For nearly 50 years, George Romero has lived with a zombie legacy. In 1968, he directed “Night of the Living Dead” on a bare-bones budget. The movie’s resonance today is undeniable: The walking dead are the biggest motif of the modern horror genre, and millions of fans have Romero to thank for it. However, Romero himself has maintained a complicated relationship with his eerie creations. While he directed a series of sequels to “Night” over the course of many decades, it’s been seven years since his last entry, “Survival of the Dead.” But that’s not for lack of trying.
Still, Romero can rest easy on the cultural impact of his first zombie movie, which continues to receive institutional support. On November 5, the Museum of Modern Art will present a new 4k restoration of “Night of the Living Dead” as part of its To Save and Project festival taking place throughout the month. In commemoration of another opportunity to celebrate the film, Romero spoke to IndieWire from his home in Canada about his relationship to the movie over the years, his modern struggles to make more movies, and why he’s appalled by the latest election cycle.
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How does “Night of the Living Dead” resonate for you 48 years later?
Listen, when we made the film, I thought that we were talking about miscommunication — people who, even when faced with impossible and improbable situations, still argue among themselves about petty things rather than facing the problem. I find that this is still going on today. That’s all I really care about. Then, all of a sudden, it accidentally became a racial film because of the Duane Jones’ character. There’s nothing in the dialogue or anywhere else that says this film is about race, but that’s what made it become important, I guess.
You didn’t just coast along on the legacy of that film. You kept adding to the “Living Dead” franchise all the way through 2009’s “Survival of the Dead.” How has the climate for making these kind of movies changed?
I don’t think you could make “Night of the Living Dead” now. You certainly can’t pitch it. It has to be under the wire. In a certain sense, “Night of the Living Dead” was under the wire. I thought “Dawn of the Dead” was a pie in the face to consumers, but people say there’s this underlying message of anti-consumerism in it. I think it’s way upfront. The only way you could make a film like this is to hide the message — unless it’s a message that is currently acceptable. You cannot pitch an idea the way I did. It would not get financed.
You’ve struggled to get financing to make more zombie movies?
Oh, completely. Man. Listen. I did “Land of the Dead,” which was the biggest zombie film I had ever made. I don’t think it needed to be that big. That money went largely to the cast. They were great, but I don’t think that money needed to be spent. Dennis Hopper’s cigar budget cost more than the entire production of “Night of the Living Dead.” That’s the way it is.
Now, because of “World War Z” and “The Walking Dead,” I can’t pitch a modest little zombie film, which is meant to be sociopolitical. I used to be able to pitch them on the basis of the zombie action, and I could hide the message inside that. Now, you can’t. The moment you mention the word “zombie,” it’s got to be, “Hey, Brad Pitt paid $400 million to do that.”
So you’ve written a new zombie film to follow “Survival of the Dead”?
I had a sequel. I was ready to shoot. In 2007, “Diary of the Dead” all of a sudden made money. I was blind-sighted by that. One of the producers said, “Let’s make another one quick.” I didn’t know what else I could talk about. “Diary of the Dead” talked about how social media is haunting us today. I didn’t have anything else to talk about. So I decided to go back to the original premise of misunderstanding and people not being able to see each other’s point of view. I said I’ll do this one as a western and the next one as a noir. So did the western, nobody liked it, and the other one fell away. Then, all of a sudden, here came “The Walking Dead.” So you couldn’t a zombie film that had any sort of substance. It had to be a zombie film with just zombies wreaking havoc. That’s not what I’m about.
The first film was made so cheaply. Why don’t you just ask your fans for support to make another movie?
Oh, boy. I don’t know. My son has been trying to raise money for a “Living Dead” prequel, which of course he can do, because “Night of the Living Dead” is in the public domain. But he never went to my partners, Russ Streiner and Jack Russo, to get their imprimatur. The whole thing seems a bit sleazy to me. I’m an old guy that is stuck with tradition and if none of the traditional people want to give me the money to make a movie, then maybe there’s a reason for that. It’s never going to go anywhere.
How much do you keep up with new releases?
I don’t. I’m a Turner Classic Movies guy. That’s it. I’d much rather sit here and watch an oldie than anything new. I vote in the Academy, so I get all the screeners. I’m so often disappointed by all the material and especially by what wins. I find myself never voting for the winner. [laughs]
There must be filmmakers who come to you advice a lot. What do you tell them?
You can’t give advice. All you can do is say, “Hey, look. Stick to your guns.” If you have an idea in your heart and you want to try and express that, it’s on you. Whether you express that well enough is on you. The only advice you can give is, “Don’t let the bad stuff keep you down.”
Speaking of bad stuff, I would be remiss to ask you about the current election season. It feels like a horror show every time I turn on the television.
I moved to Canada not because of the politics in America. I’m happy to say that I moved up here 12 years ago. So you can’t call me someone who fled the Trump mania. But it’s just disgusting. I can’t believe that so many people are sucked in by that kind of rhetoric. Basically, it’s disappointing. That’s the only word for it. And they’re actually attacking press people. This whole rhetoric about the fucking nasty press being almost as bad as Hillary. Crooked Hillary! Crooked press! Jesus Christ, it’s unbelievable.
When you return to “Night of the Living Dead,” does it feel like a political film in retrospect?
It does not. I can see why it seemed that way. But it doesn’t seem that way right now to me. Maybe it’s because I can’t erase the things that were in our minds when we were making the film. Forget race. It was all about people stuck in a situation where the world is changing outside. Clearly, there was a substantive change happening, and these guys were still arguing about going upstairs, downstairs, blah, blah, blah. That’s all I see in it.
It also addresses preconceived notions of domestic life.
It was the idea of the family unit. Everything is falling apart. Back then, in 1968, everything was suspect — family, government, and obviously the family unit in “Night of the Living Dead” completely collapses. That’s what we were focused on. I don’t see the broader statements on race. The message is, “Hey, what can’t we just get along?” If they pulled together, they’d be OK. To that extent, that’s exactly what’s happening now in the United States. It’s bisected. If you’re a Republican, you can’t vote this way, and if you’re a Democratic you can’t vote that way. It’s garbage — just crap.