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George A. Romero on “Diary of the Dead”

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By Aaron Hillis

Although a strong case could be made for why “Martin” and “The Crazies” are neglected classics, the richest work in horror maven George A. Romero’s oeuvre always seems to be populated with wall-to-wall zombies. Romero invented cinema’s undead flesh-munchers, at least the modern mythos, but his intelligence and staying power among cinephiles comes from how he uses the genre to reflect and poke holes in real-life societal ills. 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” the granddaddy of them all, famously invoked Vietnam-era paranoia, with an ending that showed how mankind could be just as monstrous as the moaning hordes. 1978’s consumer-dependency spoof “Dawn of the Dead” followed, then 1985’s macho-fascism rampage “Day of the Dead,” and 2005’s “Land of the Dead” played like a greatest hits whack at 20 years of corporate greed and political corruption.

It’s now a quintet with Romero’s “Diary of the Dead,” a terrifying, whip-smart, often darkly hilarious critique of new media. Resetting the series’ timeline, the film goes back to day one of the zombie infestation, as seen through the eyes of film students making their own horror flick. As the news begins breaking, one student makes it his compulsive duty to record every second of history as it’s being made, and in turn, Romero’s film is structured entirely as a documentary-within-a-film — think “Cloverfield” with brains, “The Blair Witch Project” with substance or “Redacted” with zombies instead of disingenuous guilt. I chatted with Romero on February 5th (a day after his 68th birthday), or as the media played up its primaries branding, “Super Tuesday.”

There’s something fitting about “Diary of the Dead” coming out in an election year. Exactly how deep does your cynicism run when it comes to American politics today?

[laughs] I’m pretty goddamn cynical, but I’ve been that way forever. I don’t know, can you predict what’s going to happen? I just worry that there’s too much prejudice against a woman or an African-American to beat Romney, god forbid. I have no idea which way it’s going to swing. Before we made “Night of the Living Dead,” we had a little production company that did beer commercials, industrial films, and so forth. We also did political campaigns, and in fact, we did Lenore Romney’s campaign to be governor of Michigan. Harry Treleaven and all the boys who brought you Nixon ’68 were there, and it just gave me an inside look at the scene. I’ve been pretty cynical about it ever sense.

What about in the long view? Are we better or worse off now?

I just can’t believe people can get suckered into the same old kind of political game-playing. It’s like Oral Roberts: there’s a way of talking, a way of winning issues. It’s ridiculous, there’s no straight talk. Part of what inspired this film is that, like that old show “Crossfire” on CNN, which was just people screaming at each other. You never got any information. Is the planet warming or not? We ought to be able to answer that question. There’s too much unmanaged information, and half of it is just opinion. Obviously, there are tremendous advantages to having this incredible access to information. I use the web all the time, and it’s fabulous. But it’s also wide open for the bad guys: how to build a bomb, how to order a hooker, whatever! It’s all on there.

Was the emerging media idea your main reason for rewriting the series’ history, or had you always intended to go back to the beginnings of the zombie rising?

No, I had the idea first, that these would be film students with a camera, and they could document it. I couldn’t really do that three years in after it had become Thunderdome! They wouldn’t be attending classes anymore, so I felt I could go back. It’s sort of returning to the roots, and it’s a film about people who were very much like what we were like when we made the first film. It was really like coming home.

02202008_diaryofthedead.jpgIt’s definitely coming home. “Diary” seemed to me like your angriest film since “Night,” a clear-headed evaluation on how we’re choking ourselves with so-called information. In a world with both tabloid TV and “Faces of Death,” how would you suggest we determine what’s worth documenting?

[laughs] Man, I don’t know! How do you draw that line? There’s a certain belief in journalism that if there’s a story, it’s worth reporting, no matter what the story is. Now they’re saying, “Hey, if you see a car chase or a fire outside your window, shoot it, and we’ll put it on the air.” It’s trivializing it, when there’s always been some management figure saying, “This is a big enough story.” That’s not right either, but the point is now it’s every which way but loose: “Look, that cat has a third ear, put it on CNN!”

Most of the stuff that plays solidly for three, four days a week seems pretty trivial to me, compared to some of the real problems we’re having in the world. It’s hard to define what you think is worthwhile. Ultimately, it comes down to somebody’s judgment — is Arianna Huffington any more of a judge than Joe Schmo in Chicago? I prefer the old days when it was being managed. Maybe I was being manipulated, but I always thought I was able to see through that. It bothers me a lot more having thieves and bad guys shouting at me.

So the next time I see Britney clogging up my television, what am I supposed to do with this these resentments your film exudes?

I know! That’s what’s so frustrating about it. It’s really a new question. With the power people still in control of the mainstream, all we’re getting is garbage. I’m sure there are people out there writing blogs, these timid little voices in the wilderness being straight-ahead, honest and trying to point out major issues and big problems, but they get lost in all the other smoke. I thought it was a bit demeaning, some of the questions sent in to the [CNN-YouTube] presidential debates. Some cat with a guitar gets on there and he’s entertaining. Somebody dresses up like a snowman, they throw them in. Here you are, running for this important office, and… I don’t know. There was something impolite about it.

If there aren’t any easy solutions, how destructive do you think media’s failings could potentially be?

I don’t think it’ll ever destroy the world because, in the end, there are enough people that either don’t pay attention or aren’t going to get suckered in. How bad could it get? It could be Nazi Germany on a grander scale, but somehow we seem to recover from that stuff. It amazes me that people are so willing to follow, that’s what scares me the most. People will send their last dime to some television evangelist without asking any questions. Someone who has impressive qualities and claims to be a leader and have some answers is going to get a lot of followers.

It’s a scary world. I’m half-Latino and my name is Latino. I grew up in an Italian neighborhood, and I was always getting knocked around by the Italian kids. So I know that the world can turn on you. You just don’t want anything that creates this kind of tribalism. Nobody listens to Rush Limbaugh unless they’re “with” what he’s saying. That’s the kind of shit they want to hear. And nobody is going to listen to these bloggers unless it’s the kind of shit they want to hear, but it’s pretty easy to preach radical ideas that a lot of people think is common sense. The idea of terrorism is having the same kind of effect, so that all over the world, people see this as a viable solution, and it’s just happening everywhere. I worry about when people get online and start preaching.

This is officially depressing, so let’s end on a lighter note. I loved your self-referential joke about why zombies can’t move quickly. What were your thoughts the first time you saw a sprinting zombie in a movie, such as Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake?

Obviously, I was… disappointed? Not a strong enough word. I thought it was ridiculous! First off, there are two sides to this argument. I grew up on “The Mummy,” man, the Christopher Lee “Mummy.” I like the idea of this big, slow, lumbering dead thing. He’s never going to catch you if you run, but you can drill him full of holes and he just keeps coming. There’s just something inevitable about this monster, and I think that’s scarier than things running at you. The other side of the argument is that I just don’t believe it. These things are dead, they’re stiff! Like in the “Return of the Living Dead” movies, where they’re digging their way out of graves. How does a weak zombie dig his way out of all that mahogany?

“Diary of the Dead” is now in limited release.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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