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Karlovy Vary Interview: George Romero Talks Modern Zombies, Ripping Off Orson Welles, And More

Karlovy Vary Interview: George Romero Talks Modern Zombies, Ripping Off Orson Welles, And More

One of the most diverting new flourishes introduced to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for its 50th incarnation this week, is a brand new sidebar in which six international directors were invited to present their favorite films not from their own oeuvres. Dubbed “Six Close Encounters” it gave us Mark Cousins presenting underseen Iranian jewel “A Moment of Innocence“; Michael Roskam (“Bullhead,” “The Drop“) presenting Jules Dassin‘s anointed classic “Rififi“; Kim Ki-Duk presenting Lee Chang-dong‘s immaculate “Poetry“; Sergei Loznitsa (“Maidan“) presenting raw Russian epic “The Asthenic Syndrome“; and, in an oddly apropos choice, Sion Sono (“Tokyo Tribe“) presenting “Babe.” The first one, not the weird dark second one.

Rounding out the line-up, however, was George Romero, who introduced Powell & Pressburger‘s “The Tales of Hoffmann” in its pristine new 4K restored version. Romero has long been on record as having this film represent his favorite, and the first film he remembers igniting not just a love of the medium, but a desire to explore it himself. And it gave us a chance to have a brief chat with the Man Who Invented The Zombie™. 

In person, Romero is as charming as he is recognizable–the white hair, the thick, black-rimmed glasses, the impish grin. And despite a pretty grueling round of interviews and press conferences that morning, at 75, he has the energy and demeanor of a man half that age, and the laugh of a 12-year-old.

READ MORE: Director David Robert Mitchell Reveals The Biggest 5 Influences On It Follows 
So “Tales of Hoffmann” went down a storm. Presenting the film that made you want to be a filmmaker, did it reinvigorate a desire to get back in the saddle? Anything on the horizon?
Filmically no, I’m taking an, ahem, sabbatical right now. There are too many zombies in the world…

I wondered if you were ever sorry you brought the dead back to life?
Sometimes, yes. I wasn’t up until all this stuff–the remake of ‘Dawn,’ “Zombieland,” “World War Z” and then “The Walking Dead”–that was the nail in the coffin. No, actually “World War Z” was.

Sure, I lament! I used to be the only guy doing it. And I had my own reasons for doing it, which was social satire of some kind, and I don’t find any of that anymore. ‘Walking Dead’ is purely a soap opera and the rest is an entertainment, purely an entertainment.

In what way do you feel it was “World War Z” that killed your kind of zombie film?
Not so much because of the film itself, but in terms of trying to raise money to do something small. Now all of a sudden the wisdom is that if you want to make money with zombies you gotta spend $200 million. And I’m here to say, no you don’t–I did it on 170 grand! 

So what about away from zombies, have you any dream projects that might happen?
There are a couple of dream projects — old scripts that my partner and I wrote and the rights have come back to us because they never got made. But now, I just don’t think it’s gonna happen. I think maybe I have one or two films left in me and that’s all. Right now instead I’ve been writing a comic book for Marvel

“Empire of the Dead”
Yes, and someone has now bought that for television. I don’t know if it’s ever actually gonna hit the screen, but it’s been purchased and I’ve been hired to write the pilot, so I’ll be doing that for a little while. Other than that I’m really waiting for zombies to go away again. And I’m writing my memoirs–having a lot of fun doing that.

Being brought into the Marvel machine a little, I wonder what you think about Marvel at the movies–though I know you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds…
No, listen, I mean, all the credit in the world to those guys. They’ve become basically a whole new studio–a whole new place to go. But they don’t own the rights to my comic, we were able to hold out.

It’s impressive to be able to hang on to a modicum of independence within that structure.
Well, that’s what I’ve always tried to do and that’s the only way that I care about anything. I would rather just be me, it’s just so unfortunate that you need money to do things.

I thought of you recently, or rather your films, when watching “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It was analogous to me for being socially astute and provocative within a genre framework.
Also [laughs delightedly] analogous just because George Miller is also still around! Still doing it!

True, and not just doing it, reinvigorating it. I mean this sense of genre film’s ability–almost its duty–to pursue a progressive agenda.
Well that is really something. I mean, I used zombies. Some of the other guys used something else… there were a bunch of us. There’s a doc called “The American Nightmare,” it’s about a bunch of us who were contemporaries and chose different paths–you know, Carpenter and Craven and so on. There was a group of us that didn’t know each other but somehow we were all cracking out of the eggshell at the same time. There was something in the air. And actually Miller, I remember when I first brought my film “Martin” to Cannes…

Oh I love that film! I think it’s my favorite of yours.
It’s my favorite so thank you so much, I’m glad! But when we went to Cannes, Miller was there with the first “Mad Max” and it felt like a collective unconscious, something going on.

A tacit drive toward making genre films that said something more?
That’s always what I’ve tried to do, and I’m sure he’d say something very much similar. It’s the only reason to do it, and so many people, so many of these films are just thoughtless. Like the “Friday the 13th” films, for example–it’s just like, ok a guy with a knife. Even though Carpenter started all that with “Halloween.” But “Halloween” was a beautifully executed film, a beautiful exercise. And it was the grandaddy of all of those slasher films that then just took the idea and trashed it, just did away with it. John was genuinely trying to be spooky, to be Halloween, and it’s so well crafted…

Those other films, it’s like they took the costume but they didn’t take the soul.
That’s exactly right, that’s a wonderful way of putting it.

The are kind of the zombie versions. Going back to which, we reported on your involvement with “Zombie Autopsies” not so long ago, but you seem unsure that will happen?
I still am attached, but I don’t know if anyone’s going to finance it. It’s something that I didn’t write, it was written by a doctor–a Harvard medical doctor, no less…

So he should really know better.
He should, he should! But he explains it, he explains everything about zombiedom, he’s got it physically described, and reasons for it, for the behavior and for the physical phenomena. Wonderful guy. And he asked me to so I wrote a screenplay and we’ve been shopping it, or our agents have, but no takers so far. It’s a bit….dark.

A dark zombie movie? Heaven forbid!
I know! But hey, he’s writing the second novel, a sequel, so maybe that will revitalize the project overall.

“Tales of Hoffmann” is not the only classic you’re on record as loving, in fact I was struck by recent list I found–which also included “The Thing from Another World,” “The Quiet Man,” “On The Waterfront” and Welles’ “Othello”–that there’s a difference between the type of film you love and the type of film you make. Or do you view it more as a continuum?
I don’t, except for the fact that in my early days making film, I didn’t know what I was doing and so I was just ripping off techniques and lighting–largely from Welles. If you look at some of my lighting with just a little blinder on you can see Welles hiding in there. So Welles was the guy I ripped off the most.

If you’re gonna rip someone off…
Uh-huh, and you know, it’s a parasitic medium. You don’t get to sketch, so you need to copy.

Styles rather than ideas hopefully, though I know you’ve been pretty scathing about the state of modern horror in that regard. Are there any recent horror films you admire?
You know there probably are and I shouldn’t be so unequivocal about that, but I don’t go to see a lot, only if something is recommended. I guess I’ve just been too often disappointed.

There’s a couple of titles, like “It Follows” whose director cited “Night of the Living Dead” as a direct influence, that have been at least trying to do something new with the horror genre. I hope something like that might someday restore your faith.
I haven’t seen it, but yes, I think I’ve read something about that… And oh, I’ll tell you what did not restore my faith–“Insidious,” which came highly recommended.

Doh! And now you have to cut another person out of your life.
[And there’s that kid’s laugh again] 

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