that we're protected, that we don't have to worry about things. As for the imagery, I don't know if people will pick up on all of it, but some of it is obvious to me—the financial center being a high-rise, and a tank riding through a little village and mowing people down while we wonder why [the zombies] are pissed off at us." Indeed, in the world of LandoftheDead,it's not just the zombies who must learn to be human again.

How often does a director on the wrong side of 60 get the budget and the resources he deserves to make the dream project he's been longing to make? Not often, but Romero has done so and done it brilliantly. The movie is fast, mercilessly funny, gleefully gory and uncommonly thoughtful about the times in which we live—a horror picture to shake audiences from the complacency engendered by so many Ringsand Grudges.Promoted as Romero's "ultimate zombie masterpiece," Landis a rare case of truth in advertising, little dulled by its arrival in the midst of so many other comers to Romero's throne. "You know," Romero muses, "people ask Stephen King, 'How do you feel about these directors ruining your books?' And Steve says, 'They didn't ruin them. Here they are right now, on the shelf here.' " Last week, during his stop through L.A. en route to yet another career tribute (this time at Las Vegas' Cinevegas festival), I talked with the director about the latest chapter in his ongoing zombie epic.

OCWEEKLY:The use of the original Universal Pictures logo at the start of the film is a nice touch.
GEORGEROMERO:It's a way of saying, "Guys, this is going to be a little old-fashioned here!"

This is your first Dead movie in 20 years. Was it challenging to find a new approach to the material?
I always wanted to do another one and then we got hung up, my partner and I, in that seven or eight years—stuck on projects. I fled after all of that and made this little film called Bruiserwhich nobody's seen. Then I started working on this script mid-2000 and finally got a draft and sent it out days before 9/11—after which everyone wanted to make soft, friendly movies. So I took it back home and, sometime after the invasion, dug it out and twisted it around a little bit.

Though the film is set in Pittsburgh, budgetary matters dictated that you shoot most of it in Canada.
I wanted to shoot in Pittsburgh. If we would get smart here, productions wouldn't keep going to Canada, but they offer such incentives over there, and they also take care of their personnel. The regs that we all complain about when we go up there keep those people working. I think they do a fabulous job.

Often, particularly in a film likeMartin (1977), your work has contemplated the Pittsburgh landscape as a kind of Norman Rockwell town that never was, or that was once and then vanished.
Which it is. When I got there—I went there to go to college and I've lived there ever since—the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, "The mills will reopen someday. Don't worry about it." It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It really was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was really the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there's a little bit of that in this movie too—it just so happens that it's now a reflection of the entire country.

Though the zombies have always been human on the outside, this is
Exactly. I tried to throw that big ace out there right away, because I've always had an African-American lead in the other three, which was a conceit. So this time I said, "Okay, I'm gonna switch sides with this guy." I do have this idea in my mind that if I go on, if I live to do another one, that the humans are getting nastier and the zombies are getting a little more human. I've tried to follow a pretty clean line with it, though. Even in Dawn,some of the principals that get turned into zombies are showing cognitive signs, and at the very end of the film there's a zombie who's been dragging a rifle around not knowing what it is, who grabs the hero's rifle and decides, "That looks better!" And then Bub in DayoftheDead—he's an experiment, but he's basically imitating the scientist. "Push the button, Bub." And he pushes the button. So now, there're other zombies that are imitative, up to a point, but they have Big Daddy to imitate now. So I don't think this has taken a giant leap forward. It's just the idea that they're getting more dangerous.

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