PARK CITY, Utah — These days, zombies are running all over the place, quite literally. From the “28 Days/Weeks Later” and “Resident Evil” series to “I Am Legend” to a recent Marvel Comics series that re-cast all its icons as flesh-hungry anti-heroes, there are big bucks in brain-eating.
Still, George A. Romero remains an outsider. This Friday, the legendary “Night of the Living Dead” filmmaker celebrates his recent 68th birthday with the release of “Diary of the Dead,” an anti-valentine that explores the question of whether camcorders, cell phones and a broadband connection could stop the undead. In a heartfelt interview, the outspoken Romero was eager to take a bite out of film festivals, MySpace and anybody who’d pay to see a running zombie.
MTV: Tell us about the very first time you ever heard of the concept of a zombie.
George A. Romero: Zombies, in my day when I was growing up and watching those Universal horror films, were those guys in the Caribbean that were doing all the work. They were the henchmen. It was voodoo and zombies. They weren’t necessarily dead. If you read [Wade Davis’ book] “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” that voodoo stuff is actually real. You can create this potion from dried-out blowfish and actually put people in suspended animation!
MTV: You just made it an undead thing.
Romero: Well, that’s where the word “zombie” comes from, it’s a voodoo thing. I never thought [my monsters] were zombies. When I did “Night of the Living Dead,” I didn’t call them zombies, because I thought a zombie was that voodoo character. Instead, I called them flesh-eaters. Later, when people started to write about the movie, they said, “These are zombies.”
MTV: The word is never uttered in “Diary.” Why not?
Romero: No, because it’s early [in their attack on the living]. In my version of “Dawn of the Dead,” they used that word for the first time in that early series. “Diary of the Dead” goes back to that very first night. Theoretically, it’s a parallel story with “Night of the Living Dead,” and I even used some audio from “Night of the Living Dead” in it. So, nobody knows what they are yet. They’re not calling them zombies yet.
MTV: You revealed “Diary of the Dead” at Sundance, to a packed, shrieking, midnight crowd. Does that feel like home to you?
Romero: Midnight feels like home to me, but not being [at Sundance]. I don’t like [the festival] kind of thing; it’s too much buzzing. I’ve always lived in the middle of the country. I get an allergic reaction to Hollywood.
MTV: Your film is coming to theaters. So, why did you even bother to go to Sundance, alongside all those unsold films?
Romero: It’s an honor. And the Weinsteins wanted me to be there to help promote it, and blah, blah, all of that stuff. It’s almost an obligation, a contractual obligation.
MTV: Once again, you depict the dead rising, but this time the media is much more instrumental in the story. And you’ve got some big names providing the voices of all those news reports. Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino …
Romero: Yeah, their voices. Wes Craven, Guillermo del Toro, Simon Pegg from “Shaun of the Dead.”
MTV: Did they all assemble in a voiceover studio in L.A.?
Romero: Nah, we just did it over the phone. We were able to do that, because you hear them all over the radio, and so it didn’t need to be high fidelity. We just called them up and said, “Hey, Quentin, would you do this voice?” And he was like, “Sure, man!” and he knocked it out.
MTV: The survivors in this flick use sites like YouTube and MySpace to get the word out on how to kill the zombies. Do you ever visit these sites yourself?
Romero: No, I’m not a regular visitor. I see it all happening, and I have kids of age who have their blogs, so I sort of know what’s going on, but I avoid it. It actually worries me, man. I say to myself, “Holy sh–, if Hitler was alive today? Forget about it. He wouldn’t have to go to the town square and take the tomatoes.”
MTV: You mean, it would be easier for someone like him to spread a message of hate?
Romero: Yeah, to spread his message. Anybody who gets on the Internet and sounds reasonable has a bit of charisma — all of a sudden you’ve got 2 million followers. That feels a bit dangerous to me. And that’s what inspired me to make the film, to do something about that. Everybody feels that they’re licensed now to be a reporter! Christ, CNN says, “Hey, if there’s a fire outside your window, shoot it. We’ll put it on the air.” That seems to be people’s aspiration today. People are walking around with cameras hoping to see a plane crash. It’s spooky.
MTV: There’s a scene in “Diary” where one character argues with another about why it’s physically impossible for the undead to run. Is that a response to young moviegoers who want faster, sleeker zombies?
Romero: That was a direct slap at the remake of “Dawn of the Dead” where [director Zack Snyder’s] zombies ran, and they even over-cranked it so they ran faster. I just don’t believe that. They’re dead! They have to walk slow; they’re stiff.
MTV: When people remake your movies, do you want to watch them?
Romero: I watched Zack’s movie; I sort of had to. My ex-partner [Richard Rubinstein], who is still a friend, produced it, so I had to as a courtesy. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have. Zack’s a great action director. I thought it was just an action film. It lost its reason for being. I didn’t find any message in it, or any political theme underlying it, just an action film.
MTV: When you made “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, you began your career for about $10,000. Would you advise beginners today to use zombies as a launching pad?
Romero: No, I would say try something else. At horror conventions and film festivals, young people come to me and give me movies they’ve finished, and half of them are zombie movies. I say, “Guy, it’s getting a little old!”
MTV: Where are your zombies heading next?
Romero: An island, I think. I haven’t gone to an island yet. There’s a lot of talk of a sequel to “Diary,” and I think it’s gonna happen. For the first time, I think I will continue with the same characters.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Diary of the Dead.”
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