Towering septuagenarian George Romero has been making zombie movies for four decades and each seems to be more gross and irreverent than the one that preceded it. Survival of the Dead, which starts out with gunned-down zombie children and moves on to gored brains and lady masturbation, is no exception. The film picks up where 2007’s Diary of the Dead left off, with a band of National Guardsmen encountering two feuding patriarchs on an island off the coast of Delaware. Muldoon wants to quarantine the zombies on chains and leashes, anticipating a future cure; O’Flynn thinks the undead should be straight-up murdered. Survival is a picture that mixes blood, guts and brains with high-minded social commentary (see: the futility of war, the ethics of euthanasia) in that weird, winking way only Romero can carry off. The filmmaker sat down with us at Flatiron’s Ace Hotel to talk iPhone apps, old movies, and the boatloads of zombie extra wannabes he inevitably attracts.
Survival of the Dead marks, after Diary of the Dead, a return to independent filmmaking for you. Is that right? Diary was the first one. Yeah, we met our friends at a company called Artfire Films and they’ve been great partners. They’ve let us make the movies we want to make. They’re willing to humor us, shall I say. It’s been a great relationship and its great sort of going back to the roots. I haven’t had that kind of freedom since way, way early. Is there something that attracts you to independent filmmaking more than the studio stuff? Oh, I think decidedly. Listen, I never said no to a studio deal. It’s just that it usually doesn’t happen. I’m usually the guy that they kick out. I’m not kicking them out as much as they’re kicking me out. I don’t know if I’m necessarily trusted, even though I’ve done several studio things, but even some of those were negative pick ups and they were independently financed. I love to just go make the movie. What about production in Canada in particular? I didn’t do it to be an ex-patriot. Some people think I did it to run away from the Bush administration. I wish I could say it was political but it wasn’t. I made all my early films in Pittsburgh with friends and people we all grew up together with. We all worked on Mr. Rogers. I was just used to that semi sort of casual relationship with real collaborators. Then all of a sudden in Pittsburgh, more and more films started to shoot there. There was one 400 million dollar year, and then Hollywood moved on and discovered St. Louis or something. Many of my buddies left, they followed the money to L.A., New York, Chicago, wherever it was happening. And we went to Toronto. It’s a long story.
Is it easier to be an independent filmmaker now than it was in the sixties? I think it’s easier to make films today with the technology and the portability and the availability of it. I think it’s harder to get distributed. When we made Night of the Living Dead there were always little independent distributors looking for movies to put in drive-ins and neighborhood theaters. I think that’s what has changed, the face of distribution. You’ve said that, with your films, you need an idea to drive them, an idea that’s larger than they are perhaps. Do you find that these epic ideas, like about war or consumerism, conflict with storytelling in that way? Wow, that’s interesting. No, I mean sometimes they collide but there’s always some way to work it out or fit the pattern of what you’re trying to say or trying to do. I don’t know. I mean we talk about things a lot and we try to make sure that it’s a part of the pattern. If you know what the theme is you can stick to it.
I was reading an interview with [Shaun of the Dead’s] Simon Pegg, and he was very excited about how he had wrangled a role as an extra zombie in Land of the Dead. Well, he didn’t wrangle it! We loved those guys, we said, “Guys come right in!” And the director, Edgar Wright. We were delighted to have them, they are great guys. I think it was a real dream come true for them. [Laughs] Yeah, ain’t that weird? Are you finding that there’s a demand to be extras in your film now? You know, there is. It’s incredible. people want to be zombies. It’s amazing how many people are willing to put that goop on and stand around in it for 12 hours just to stumble around. I was reading about your inspiration for the Survival of the Dead and was surprised at seeing The Big Country, the [1958 William Wyler] Western. Do you find it helpful to know old films? Do you have a list of films you draw on? I don’t have a list, I have wall! I have a room full of films, of DVDs, mostly oldies. I love knowing where things come from. Once I had the idea of these warring factions, I remembered The Big Country and we all looked at it. So then for just a little more fun we said let’s make it look like that, with the wide screen and the colors, that’s just fun for us.
What else is in your list for the top films for inspiration? My favorite film of all time, which some people are surprised to hear, is called The Tales of Hoffman, a Michael Powell film. Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, all those boys. And of course, the classic American cinema–all the John Ford stuff. I’m crazy about Michael Mann, On the Waterfront, all that stuff. I watch oldies all the time. Even when I’m writing, I have Turner Classic Movies on. I’m probably ripping off more than I realize. I heard you might be doing a remake of [the 1975 Dario Argento film] Deep Red? I don’t know how these things get out. How do you leak this? I thought it was private conversations because it all has been since now. Somebody’s leaked this. We’re talking about it. You’ve collaborated with Argento in the past? Dario basically was one of the producers on Dawn of the Dead, he was the first money in on it and then we did a film called Two Evil Eyes where he did a one-hour thing and I did a one-hour thing. They were two Poe stories that we updated. I’ve known him for years. His daughter was in Land of the Dead, so we’ve done a lot of hanging out. It’s been fun, but I don’t know if this is going to happen, it’s a little premature. I also heard a rumor about a new app for the iPhone, [App of the Dead]. That is for real. Is that out yet? [Executive Producer Peter Grunwald:] It will be out before the end of the month and it’s basically, you can take a picture from your iPhone or from your photo library and then there are dozens of different make-ups and you can turn your picture into a zombie. The make-ups are all based on the films. It’s just too fun. If you want to you can shoot your mother in the head. There’s a little button that says, “Shoot it,” and a little text message comes up that says, “Remember, the only way to kill a zombie is to shoot it in the head, draw a circle where you want to shoot it,” and then a rifle comes out. It’s really fun. Would it inspire you to get an iPhone? Romero: No. I’m not a techno guy at all. I walk near a computer and it breaks. I’m just not gizmo kind of guy.