George A. Romero
Article by Brian Ridgway
As frequent visitors to ZOMBIE FARM probably know, I've been working on a book focusing on the works of George Romero for the past three years. Specifically looking at the casts and crews responsible for his first two zombie features, this self-published project nears completion and has a projected release in late-summer 2005. (Thanks to Norman England for his generous support and allowing me to showcase some of the books early preview material on this site.)
So what will the book contain? Well for starters, over 40 interviews of Romero-alumni past and present – it's a detailed historical document on the Pennsylvania filmmaking community and the creative process of producing an independent film. Not only will it have all new photos, production details and interviews, but will feature extensive career and personal biographies of the people who have worked closely with George, and aided in bringing his classics to the screen. Many of the profiles are with people who have NEVER BEFORE been interviewed.
A major goal toward completing this book has been to set up a new interview with George Romero. My writing partner DAN ROUSHEY and I were able to arrange a meeting in July during the Flashback Weekend show in Rosemont, Illinois. It has been vital to sit down with him again before he geared up for another directing assignment. This interview was conducted on Saturday, July 30, 2004. Special thanks are extended to Christine Romero for her help in arranging this interview, and to George’s Personal Assistant Chris Roe.
George Romero initially arrived at the hotel at around 5:00 p.m. – the second day of the convention – to sign for fans following a DAY OF THE DEAD panel discussion. Quietly slipping in the back of the hotel ballroom toward the end of a Q&A session, he towered head and shoulders above the crowd. Too bad he couldn't have been part of the earlier panel talk.
Wearing a light shirt and kaki vest, his silver and gray hair tied in the back, Romero looked more like a semi-retired college professor than the man responsible for the modern interpretation of the reanimated dead. He had a faint, white beard, and sported a pair of overly large, black rimmed glasses which actually made it difficult to see his eyes unless he looked directly at you. During his autograph session, he was quick to offer a firm, friendly handshake to fans, speaking briefly with as many people as time allowed.
Following the approximately two-hour signing, George was quickly ushered out of the room via a side door. We heard that he was then scheduled to then do an interview with 'E' entertainment television.
For the next three hours, Dan and I hung out near the ballroom area, adjacent to the hotel bar. Finally, Chris Roe confirmed our meeting with George for that night.
At 9:15, DAWN OF THE DEAD alumni Leonard Lies strolled by our table near the hotel's food court, and then joined us. Saturday was a strong convention day for him as old and new DOTD fans alike constantly visited his table. He told us of the day's events, as well as the progress on his new zombie film Reign of the Dead. Leonard also seemed curious about the questions I had planned for George. On one specific question, Lenny made a suggestion on what he felt was the best way to phrase my inquiry – it would later prove successful. Since production began on this book, Lenny has become a close ally and has contributed immensely.
Around 9:30, Chris arrived and informed us that George was available and ready to meet in the now-empty ballroom. I invited Leonard to sit in on the interview, and at first, he politely declined. "I don't want to provide a distraction," he said, but then agreed once George strolled up and spotted him with a booming "I know this guy! LENNY!"
George was then ushered by his assistant, Chris, to a side table in the ballroom. A friend and Chicago resident Ken Davis, who would take photos for my interview, also joined the group. As everyone pulled chairs around one of the conference tables, George asked, "Now remind me – what is your book project about?" It had been a little more than a year since out original interview with him, so it was no surprise that he didn't remember the specifics.
"Creativity,” I replied, "…and how an independent film is produced."
"Creativity? Well, that leaves me out!" he said, a grin crossing his face. He leaned forward, as if to say 'this interview is over!' For a moment, I thought he was serious. He then settled back, taking out a pack of cigarettes. He asked the group around the table if anyone objected to him smoking. No objections.
For the next 40 minutes, George fielded questions arising out of our previous interviews with cast and crew from his first two Dead features. Questions were in three categories – details about the production of Night of the Living Dead, then Dawn of the Dead, and then personal questions about his work habits. Before we left, we also managed to get an additional ten minutes on his latest feature, Land of the Dead, and why the decision was made to shoot the film in Toronto, instead of Canada – more on that later.
Although the information George relayed on Night of the Living Dead will not be relayed here, it will appear in the upcoming book in its entirety. There were a couple specific Dawn of the Dead questions that are presented below, as a precursor to the book and for ZOMBIE FARM friends. Enjoy! (George's answers appear in bold.)
I recently re-viewed CRAZIES, and thought it held up well; it's a terrific film. While watching it though, it felt very much like the opening scenes of DAWN OF THE DEAD. After you finished CRAZIES – did you take one of the first drafts and rework some of that material into what would become DAWN?
That was really a completely separate deal. DAWN came – it essentially came because I had know the people socially who had owned the Monroeville Mall. I was out there taking a tour – one guy took me around, and took me through the place and said (doing a slight accent) 'You know, upstairs there's crawlspaces…and rooms…and all this civil defense stuff up there. You could LIVE up there if you wanted to!' By him saying that, it gave me that idea.
I started just making some sketches – verbal sketches. And again, I wrote, initially, a much darker treatment for what I wanted it to be. And it was around that time that Dario Argento called me and said, 'if you ever think about making another 'Dead' movie?' And I said 'Funny you should ask!'
And then I basically gave him the idea that I was working on.
Was he the first one that really approached you about a sequel?
Yeah. He was the guy that brought in the money. The first money was money from Italy – I think it was $5–600,000. In the end, it was a little less than half that was anticipated, and Richard Rubinstein raised the rest from a U.S. investor. Again, that's how it got going. Dario brought my wife and I over to Rome and put us up in an apartment and said (doing another impression), "You write! You write…" So I sat there and wrote, man. We lived there in Rome…and went down to the little espresso joint (mimes drinking from cup) – the place where you got the bruschetta …"
Was the whole project of DAWN OF THE DEAD written in Rome?
Wow. It just poured right out.
Well, I did have a notebook of ideas. But as I say, initially, I was working on a much darker story (pauses)…but even (the original) script for Dario had a darker ending, and had a lot darker train running through it. That whole opening in the projects was not nearly as comic book as we wound up doing it. It was really just….BLACK. And we ended up going for just the hot-red blood.
It was a beautiful opening though. It’s a great film.
(George smiles) –thanks!
I talked to TOMMY LAFITTE this week (Tommy played the apartment zombie who chomped down on his wife's arm and neck)
(Big smile) I just saw him! (George and recently attended a Pittsburgh musical with his family, and Tommy was working backstage.)
He told me about his first BIG SHOT as an actor on DOTD– being this kid on the set at 3:00 in the morning to shoot his only scene as the Jamaican zombie who attacks his wife, and the building was ice cold (George laughs) – and the crew setting up this elaborate effects shot, and you walked over to him, put your arm around him and said 'Now DON'T SCREW THIS UP!' He said he did it on one take!
(Big laugh from George) Well, he HAD to! I was on instructions by Tom Savini there, because of the prosthetics, you know? That’s the way it was. (Chuckles again.)
That's it for now. The interview was a fast and fun forty minutes, much longer than planned. Throughout the talk, George laughed heartily and seemed to appreciate the variety of questions and the memories they stirred. Everyone in the room seemed to also enjoyed his propensity to do accents – almost every time he paraphrased a friend or contemporary, he ended up doing a funny voice – sometimes as a tough East-coast accent, others as a choppy Midwestern drawl. I sense that it was this face – of an artist and his insight about the human condition – that makes him such a colorful and perceptive writer and director. Under the right conditions, George Romero would probably be quite a storyteller around a campfire or at a family holiday dinner table.
In two weeks, I will present an article detailing the decision by Universal Studios to move the production of George's latest zombie epic, LAND OF THE DEAD, to Toronto. This article will include details on how the legislation was created in Pennsylvania that ultimately pushed this production North, as well as comments from George Romero and Leonard Lies.
All material Copyright ©2004. Brian Ridgway and Norman England.