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Q&A: Filmmaker George A. Romero &
actress Michelle Morgan

An online exclusive interview

George A. Romero + Michelle Morgan

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

By Patrick Z. McGavin



As a regionalist who stands outside culturally respected forms and adopts a rigorous, intellectual strain in the macabre and horror, George A. Romero occupies an interesting position in American cinema.

A pioneering independent, Romero’s marginalized standing is what gives his work its currency and outsider verve that sharply critiques social inequities inherent in the dominant culture. If many of his disciples and acolytes, among which include Jonathan Demme, long ago made the transition from trafficking in the crude and disposable to the respectable and easily acknowledged, Romero remains an artist constantly looking to subvert and challenge dominant orthodoxies.

From his remarkable 1968 feature debut, Night of the Living Dead, to his current project, Diary of the Dead, the fifth work in the continually evolving and thematically fascinating cycle, Romero has consistently found a way to work through the primal and irrational. He intertwines a very kinetic and lively style of filmmaking with trenchant social commentary and bracing, off-the-cuff humor.

Born in New York City, Romero studied painting and drawing at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. He worked in advertising and commercials before making his self-financed Night of the Living Dead. He has lived in Toronto the past few years. Diary of the Dead is cast almost exclusively with talented if mostly unknown Canadian actors. The movie’s breakout star is Michelle Morgan, who plays Debra, part of a group of student filmmakers thrust into both a perilous survival quest and also charged with documenting the plague of zombies.

Morgan is the classic Romero protagonist, evident since Francine (Gaylen Ross) from Dawn of the Dead: beautiful, tough and highly resourceful, a realist who rejects traditional forms of victimization. In a recent interview, the director and star talked about style, sexual politics and zombies.

Stop Smiling: This film feels very different from the last one, smaller but more liberated.

George A. Romero: It’s really one of the reasons I wanted to go do it. We made Land of the Dead. We weren’t rich. It was a very ambitious film. It was still guerilla filmmaking. We had name actors, Universal’s support, but it was a nightmare. I also felt here was this series, the fourth film, I started with a couple of people in a farmhouse and I wanted to keep it more intimate and personal. All of a sudden it was approaching [this much larger scale]. I said, “I have to run away from this.”

Actually, there’s a collection of short stories, Book of the Dead. There was a Book of the Dead 2. But they were horror writers — Stephen King, Clive Barker, guys who wrote these stories about other people, about the first Night of the Living Dead. I thought, Why couldn’t I go back to the first night? I had this idea. I wanted to make an observation about all this emerging media. All of my zombie films have grown out of something happening out in the world. I don’t know if there’s a collective subconscious or whatever, but others have decided to do something about this blogosphere and the fact we’re all reporters now.

SS: How did you organize the script?

GR: My initial impulse was to really go do this under the radar. There was a film school in Florida, and I wanted to go down and shoot down there with the students. I thought maybe we could sell it on DVD and split the dough. I really wanted to run away. When I finished the script, the people at [the production company, Art Fire] said, “Let’s try and go for a theatrical. We’ll finance.” We decided to take just enough money that we would need to pull it off, to keep it as small as possible and insist on having control. For the first time since Night of the Living Dead, a film was completely in my control.

SS: From the beginning, all the films seem rooted in a very strong cultural or political alienation from the establishment. It’s reflected in how you privilege the point of view of outsiders, especially blacks and women.

GR: I can’t say the first one was entirely accidental, but a lot of it was. We cast an African-American [Duane Jones] in the lead role of Night of the Living Dead because he was the best actor that we knew. We thought we were being very hip without changing the script. That guy was shot at the end, whether he was white, Asian, black or whatever. The original script didn’t describe him that way. We’d finished the film, threw it in the trunk of the car and drove it to New York to see if anybody wanted to show it. That night, with that film in the trunk of the car, on the radio we heard that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.

On the other hand, we were Sixties guys pissed off that we thought we had changed the world forever, and all of a sudden there’s a funny war over there, riots in the streets, people were angry. I think that film in some ways is the angriest of the films, even though there’s a lot of humor in it. The only time I was intentionally trying to make the film recall what was happening in life, recall newsreels, was the last 10 minutes, when the posse comes in the end, when it gets really gritty.

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