Tom Savini is a great guy to talk zombies with. The horror legend has worked as an actor and director (who remade "Night of the Living Dead" in 1990), but is best known for his special effects and makeup work on films like George A. Romero's seminal "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead." Savini's one of the interviewees in "Doc of the Dead," a new documentary from "The People vs. George Lucas" director Alexandre O. Philippe that explores the evolution of the zombie on screen, from its early days in features like the Haiti-set "White Zombie" through Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" through to the AMC juggernaut that is "The Walking Dead." The film explores the appeal of the animated undead by way of interviews with folks like Savini and Romero as well as actors Bruce Campbell and Simon Pegg and writers Max Brooks and Robert Kirkman.
"Doc of the Dead" premieres on Epix this Saturday, March 15th at 8pm ET after having made its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this week. Indiewire caught up with Savini by phone to discuss the continuing appeal of the zombie genre, something he continues to explore with plans to direct a film called "Death Island" that he describes as a "unique take" on the trop -- "I just gave the script to my friends at Full Sail University. We have an offer and the budget is very low so I think it would have to be done with a big school like Full Sail that has all the equipment and students galore."
In "Doc of the Dead," fast zombies versus slow zombies is posed as an essential debate in the genre. Where do you stand?
Well, I agree with George Romero. At conventions he sells bumper stickers that say "Fast Zombies Suck," and his logic is that if you're a zombie you're dead, and you continue to be more dead, you decay and rot. You don't become a superhero, you know.
Why do you think the fast version has had such appeal?
Well, there's only so much you can do to the face and the hands and clothing to make them scary. A big point was made in my "Night of the Living Dead" and George's original that, we can outrun them -- why are we holing up in this house? So if you're a director and you want to make them scary, you make them fast. In "28 Days Later" they were fast, but they weren't zombies, they were just fucked up people with some virus or chemical or whatever. The appeal is they're more threatening. Even the first zombie, Frankenstein, was slow -- but if he caught up to you, good luck.
In a lot of of zombie film and TV, humans end up being the biggest problem, the biggest danger to themselves.
Even without zombies, they are! Humans are our worst enemy, aren't we? It's gotten to the point with me where on Facebook, for example, I don't need anybody who comes in with bad news. Anyone who comes in with pictures of abused children or abused animals, at my age -- I'm 67 -- I don't need unpleasantness in my life anymore, I want only happy stuff. If you would've asked what I'm afraid of, I'd have said spiders, and razor blades, but mostly crazy people! Mindless people who want hurt you... there are lots of mindless people out there who aren't zombies.
Zombies have their roots in folklore, but their present day incarnation is very rooted in George Romero's vision of them on screen, in films that you've worked on that brought them to life (er, afterlife). What do you think is so compelling about the idea that they've made their way into the horror cannon so relatively quickly compared to some other classic figures?
Wolfman, Dracula... zombies seem to slipped right through. They've always been something to people. To me, the best zombies around are the ones Greg Nicotero is doing on "The Walking Dead." Greg was my protege -- I've known him since he was 14, he's done a lot of movies with me, he was trained by me, so I have to one-up him. I have this thing called "Death Island" that we're trying to get done, and that goes back to the Haiti voodoo-type zombies you saw in "I Walked with a Zombie" (1943). I want to go back to that original thing. All the zombies are gonna be black and covered with mud and scars.
It would be another take on it, and that's what makes it in the world today. Why do people like them running fast? Well, that's a new thing. I didn't see "Warm Bodies," but I imagine that was a new thing, some girl falling in love with a zombie... I thought that was a dumb premise, but I hear it's pretty good? Look at "World War Z," that movie took advantage of how the best scares come from suspense. They created these horrible situations and then threw people into them. That goes back to Hitchcock, show the bomb under the table, show the creature or psycho behind the door, and then send somebody toward the door -- it's suspense!