When was the last time you saw a great horror movie–not just a scary or revolting tale, but one that had useful things to say about modern life? Quite some time, probably. Aside from the occasional pop culture earthquake (The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project) or critical favorite-turned-cult-classic (The Devil’s Backbone, The Kingdom), most horror movies released these days are too glossy, cutesy, focus-grouped and self-aware to disturb anybody. Once a proud genre, horror has been taken over by audience-flattering pastiche (The Ring, the Scream films) and outright parody (Scary Movie).
There was a time when real horror movies came out with some regularity–approximately 1968-1982, when the new wave of horror owned movie screens. That movement’s brightest lights included John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven in the U.S., Mario Bava and Dario Argento in Italy and David Cronenberg in Canada. They were the blood-and-guts equivalent of the more respectable young auteurs who became critical darlings–Francis Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, filmmakers who balanced showmanship with relevance, and whose deep knowledge of cinema’s past rarely mutated into pastiche or outright ripoff. Like the mainstream movie brats, the young Turks of horror didn’t just get their rocks off by stealing cool shots from their favorite old movies; they transformed the material, aiming to seduce audiences with shock and fright and then make them think about the sources of those feelings.
Pittsburgh-based writer-director George Romero, whose career will be celebrated by the American Museum of the Moving Image starting Jan. 11, towered above the rest. Bluntly violent and rudely funny, his horror pictures traded on familiar horror-film tropes (zombies and maniacs on the loose, id-creatures doing a respectable person’s bidding). Yet when you look at his filmography en masse, it seems as politically astute and sociologically observant as the work of superior technicians like Spielberg and De Palma.
Interviewed by phone at his Pittsburgh home, Romero spoke with New York Press about his career, his politics, the state of modern horror and the possibility of a fourth zombie movie, which is currently in development at a major studio.
Romero’s remarkable run of work began with 1968’s low-budget, pornographically brutal, black-and-white thriller Night of the Living Dead (Jan. 11, 3:30 p.m., introduced by Romero). It’s the ultimate zombie picture and, with its army of mindless flesh-eaters, still the most potent screen metaphor for the war fever and domestic unrest that spooked America in the 60s. With its deep skepticism about government, firearms, small-town values and the nuclear family, Night is arguably the first breakout smash that exuded counterculture attitude; it preceded Easy Rider by a year, and has aged more gracefully.
"We were all of that mind," says Romero of his young cast and crew. "We were a bunch of hippies living in a farmhouse."
Romero is intrigued by the many interpretations of what the zombies "mean" or "stand for." But he stresses that he never meant for them to represent just one thing–they’re concrete enough to invite the audience to project their own fears, but abstract enough to stand for anything. Significantly, Romero’s zombies were some of the few classic horror-film monsters that didn’t instinctively hide in darkness, then jump out at people. They walked slowly across open fields under harsh moonlight or foggy sunlight. They didn’t seem to care if you saw them coming .
"That’s what evil is," says Romero. "You’re not really surprised by it. You know it’s out there. It’s working. You see it coming."
Romero invokes "Hitchock’s definition of surprise versus suspense": With surprise, two people are talking at a table and a bomb goes off. In suspense, the audience knows the bomb is there in advance and spends the next few minutes dreading the explosion.
Romero made two other zombie pictures, both notable for how they rethink (and in some ways enlarge) the original’s concept. Dawn of the Dead (1978, Jan. 12, 2 p.m.) follows two SWAT team members and two civilians recreating civilization in a deserted shopping mall where rotting former suburbanites stagger through fluorescent-lit chain stores, grasping onto anything that strikes them as familiar. Day of the Dead (1984, Jan. 12, 4:30 p.m.), set mostly in an underground military facility, was Romero’s attempt at a zombie epic–a take on the 1980s panic over viral infection and nuclear holocaust. Compromised by budget constraints, it’s still a vibrant effort, with a movie first: an intelligent zombie asserting his individuality and grooming himself as a leader.
Romero is currently developing a fourth zombie picture (he asked that this article not disclose the name of the studio, for fear of jinxing the deal). According to Internet reports, he has been trying to get it made for at least four years. But he says the project gained momentum (and a slightly different spin) after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The new crop of zombies could stand for the fanatical foot soldiers of Al Qaeda, the surveillance-crazy ex-business moguls of the Bush administration or any number of persistent public threats.
"In the end, I guess the story is about what my movies are often about, which is ‘ignoring the problem.’ In this picture, humanity has crawled up out of the gutters and is trying to rebuild while just living with the zombies."
In Romero’s new script, mortals live facsimiles of normal lives next to cordoned-off zombie ghettos. "It’s like, ‘Just seal it up, folks!’ That’s what we’re trying to do today, whether the problem is terrorism or [the scandals in] the church. We want life to go on, the same as always. We put our heads in the sand. [After the attacks] it was like, ‘Just keep on buying those plane tickets, folks! Go on another cruise!’"
Romero’s super-sized early triumph may have handicapped his potential as an artist. Night of the Living Dead made such a powerful impression on moviegoers that when he departed from zombie stories, the work was often viewed as a time-killer. Because he’s specialized almost exclusively in horror since then–and insists on living and working in Pittsburgh rather than L.A. or New York–he’s still viewed by most critics as a disreputable curiosity. Yet as the AMMI series demonstrates, Romero is an auteur who manages to ring the same thematic gongs, whether he’s making a zombie thriller or a 1960s commercial for Calgon detergent modeled on Fantastic Voyage. (The latter is part of a "Short Works" series screening Jan. 18 at 12 p.m.; the lineup includes Romero’s late-60s documentary on O.J. Simpson.)
Romero’s two collaborations with pal Stephen King–whom Romero met when a studio wanted him to direct an aborted big-screen version of Salem’s Lot in the mid-70s, and who did a cameo in Romero’s 1981 jousting biker fable Knightriders (Jan. 19, 2:30 p.m.)–have nothing in common besides their "horror" designation. Creepshow (1982, Jan. 25, 2 p.m.), which features King as a doltish farmer infected by "meteor shit," is a playfully moralistic anthology drawn from Eisenhower-era horror comics (the characters are undone not by supernatural forces, but by their own sinful impulses). 1992’s The Dark Half (Jan 26, 4:15 p.m.), based on King’s novel about a meek, law-abiding writer stalked by the reincarnation of a twin brother long thought dead, is a Jekyll-Hyde story, with a standout double-performance by Timothy Hutton and cinema’s scariest use of Elvis Presley’s "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" The Dark Half might fit nicely on a double bill with 1988’s Monkeyshines (Jan. 25, 4:15 p.m.), about a paralyzed man whose violent secret wishes are acted out by a caretaker monkey.
To some extent, Romero says all of his films are about "the monster within. We ignore it. Or we don’t see it; even if we’re looking in the mirror, we don’t see it–especially if we’re looking in the mirror. That’s what I liked about Monkeyshines, although maybe I hit the theme a little too hard in some of the dialogue."
He says his other pet themes are "lack of communication, or the failure of communication, and clinging to values that aren’t really going to help you, whether it’s politics or church or marriage, if it’s a bad marriage." His movies present institutions as organizations that pay lip service to noble impulses but are mainly concerned with perpetuating themselves. "Institutions are a fiction we’ve all agreed upon, for some weird reason," he says.
Romero says he’d like to make films outside the horror genre, but Hollywood has typecast him as the gore guy. He’s not complaining about that–"I’m not crazed over not doing them… Maybe someday I’ll get a shot"–but at 62 years old, he is aware of trying to make up for lost time. "I missed the 90s because of being involved in too many projects that didn’t happen," he says.
Romero hasn’t released a theatrical movie since The Dark Half. His only other complete feature, Bruiser–"about a guy who loses his face, or thinks he loses his face; maybe it was a little bit too esoteric"–went straight to video in 2000. But he’s kept busy. Besides the new zombie picture, he’s working with King on an adaptation of King’s short story The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
The horror genre could use him right now. Even Romero says he’s disappointed by recent horror movies, a jokey, audience-flattering bunch exemplified by the Scream and Scary Movie franchises.
"There have been a few that have been interesting, mostly the more traditional ones like Signs," Romero says. "But I don’t see many people using horror to tell a parable of some kind. There seems to be nothing underneath most horror movies. It’s a slasher film or a comedy or a heavy effects film or an eye-candy thing… But I don’t think the genre is ever truly dead. There’s always an audience out there for a good fright."