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The Secret Behind Romero's Scary Zombies: 'I Made Them The Neighbors'

Jul 20, 2014
Originally published on July 20, 2014 1:59 pm

Director George A. Romero grew up on classic movie monsters — and he says he never dreamed he'd be responsible for creating the modern zombie that now lurks alongside those monsters. "I never expected it. I really didn't," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. "... All I did was I took them out of 'exotica' and I made them the neighbors ... I thought there's nothing scarier than the neighbors!"

Zombies are everywhere in Hollywood — there's a new batch of films every year, and AMC's The Walking Dead continues to kill it in the ratings. All these zombies can be traced back to Romero's Night of the Living Dead. The 1968 movie wasn't just a low-budget, black-and-white film about corpses that came back to life to feed on people — it was also a commentary on the racial and social tensions of 1968 America.

Romero went on to direct another five films in the zombie canon — most recently 2009's The Survival of the Dead. Romero has chosen to tell his latest zombie tale — which takes place in New York City — in the form of a comic book. The Empire of the Dead is being published by Marvel, and the first five installments are being published as a book.


Interview Highlights

On zombies, humans, and, worst of all, vampires

In my work, [it's] usually the humans that are the worst. ... I have a soft spot in my heart for the zombies. But there are also vampires around — so I'm dabbling a little bit mixing genres and metaphors or whatever. ... I like to ... have a little political satire in the stuff that I do and that's actually a big part of this. The vampires are running the city and the mayor is a vampire. No relation to [former New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg. ... I just see them as villainous, and I always have, since childhood, you know. I grew up on the famous monsters of film land so to me they've just been the villains all along. There are a few sort of 'OK' vampires in the story, but most of them are the oppressors.

On what was going on in the U.S. when Night of the Living Dead came out in the late '60s

We shot it in '67, but it was right in that period ... where there was all that anger, you know race-riots coming up. There's a story I always tell, when we were driving up to New York to show it to potential distributors, and that night, in the car, we heard that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. ... And here we had a black lead [actor Duane Jones as Ben] in this film, and so, I think that was largely what made the film noticeable. ... He was, quite simply, the best actor from among our friends. And we didn't change the script from when Duane agreed to play the role. It's never mentioned, it's never a story point or anything.

... We never thought of it being a racial piece at all, never. We were talking much more about how people remain stuck on their own agendas even though there's something extraordinary going on outside. There's still fighting about mundane, stupid things. But because the character was played by an African-American, you almost don't notice anything else. We didn't realize that, Duane did. Duane was aware of it and he was concerned about it. There was a scene where he has to slug the white [character] Barbra... and he said, "You know what's going to happen to me when I walk outside the theater if I slug this woman?" ... He was concerned about all of that.

On why Romero's latest project is a comic book rather than a film

I really didn't want to make another zombie film. The last two that I did, I did them at two, three million bucks, and was, in fact, able to creatively control what I wanted to do with them. But then all of a sudden, came Zombieland, that was the first one to turn the ... box office corner and you know, gosh, all of a sudden, you can't make a little zombie film anymore. I figured well, if I do it as a comic book I can let my imagination go bananas and I don't have to worry about shooting it.

On using zombies as a vessel for commentary

I've sort of been able to bring them out of the closet whenever I need them. ... They are multi-purpose, you can't really get angry at them, they have no hidden agendas, they are what they are. I sympathize with them. My stories have always been more about the humans and the mistakes that they've make and the zombies are just sort of out there. ... They're the disaster that everyone is facing, but my stories are more about the humans.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. Over the decades, zombies have moved from midnight movies to the Hollywood mainstream. Last summer, Brad Pitt starred in the big-budget film "World War Z." And cable audiences can't get enough of AMC's "The Walking Dead." All these zombies can be traced back to one film and one man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD")

RATH: "Night Of The Living Dead," directed by George A. Romero.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Johnny, no, no.

RATH: Yeah, it's got flesh-eating zombies. But as it follows the only black man in a group of desperate survivors, it exposes the racial and social tensions of America in 1968. Romero went on to direct another five zombie movies, but now he is turned to a different media. "The Empire Of The Dead" is a comic book series, and the first five installments are being published as a collection by Marvel, out this month. George A. Romero joins me from the BBC Studios in London. Hello.

GEORGE ROMERO: Hello.

RATH: So to start off, can you set the scene for the comic "Empire Of The Dead." This is - it's five years after the zombie plague has hit, and we're set in New York City, right?

ROMERO: Well, the mayor of New York, when we arrive, is a vampire and has been the mayor of New York for a number of years. And he needs to get elected, so he's got to be political with the rest of the vampire community. And there are a couple of humans who are actually on the council. Humans that are willing to sort of forgive the idea that he's a vampire.

One of the things that he does is - there is an arena, very much like the Colosseum in Rome, where zombies are taught to use weapons and go after each other. And those are the principal characters that we're concerned about - are the people that are there, and a doctor who believes that zombies can be not tamed, but controlled.

RATH: Somebody like you - I don't imagine that you're trying to jump on the "Twilight" bandwagon. But what's your attraction to vampires?

ROMERO: None.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMERO: I just see them as villainous, and I always have, I guess, since childhood. You know, I grew up on the "Famous Monsters Of Filmland," so to me, they've just been the villains all along. So there are a few sort of OK vampires in the story, but most of them are the oppressors.

RATH: You say, you grew up on the classic movie monsters. I wonder how you feel, with your sense of film history - that, you know, you're kind of responsible for the modern zombie that's now take its place alongside the great movie monsters.

ROMERO: You know, it's actually incredible. I never expected it. I really didn't. And it's hard for me to even appreciate that idea. But they are. You know, all I did was I took them out of exotica, and I had made them the neighbors, you know.

RATH: That was in "Night Of The Living Dead" in 1968.

ROMERO: In "Night Of The Living Dead," yeah. You know, I thought, well, there's nothing scarier than the neighbors. And so...

RATH: And that was a time when neighbors were turning on each other.

ROMERO: Well, yeah. We shot in '67, but it was right in that period there, where there was all that anger and, you know, race riots coming up. When we - there's a story that I always tell. When we were driving into New York to show it to potential distributors - and that night in the car, we heard that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.

RATH: Wow.

ROMERO: And here we had a black lead in this film. And so I think that that was largely what made the film noticeable.

RATH: That was Duane Jones - the African-American actor who played Ben, the lead character.

ROMERO: And he was just quite simply the best actor from among our friends. And we didn't change the script when Duane agreed to play the role. It's never mentioned. It's never a story point or anything. But because the character was played by an African American, you almost don't notice anything else. And we didn't realize that. Duane did. Duane was aware of it. And he was concerned about it. There's a scene where he has to slug the white girl, Barbara.

RATH: Right.

ROMERO: And he says, you know what's going to happen any when I walk outside the theater if I slug this woman. (Laughing) He was concerned about all of that. And you know, I kept saying, come on, man, it's 1968, you know. (Laughing).

RATH: Was it - I mean, I imagine that must've been - could you even show that in theaters in the South? That's a black man the striking woman in that way.

ROMERO: I don't know. We never heard of any places where it was prohibited or where it was objected to that way. You know, when it first came out, it just played the drive-in circuits, you know. And that was it. I mean - and it actually made money, surprisingly. I mean, it returned money.

There's another terrible story. We lost the copyright. Our title was "Night Of The Flesh Eaters." And when we got a distributor, they said, well, there's a film out there already called "The Flesh Eaters." And so "Night Of The Living Dead" was their title. We stupidly, as a bunch of amateurs, had put the copyright notice on the title, instead of at the end of the film. And so when they changed the title, the copyright notice came off. And that film is currently in public domain.

RATH: Wow. So is that why it's easy to watch it on YouTube?

ROMERO: Yes. It's easy. Forget about it. That's why there were - in video store, there are probably 25 different jackets for that film 'cause everybody was able to distribute it and do whatever they wanted with it. It's public domain. So anyone out there, if you want to do something with "Night Of The Living Dead," go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: So I'm sure you've been asked this question - with "Empire Of The Dead," why - since you are obviously great at making zombie movies, why didn't you do this as a movie? Why go to the comic book form?

ROMERO: Well, I really did partly want to get out. You know, I didn't want to make another zombie film. The last two that I did, I did them at, you know, two, three million bucks and was, in fact, able to creatively control what I wanted to do with them. But then, all of a sudden, came "Zombieland" - that was the first one to turn the corner - box office corner.

RATH: Right.

ROMERO: You know, and then "World War Z." And you know, gosh. It's - all of a sudden, you can't make a little zombie film anymore. Has to be special effects and big-budget, and I'm not - I'm just not interested in that. So I figured, well, if I do it as a comic book, I can let my imagination go bananas, and I don't have to worry about shooting it.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: So your movies have always been, you know, about something other than the basic horror that we see going on. Do you feel like zombies are a particularly good vessel for commentary?

ROMERO: Well, I've sort of been able to bring them out of the closet whenever I need them. And you can use - you know, they're multipurpose. (Laughing) You can't really get angry at them. They have no hidden agendas. They are what they are. And I sympathize with them.

My stories have always been more about the humans and the mistakes that they make, and the zombies are just sort of out there. They could be a hurricane or a typhoon or anything. They're the disaster that everyone is facing. But my stories are more about the humans.

RATH: George A. Romero, the film director who created the modern zombie. His latest project, "Empire Of The Dead," is being published by Marvel Comics. The new installment comes out in September. George Romero, thank you.

ROMERO: Well, thank you very much for inviting me. And it's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.