Zombies, as any cultural critic who’s ever written about zombie movies will tell you, are metaphors. They represent our societal and generational fears, or something. Take George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, that seminal zombie masterpiece from 1968. The zombies aren’t just reanimated corpses who can’t resist bum-rushing a Pennsylvania farmhouse. They symbolize Cold War paranoia and homosexual repression and mainstream tensions about the counterculture and Vietnam War anxiety and a bunch of other stuff too, depending on who you ask. But whatever you think inspired them, Romero’s hippie-era zombies are undeniably the stuff of nightmares. Sure, they’re lurchy at best, and relatively easy to outrun if you just walk at a slow pace in the other direction, but something about their unrelenting “can do” determination and flash mob–style team efforts makes them legitimately terrifying. There’s a palpable tension among the non-zombified heroes, a growing realization that doom is inevitable and the zombies will likely prevail in the end. And any brains they don’t eat will probably be on the receiving end of a bullet, thanks to a redneck posse with orders to shoot first and ask if they were black… er, a zombie later.
So what can we make of the zombie metaphors in Survival of the Dead, Romero’s fifth sequel to his original horror classic? All these years after the zombie apocalypse, the walking undead haven’t really changed that much. They still stagger like a drunk guy looking for a cab, and they’re as single-mindedly carnivorous as ever. But the living aren’t nearly as petrified as they were back in the wacky tobacky 60s. At worst, they’re mildly inconvenienced by zombies. Their reaction is similar to what most of us feel when we’re taking off our shoes at airport security. You know you have to do it, but Jesus Christ, still? At one point in the movie, a National Guard soldier realizes that a zombie has snuck up behind him, and after rolling his eyes with exaggerated annoyance, he mutters “Shiiiiit” before setting its head on fire. Zombies are no longer a real threat. They’re a nuisance at worst, an irritating fact of life, and a stupid one at that. Zombies are about as crafty and devious as the Times Square bomber. If you want to stop a zombie, you just have to pay attention. So the real battle is no longer with the zombies, but between the people who can’t decide on the best way to deal with them. Should we just shoot ‘em all in the head, or try to rehabilitate them with horse meat? The arguments among the living, although ostensibly about saving humanity, are really about proving that the other side isn’t as concerned with national security as you are. As one clan leader confesses, “That’s all I ever wanted, is for you to admit that I’m right and you’re wrong.” Glenn Beck couldn’t have said it better.
I called Romero to talk about Survival of the Dead, which opens in theaters nation-wide tonight. His personality is exactly what you’d expect from a 70-year old horror director who wears enormous old-guy glasses and has old-school ideas about zombies. He was charmingly cantankerous. He also had a roaring, swampy cough, which he blamed on a chest cold he caught in Toronto.
Eric Spitznagel: To paraphrase Freud, sometimes things have symbolism and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Are the zombies in your movies always a metaphor, or are they sometimes just bloodthirsty walking corpses?
George Romero: To me, the zombies have always just been zombies. They’ve always been a cigar. When I first made Night of the Living Dead, it got analyzed and overanalyzed way out of proportion. The zombies were written about as if they represented Nixon’s Silent Majority or whatever. But I never thought about it that way. My stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly. I’m pointing the finger at us, not at the zombies. I try to respect and sympathize with the zombies as much as possible. (Laughs.)
You really do. Sympathizing with zombies is a big theme of Survival of the Dead.
These characters are questioning whether we should be so quick to dispose of zombies. Because what if you shoot Grandma in the head and next week there’s a cure for zombism? (Laughs.) I guess that’s the Catholic in me.
Zombies have a weird fixation with eating human flesh and brains. What is it about being undead that makes somebody so ravenous?
First of all, why does everybody say that zombies eat brains?
Because… it’s true?
I’ve never had a zombie eat a brain! I don’t know where that comes from. Who says zombies eat brains?
I remember brains being a big zombie menu item in Return of the Living Dead back in the mid-80s, but I’m not sure if that’s where it started.
Whenever I sign autographs, they always ask me, “Write ‘Eat Brains’!” I don’t understand what that means. I’ve never had a zombie eat a brain. But it’s become this landmark thing.
Well, what about gorging on human flesh? Your zombies do that, right?
Where does that come from? Is it like when poor people eat too much fast food because it’s cheap and it gives them an endorphin rush and helps them forget their troubles?
I don’t know. I suppose the ultimate question is, do they shit? (Laughs.) I have theories about it, but I don’t know.
Please tell me that’s a philosophical riddle you’ll be exploring in your next movie.
Oh no, no, no. Not at all. (Pause.) Well, maybe. I’m actually working on a novel. It seems like everyone is writing a zombie novel these days, but I think mine will be a little different.
If only because it deals so heavily with zombie feces.
I think it’d be pretty fun to talk about something like that in a book. It’s certainly not something that would be pleasant to deal with in a film.
Your zombies have always walked with a meandering shuffle, but modern zombies seem to be becoming more aerobic. Why is that?
I think it’s video games, man. Zombies are always moving fast in video games. It makes sense if you think about it. Those games are all about hand-eye coordination and how quickly can you get them before they get you. So the zombies have to keep coming at you, crawling over the walls and across the ceiling. Zombies are perfect for a first-person shooter game, because they exist to be damaged.
You don’t think it has anything to do with our fast-paced society? If a zombie doesn’t keep up, he’s going to be replaced by a computer.
No, no, it’s just the influence of video games. I don’t think there’s anything deeper to it than that. Filmmakers saw what was happening in video games and started thinking, “Well, we’ve got to keep pace and make our zombies fast too.” I still don’t agree with it. If zombies are dead, how can they move fast? My guys don’t run. They never have and they never will. They’re just lumbering oafs that are easy to dispose of unless you make a mistake. Those are the rules, and I’ll stick with what I’ve got.
I’ve heard that you don’t like to give your zombie actors a lot of direction.
I find that if I make any sort of physical movement when I’m talking to them, they’ll just imitate that exact movement. It’s more fun to let them invent their own things. For the premiere of Survival of the Dead in New York a few weeks ago, we did one of those zombie walks through downtown Manhattan, and around 300 people came out. They were all dressed as zombies, and they did their own makeup and created these amazing costumes. Some of them came up with some wonderfully inventive things, like walking on their ankles and stuff like that. So when I’m directing zombies, it just makes more sense to trust their creativity. All I ever say to them is, “Do your best dead.”
What if they take too much creative license, or say things like “I think my zombie should wear an ascot and come at his victims with jazz hands?”
Well, that’s how a zombie ends up in the rear ranks, just out of the frame.
Do you come up with backstories for any of your zombies? Do they each have a unique personality?
(Laughs.) No, I’m afraid not. I do have favorites because they’re friends or they did a particularly clever thing. But no, nothing like a backstory.
So you’d never watch one of your movies and point to a random zombie and say, “That guy in the tie? His name’s Fred, he used to work in real estate, and he died of melanoma at 48.”
(Laughs.) That would be great! But no, I’ve never done that. There were a few zombies that were memorable. I really liked the helicopter pilot in Dawn of the Dead, when he gets bitten and comes out of the elevator. That guy was amazing. He did this incredible walk that we didn’t even know about until we started shooting. And I also have a soft spot for Bub from Day of the Dead, which was a brilliant performance, worthy of Boris Karloff. But that’s pretty much it.
Are zombies religious?
(Long pause.) What?
Well, obviously they believe in burial, right? You can’t be a zombie if your ashes have been scattered in the ocean. There probably aren’t many atheist zombies.
(Laughs.) Yeah, I guess not.
Before they became zombies, did they expect an afterlife? When they come crawling out of their own graves, they must be thinking, “Holy shit, it’s that Rapture!”
Maybe. (Long pause.) I don’t know. I’ve never thought of it exactly in that way.
I’m sorry. Are these the nerdiest questions you’ve ever been asked?
Not by a long shot. (Laughs.)
Your fans take this stuff too seriously?
I go to these horror conventions all the time, and these audiences get so deep into it. They’ve pulled apart every movie fifty ways from Sunday. Sometimes I just want to tell them, “Get a life, man! I had a great time making these films, but it doesn’t sound like you’re having as good a time watching them. You’re getting too involved! Lighten up!”
Maybe they’re just preparing for the inevitable zombie apocalypse.
(Laughs.) Oh god!
You don’t think civilization is going to be destroyed someday by an army of the undead?
Max Brooks wrote this great book called The Zombie Survival Guide, and it’s good fun. But I think Max in the back of his mind thinks it could possibly happen. He does these lectures and he brings all these weapons onstage and explains the best way to kill a zombie. I keep saying to him, “Max, none of this is real! It’s not gonna happen! Believe me, it’s not gonna happen!” (Laughs.) But maybe he’s right and I’m wrong and I’ll get hoisted on my own petard.
Brooks isn’t the only one. Remember those Canadian mathematicians who did a study on the zombie apocalypse?
I couldn’t believe it! These were scientists, and they wrote an actual treatise on how long it would take for humanity to be wiped out by zombies. Didn’t they say we’d be out of here within a couple of weeks?
Something like that. They said our only chance of survival is to “hit hard and hit often.”
Talk about a dark scenario. I have a couple of statistics in the beginning of Survival of the Dead, like how many people die every day and every hour and all that. But these guys went to the absolute extreme with it. Can you imagine? You go to school, eight years of college with grad school, and the first thing you do is figure out how long it would take zombies to kill all the humans!
I’m surprised you’re not rooting for a zombie uprising. That can only be good for you as a director.
You’re an icon of zombie filmdom. Don’t you think your movies will only get more popular if zombie attacks become the norm?
Not at all! Who’d buy tickets?! I think that’s the worst thing that could happen to zombie movies. Movies are about escape. If zombies are walking around everywhere, nobody will want to be reminded about them.
There’ve been a lot of successful Broadway musicals based on movies. Have you ever been tempted to make Night of the Living Dead: the Musical?
Well, I’m not tempted. But it looks like it could happen. There are some people who’ve been nibbling around the idea. Me and the rest of the people involved in the original Night of the Living Dead—there were 28 of us who made the movie, and 26 of us are still alive—we just got pitched by somebody who wants to do a Broadway version. They put on a big presentation for us. Most of the music has already been written and it’s pretty good. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but we’ll see. I have no problem with somebody doing it, I just don’t want to be involved. (Laughs.)
Can you at least promise us there’ll be lots of synchronized neck-twitch zombie dance routines, à la Michael Jackson’s Thriller video?
(Laughs.) I have no idea. And by the way, I’m still pissed off at John Landis because of Thriller. I think he did a great job. It was great fun. But why in the world did they call John instead of me? Ridiculous!
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com