photo by Getty Images


by Robert Berry

Though he's too humble to admit it, George Romero's Living Dead movies deserve hallowed status alongside the greatest works of fiction. Maybe it was all just a beautiful accident, but 40 years after Night of the Living Dead's 1968 debut, zombies are bigger than ever. Romero's work has been able to make us look at ourselves and the way we live, though those that no longer do. The paranoia of locking yourself in an old house to keep yourself safe from the evils of the world still rings true on so many levels. The zombies shambling through the mall of Dawn of the Dead are a reflection of the sometimes equally meaningless way we spend our living hours.

While Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead delivered some memorable scenes and characters (Bub!), they fell a bit short from the huge bar raised by the original two installments. I'll admit, I was a bit concerned that his latest zombie flick, Diary of the Dead, with it's "Film Students Videotape A Zombie Outbreak" plot would be a bit too close to the similarly themed Cloverfield to stick out, the finished product blew me away.

Diary of the Dead is a zombie film I've been waiting to see for a long time. It's wonderfully directed, and full of tense action, splashes of humor, some great supporting characters, and some of the sickest gore effects I've ever seen.

The setup is simple with a quick payoff. The world is introduced to zombies and a documentary is made by a woman who survives that includes a brilliant mix of footage from TV news, security camera footage, the internet, and of course all new footage shot by her film school classmates, who just happened to be out in the Pittsburgh forest making their own monster movie when the shit comes down.

First and foremost, though it's shot "handheld camera style", the gimmick of it being done by film students who know their stuff makes it a lot easier on the eyes (and stomach) to watch. Simply put, Romero is a competent filmmaker who knows how to pull this sort of thing off without making the audience nauseous. He knows the puking should come from the acid dissolving a brain onscreen, not shitty camerawork.

The cast is a pretty fun, too, with a standout being this drunken English college professor guy played by Scott Wentworth that's along for the ride that is beautifully ridiculous. He has a ton of over the top corny dialogue that accentuate his scenes that make him just a total kick to watch. He's a great mixture of Peter Cushing meets Donald Pleasance meets Peter O'Toole.

In all, it's a great fun zombie movie from the master. Some of the narrative gets a bit corny/preachy at times about how awful things have become, but it's appropriate from the perspective of a jaded 20 year old. It delivers. It's got a fairly limited release, however, so do some looking around to find out if it's playing somewhere close by.

What better way to spend Valentine's Day then to have a quick phone conversation with George Romero? Well, sure, there are better ways involving butter, a slip and slide, and the cast of The Golden Girls, but beggars can't be choosers.

Hey, George, there's some really just sickeningly brilliant scenes in this movie, like the Amish guy with the scythe and the overpass suicide zombie, I just love those. Has there ever been a scene that you wanted to film but for one reason or another it was just too extreme for even you to consider?

You know what? Extreme? No...I never stopped myself because something was too extreme. I almost didn't shoot the whole Amish farmer sequence because I thought it was too silly. I don't know, some of my friends talked to me about it and then I realized I actually threw a pie fight into Dawn of the Dead, so in the end I came down on the side of shooting it and if people think it's too slapstick, maybe it is. But I wanted to throw it in. In the end I think it winds up being a really strong sequence, so I'm happy it's there. And everybody seems to really get off on it, so...I'm glad we did it.

Yeah, you gotta show those Shaun of the Dead guys that they're not the only ones that can mix the humor in there, huh?

(laughs) Those boys are great. Wait a minute! Simon (Pegg) is the new Scotty! I can't believe it.

That's gonna be great, I can't wait to see it.

I just hope it's good, you know?

That's a lot of big shoes to fill there, that's for sure.

I'm telling you.

What were the biggest challenges in shooting a film like this in only 23 days?

Uh...the biggest challenge is that all you have is 23 days! (laughs)

Well, that'll be the stupidest question you'll get from me today.

Well, you know that you have to get it all in the can. It's daunting. I've had several people say to me, "Well it must have been great to have just be able to turn the camera on and shoot this subjective stuff without caring." But I'm telling you it required more discipline than anything I've ever done that was objective, because the camera was basically seeing everything 360. There was nowhere to hide the lights, we had to stage everything. Not only the actors, but the crew guys, ducking under lens, moving a light here and there. It required a lot of discipline on everybody's part. It's not as free and easy as it looks. The great thing was that this cast was terrific. We never blew a take because an actor forgot his lines. It was always us blowing it. "Whoops I saw that light, or I saw that guy!" Or a stunt guy ducking under the lens. But that was the toughest thing.

It's a lot of hard work, but that's the price, the cost of doing business in a way. The only way that I could have complete control of the film was to do it within a certain budget range. Which we could only afford to do within so many days. That's the trade off, and luckily we got a crew and cast that tried to pull it off. There were no prima donnas. Everyone was there to hold the cannon. It was a great experience, it really was a good time.

Zombies obviously existed in some form before Night of the Living Dead, but you clearly created the modern zombie as we know it. What sort of pride do you have to just sit back and reflect on all the movies, games, and books that were inspired by your work, looking back on all these decades of those products?

Well, you know, I can't think of it that way. I can't think of it as inspirational in that sense. I never knew that these guys were zombies. In the first film I didn't call them zombies. So I don't know what I did exactly. I created the living dead, the modern living dead. The guys with Nikes and a t-shirt who happens to be dead. So is that enough? Is that ... it ain't Frankenstein and it ain't Dracula. It won't go down in the annals that way. And I don't think it's movies that have popularized this creature, it's the videogames, and comic books, and all the sort of alternative culture things.

The remake of Dawn made a lot of money. Shaun of the Dead was very popular. 28 Days Later, in my mind, is not a zombie movie, because they're not dead. They're infected. I mean, name another zombie movie that's been influential or has made a lot of money. Nothing has made more money than the remake of Dawn. It's videogames! Resident Evil, Dead Rising, that's the stuff that is popular that I see. Zombies are very easy to stick into a first person shooter.

That's certainly good stuff, as you say, but particularly "Night" and "Dawn" that's great filmmaking of all time there. Don't sell yourself short there. Those are all time legendary movies that will forever be important in that regard. You know?

Listen, thank you very much for saying that, and I appreciate it, but like I say, it's not Now Voyager, it ain't Casablanca (laughs) you know what I mean. Anyway, thanks!

We've asked this of a few people and I'd sure love you opinion. What's the scariest movie scene of any movie you've ever watched that just really sticks out as the one scary scene that just gets you every time in a film?

Well, nothing really gets me every time. When you work in the medium...I'm immune to it. I can't see it as frightening. I don't think my films, with the exception of Night of the Living Dead, are creepy in any way. They're more comic book and not particularly scary. When I try to think back at what scared me, I have to go back to my youth, because...I don't know. The moment I started to work professionally I became immune to it. I remember The Thing, and I just happened to be the right age, the Howard Hawkes' production, was the movie that as a young guy, really scared the shit out of me. And that movie to me is about doors. They keep on opening doors, and walking through doors, and all of the sudden they open one, and there's The Thing! It just scared the shit out of me. So that was the scariest thing.

In later years it was The Exorcist, maybe because of my Catholic upbringing, I could sort of get it but it really didn't scare me. Alien, maybe in the modern era. What is it, 20 years? I thought it was a nerve-wracking movie, but it's really hard to scare me, to get to me that way.

Well, those are all great movies. Hey, we're almost out of time, we got a tight schedule here, but thank you for talking to me and I was really surprised at how great this movie was. We really enjoyed it and the crowd I saw it with liked it a lot and I think you have a good hit on your hands with this. It's a lot of fun and it's kind of nice to see a reboot of the whole zombie thing with a new angle on it.

It was great to sort of go back and do something small again. Thank you very much, man, and thanks for saying all of those great things. Tell you what, call me up every two days and say the same thing.

Yeah, I'll be your pick me up guy. Thanks so much, George, and have a great day.

Thank you!

-Robert Berry