The horror world lost one of its masters in 2017. On what would have been George Romero’s 78th birthday, Horror Island revisits his 2007 interview in which he talks us through the filmmaking process and challenges for DIARY OF THE DEAD
Where did the idea for Diary of the Dead first come from? You’re moving on quite quickly from Land Of The Dead…
Aw, I know. I actually wrote a first draft of this even before Land Of The Dead was financed. Initially we were having trouble getting financing for Land. I first sent it just before 9/11, then 9/11 happened and everyone wanted warm, friendly, fuzzy movies, preferably with a pro-Arabic bent, so it didn’t fit the mould. So I had written this, and I sorta took it out of the drawer and I was so frustrated with not being able to get the financing for Land, I basically said to Peter [Grunwald, producing partner], “Remember that old thing about college kids making their own film…?” So I started to fiddle around with it. At the same time I was updating Land and trying to give that a post-9/ll spin, but I couldn’t really find a handle on this one. Eventually Land got financed so I put this one away again, and then because of the worldwide success of Land I went back to it.
Just how successful was Land?
Its box office success in the States was a bit disappointing because it was squeezed right between Batman and War Of The Worlds in this one-week sandwich position, but it did better in Europe, and then the DVDs took off, so overall it ended up being quite a successful film, even though it was not very expensive — it was under $20m. So then there was a lot of talk about a sequel, and I was just… I had hit the wall, basically. I’d guess I’d had it with disappointment.
The same thing happened to me a few years back after a long period of development hell, trying to develop projects and none of them were happening. Out of frustration I went off a financed a little film called Bruiser  with Canal Plus, which was like a vacation. So after Land, when it first came out theatrically in North America, I said, Oh man, take me back to my roots.”
What inspired you to experiment with DV cameras and digital media this time?
Around the same time, all during the post-production on Land, I’d been watching Iraq on the 24/7 news and seen this incredible, ballooning growth of alternate media. Youtube and so on — all of a sudden we’re all somehow electronically connected to one another. I found that as the spin to put on Diary Of The Dead, so I sat down and reworked the script to what it is now. And because of the success of Land worldwide… [Pause] There was a lot of talk about doing a sequel to Land; they wanted to do it with less money. But I just wanted to get back into the saddle, and there was also a big part of me that wanted to go back and really do something under the radar.
Did you always intend to shoot in Canada?
Yes. Diary of the Dead is the third film I’ve made here. Prior to that I’d made all my films in Pittsburgh, used many of the same crew people and had this sort of family… I enjoy working with friends, so my new little family of cohorts are all here, and I’ve basically been living here since Land Of The Dead.
But is it still set in Pittsburgh?
It is. In fact, Pittsburgh is mentioned. The kids are from the University Of Pittsburgh.
Why did the US release of Land end up being so disappointing?
I don’t know. It was one of the best reviewed films of the summer, so we all thought, “Ooh, man, we might have a a shot…” I think they released it…
In a hurry?
In a hurry, because Doom or somethin’ fell out. So it didn’t perform at all in North America. There was no time. There was no postering, not enough TV, it was just too quick.
Do you think it was misunderstood by the studio?
I think that had they kept their original date, which was October or something, then it would have done better, because it really wouldn’t have been up against anything, and they would have had the lead time to do a better job selling it. But, aw, y’know, Monday morning quarterbacking never works. But my initial reaction to that opening week was, “Aw, here we go again…” So I said to Peter, “Let’s go back, do something inexpensive and under the radar.”
Is it true you were thinking of doing Diary of the Dead as a TV special?
Initially, I was. I wanted to shoot it actually at a film school. There’s a school called Full Sail in Orlando, Florida, and I wanted to shoot it with students for 500 gees, really go back to guerilla stuff. But these guys loved it and started looking at it as a theatrical release, with alternate media and ancillaries… So then the question was: how much could we do it for? Because it’s well under $5 million. We got together and decided we could pull it off. It’s always labour-intensive and gruelling, but it’s the first film that some of us have really had a good time on for years.
It’s certainly a small crew …
It’s lean and mean, and that’s the way I like it. I’ve worked with most of these folks before, so we can shorthand and there’s no egos involved.
Did you know you’d set yourself a technical challenge, using just the one camera?
Yeah! It’s a style challenge. I often say, y’know, I don’t have all the tricks. One of the things that keeps me going and wanting to keep doing it is that I feel like I’m still learning to use the pencil. John Ford made, how many films? 200 and some? I’ve made 15, so I don’t have all those tricks in my hip pocket. And one of the things that keeps me going is learning more to use the medium, and Diary of the Dead has been such a departure.
I’ve really, really had to choreograph everything and I’m also trying to do it without music — seeing if I can basically score the thing with sound effects — so it’s a stylistic experiment as well for me. Luckily we have a great cast who are completely off-book. The last thing you want at the end of a three-minute take is for someone to flub a line, so they’ve been wonderful. And the camera department has been great in pulling it all off. So part of the fun for me is the craft.
Realism is very important to you. Has that been a headache?
It has, but really only in shots like the one we’re doing at the moment [involving a sword through the head], because there’s green-screen and CG involved. So that’s the only place it’s been a problem: trying to get the departments together, and matching focal lengths. That’s the kind of stuff that we’ve been doing for the last three hours: the boring stuff! That’s stuff’s just tedious, bit of a drag, but you’ve gotta do it. The rest of the stuff doesn’t involve effects; the prosthetics guys have been great, so we’ve just been able to get right out there and shoot it.
Will people be surprised at the smaller scale this time? People always expect your next film to up the ante, with more zombies, more scope…
I know, yeah, and that has been a bit of disappointment, I think, but that’s generally the audience that is there for that. I think the people that have come around to the films for whatever else they have in them have seen more of a progression. I use the word “mature”! (Laughs)
But this really is going back to the first night of the dead, and there’s also a little piece of this that has to do with frustration. We lost the copyright on Night Of the Living Dead because of a stupid error. We were a bunch of young guys who made a film and put the copyright button on our title, which was originally Night Of The Flesh-Eater. And when the distributor changed the title to Night Of The Living Dead, which was their title, not ours, our little copyright logo fell off, and no one noticed. We didn’t notice, they didn’t notice, so the film is basically in public domain.
So that’s the one that got away. And of course the other three films are owned by different people, so a little piece of what we’re doing here is trying to re-establish a franchise so that we can own a little piece of the action.
Diary of the Dead is talked of as being a sort of prequel. What was your thinking?
I wouldn’t call it a prequel. It’s sort of a simultaneous action. It’s not a period movie. None of them have been. It’s peculiar, I guess, sort of like the Bond movies — it doesn’t matter. The car’s changed, same guy, He’s been around a long time.
Why did you choose film students? Anything autobiographical there?
My justification originally was so that they would have the equipment and be a bit savvy and know how to handle it. That was as far as I went with it, but once we started to get into it I really started to fine-tune the script. And in addition to all the media references, I started to realise that some of this was in fact a bit autobiographical, a bit about us when we made Night Of The Living Dead, except in this case they’re making a documentary. They’re becoming obsessed with what they’re doing, to the point where what they’re doing becomes almost more important than what’s happening, so the film speaks a little about all of that. But it’s about a lot of things, about 24/7 media and how you get immune to violence and what’s going on around you just because you’re seeing it through a glass darkly. Or rather brightly.
9/11 was a highly documented event, and with camera phones and so on, every major event is, nowadays. Was that something you had in mind?
Oh yeah. Exactly. And we have some of that in Diary of the Dead. They’re seeing newscasts, doctored newscasts, and we’re putting as much of that in it as we can, logically. They’re on the net, they’re getting messages from all over the world, they’re on their cellphones…
Are you a news junkie or is this just an observation?
It’s sort of an observation. I am a bit of a news junkie. I’m not addicted but I’ll often have CNN or public radio on as wallpaper instead of music. I have the news on when I’m writing sometimes.
The Writing Process
How does the writing process work for you?
What I usually do is write a quick draft and then just sort of stay away from it for a while, then go back and re-read it. It takes three or four drafts for me to really figure out what it’s about, or what I might like it to be about. There’s a bunch of doctoring, usually, and we’re still finding things even now.
Peter’s a wonderful script editor, and every day we talk about things, just driving to set, coming up with new ideas. And the great thing about this situation [with Diary of the Dead] is that you don’t have to inform 300 different people. You can change the scene on the spot, and because of the subjective camera, and because of the long takes, it’s pretty easy, it’s not like there’s continuity from shot to shot. We don’t have to worry about cutting to the other angle because there is no other angle. There are times when we have two cameras, however — the students find another camera at one point — so those scenes are a bit headachey, making sure that everyone’s in the same spot and doing the same thing.
So can I take it that Land Of The Dead was more of a long-winded process…?
Oh boy! If you wanted to change anything, whether it was a line of dialogue…
In your own film?
Yeah, you have to get it approved. You basically wind up initialling those pages if you wanna make changes. On Diary of the Dead, you just say, “Hey, man, can we do this?” Then we think about about for a few minutes and then they say either yes or no. So it’s great.
Why was it so hard?
Nobody wants to make decisions. They bought a script, and that’s it. You usually write three or four drafts for the producer and then another three or four for the studio right before you shoot. But once that’s all done, and everybody has their thumbprints on it, it’s pretty well locked. And if you have an idea you can’t just do it on the set, you have to make sure it’s cleared. It’s just more difficult when there’s bureaucracy involved. And when you’re travelling with a bigger circus you gotta make sure that the elephants are in the parade.
Is there a sequel planned to Diary of the Dead or is it just a stylistic exercise?
Right now we’re treating this as something that is easily sequel-able, and of course it’s wide open at the end because we’re just sort of 48 hours into the phenomenon. But we haven’t talked about it, we haven’t written about it, because, once again, if we do it I’d like it to be about what’s going on. Y’know, have something to give it a different spin, a different underlying thing. Sure, if we sequelise this I can tell you roughly what the surface story is going to be but I don’t know what it’s going to be about, underneath all that.
Do you ever feel pressure to do that? You’re known for your subtexts, and the phrase “social commentary always pops up with reference to your work…
No, it’s not a pressure. I just like to make sure that there’s something there. It really wasn’t until I found this idea that I realised what Diary would be about. It’s about this 24/7 umbilical cord. We’re all on some sort of feeding tube. And once I got that, I was able to play around with it. I’m not a technology junkie. I don’t have a Blackberry. I’m NOT plugged in!
Do you use the net much?
Only email, or for research. I don’t surf. I burn incense to my computer, I just want it to work. Like I know nothing about automobiles. As long as it works, I’m fine.
What kind of research do you do?
Medical research. Hehe, always just a little something different. If I need technical information, whether it’s about electronics or medicine or anatomy…
So you’ve googled ‘how to sever a head’?
The Burning Question
What kind of blood and gore content can we expect in Diary of the Dead?
Again, because of the subjective camera, there aren’t any product shots, if you know what I mean. So it will be a bit more off-hand. There are a couple of moments, like this one we’re doing now, which is in-your-face, but it’s accidentally in-your-face, because of the guy who’s shooting it. Other than that, we’re trying to make it as much as possible part of a shot and make it seem a bit more accidental and a bit more realistic.
So I’d say maybe some fans will be disappointed that we’re not going in for those big Greg Nicotera moments, but they’re there, we’re just not gonna zoom in one ’em. They’re in the corner of the frame somewhere, where the guy making the film almost missed ’em. Which is also really fun and interesting to me: it’s there. Now, I’m hoping that in fact it’ll feel even more grisly. We’re trying to happen upon the violence rather than focus on it.
How was the studio relationship on the last one, as regards the violence?
They were great. I have to say that as far as Universal goes, everybody warned me and said, “Boy, you’re dealing with the worst guys on the block: the biggest bullies, the hardest to deal with, the Black Tower, blah blah blah…” But they were great. During production, all the way through the actual making of the film and all the way through post-production, I couldn’t have asked for a better relationship. They didn’t ask us to change a thing.
I made that film, and it really was the way I wanted it to be —within the limitation of budget. The only stuff that I couldn’t do was stuff we wound up not being able to afford, or we ran out of time. There was no interference, and I think they genuinely liked the film. I think they liked it too much, and thought they might be able to make more with it by putting it out when they did. Which was a bit of a miscalculation. Can’t figure it out. But there was something else too. I think there was a great deal of disappointment, even on the part of the fans — the fans that want Dawn Of The Dead: more violence, more gore, more zombies. So I think there was a bit of fan disappointment too.
But if you made Dawn with today’s technology it would be unwatchable, because it would be so repulsive…
Yeah, you wouldn’t be able to deal with it!
In Land, there’s a progression with the zombies, in terms of Big Daddy. Is that an idea you’ll be returning to?
I suppose that if anyone wants to make a fifth in that group of films, in other words take that progression a little further, I would. I’d stick with that. Here, on Diary, we’re going back to the first night, so they haven’t evolved. And I think even if we were to sequelise this one that they they wouldn’t be evolved either, certainly not to the point of Big Daddy. But actually Big Daddy, in my mind, was dumber than Bub. I still think Bub in Day Of The Dead is the smartest dude.
He deserved a sequel of his own.
Yeah, The Bub Show!
You seem very content to let the films stand as they are. You don’t revise them.
I’m really happy to let them stand. They are what they are. They’re my own things and I don’t care what’s going on around me. People say to me, “Oh, somebody made 28 Days Later… Oh, they remade Dawn… They did Shaun Of The Dead…” But I love Shaun Of The Dead! Everyone asks Steve King, “How do feel about Hollywood ruining your books?” And Steve says, ‘They’re not ruined — there they are on the shelf, right there.” So I’ve always felt that my work is my work and I don’t particularly care what the other boys is doin’.
If Diary Of The Dead takes off, would your priority be a follow-on from Diary?
We have a couple of projects in development. It depends. If one of those pops, I think I’ve had enough of a vacation making this that I’d probably be ready if something bigger wanted to go.
Oh yeah. I don’t get phone calls asking me to do musicals.
And you’re not finished with zombies?
‘Tales from the Crypt’ are classic interviews that originally appeared on our sister site, Close-Up Film, but which, for technical reasons, have long been unavailable. Horror Island is delighted to bring them back to life.