George A. Romero is sipping on a pepper-filled Bloody Mary. The drink doesn't have quite the same consistency as the movie blood his flesh-eating zombies slurp up with intestines, eyes and whatever, but there's a touch of the ghoulish to it. Must Romero be working on a Bloody Mary? Well, if you're the most important horror director of your generation — and one of a handful respected by overseas critics — most definitely.
The irony is, Romero is the least scary horror icon you'll ever meet, if he's sitting down, that is (the man is very tall). Despite having walked the earth for nearly seven decades, Romero's spry for his age; in fact, he's downright vital, bubbling with boyish energy as he talks about his 40-year-long career and, more importantly, the fourth sequel to Night of the Living Dead, this month's Diary of the Dead.
Shot entirely from a subjective POV, a trick Cloverfield just used (much to Romero's dismay), Diary, like all of the director's other Dead movies — Night (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), and Land of the Dead (2005) — marries scares to scathing social satire.
From the Vietnam War to racism to consumerism to classism, Romero has foreshadowed the inability of a mankind hampered by tribalism and religious obsession to competently meet a major global change since he first got behind the lens. So, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, the aftermath came as no surprise to him. He even uses several clips of mass exoduses and looting from such tragedies in Diary, in order to show how the zombie rising — which has only ever represented an earthshaking global event to him — instigates a complete societal breakdown. Romero glued his most recent concerns onto Diary: the dangers of emerging media to proliferate misinformation and even madness over computers and now iPhones.
"Is it information, or is it opinion?" he asks of what we find on the Internet. "I wish it was information. One of the Internet's values is that you actually have access to information, but you also have access to every lunatic out there who wants to throw up a blog. Anybody with a radical idea that sounds somewhat reasonable will suddenly have millions of followers. That's the thing that's scary.
"If Hitler were alive today, he'd never have to go speak in the town square. Ever," he continues. "He'd throw up a blog. People are so used to trusting whatever comes over that box, whether it was the old console TV or your new phone. People are so used to listening to that shit, and they would rather have somebody tell them what to think than do their homework and figure out what they really think about it."
Social commentary is, as Romero calls it, his "niche"; whereas other directors, like, say, Eli Roth (the Hostel movies) insist on making blood-soaked movies about nothing, he resorts to cinematic violence as a way to comment on the society watching it, in an ironic context that's deceptively literate. "I joke and say I'm the Michael Moore of horror, but it's ... what I do," he adds.
But 40 years since the '60s revolutionary cast a black man as his heroic lead, only to have him shot down by hicks when he winds up victorious — a sequence that has always blatantly paralleled news footage of Southern whites butchering blacks — Romero concedes the success of Night and its spawn have come with a price he's never enthusiastically paid.
"I cannot say I wish I had taken another path, [but] of course it haunts you," he says. "I'd love to be able to go in and pitch another kind of film and be taken seriously, but I'm generally not. That's a bit frustrating because you don't grow up wanting to be a horror filmmaker; you grow up wanting to be a filmmaker, you know. I tried early on to do several films that were not genre, and nine people saw them, so I don't have the credentials in that regard. On the other side of that, and far outweighing it, is that I've been able to use the genre to express my opinion, talk a little about society, do a little satire — and that's been great. A lot of people don't have that platform."
But Romero, despite the success and praise, is humble. He insists his work shouldn't be so overanalyzed. When asked about his position as caretaker of an iconic film franchise, he scoffs, slapping his hand down on his knee. "Caretaker? Oh shit," he says, then pauses to laugh. "Listen, I'm getting away with murder in a certain sense. I can bring zombies out of the closet anytime I want to get a [movie] deal. All of my films have been inspired by — maybe that's too tacky a word — have grown out of my observations about what's happened out there.
"When I made Night," he continues, "I wasn't quite aware of how powerful it was going to be."
Later, he says, its critical success paralyzed him and kept him from making a sequel to the film for a decade. "We really had no awareness of any of it. We cast a black guy in the lead and, when he agreed to do it, we didn't think much of it. This was before King was shot. Literally, the night we were driving to New York [with the print in a can in the back seat], we heard on the radio King had been shot. All of a sudden, it was a much bigger deal."
He goes on to explain that Night opened, played and closed six months later a minor success. Nobody cared. He then went on and shot a second movie nobody saw, There's Always Vanilla (1971), and was in the middle of a third, Hungry Wives (1972), when, in his words, "this Cahiers du Cinema article came out calling Night of the Living Dead 'essential American film.'"
Romero says that last bit as if he still doesn't buy it, even if it is from one of the most famous cinema journals in the world (Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were scribes). "After that, people were talking about the subtext in it and I just kept saying, 'It's not subtext, man. It's right in your fucking faces.'"
And that's right where it has always been, in your face, even if a zombie stuffs a liver into his mouth. Diary of the Dead is no different.Cole Haddon is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org