George A. Romero is no stranger to acclaim as one of America’s great genre filmmakers. But why equivocate? In the 37 years since his startling debut feature, Night of the Living Dead, transformed the unease of late-’60s social realities into a frieze of literal and figurative human consumption, Romero has consistently proved one of the most astute observers of how we live in the land of the supposedly free. It is a body of work as ideologically (and financially) independent as any in American movies. In his latest, Land of the Dead (in theaters), Romero’s flesh-eating hordes continue to function less as the bogeymen of childhood prophecy than as windows on a society bitterly divided along lines of class and race, where global harmony is sacrificed in the name of homeland security and where we find ourselves ever more absurdly (and fatally) attached to the safety of objects.
Land of the Dead is your first zombie movie in 20 years. Why the long wait? I always wanted to do another one, but then we got hung up, my partner [producer Peter Grunwald] and I, for seven or eight years, stuck on projects. Some big stuff, too. I mean, during that period I made a lot of dough, but I didn’t make any movies. I started working on this script mid 2000 and finally got a draft and sent it out days before 9-11—after which everyone wanted to make soft, friendly movies. Then I took it back home and, sometime after the invasion [of Iraq], dug it out and twisted it around a little bit. In the original draft, it was more about homeland problems: AIDS, homelessness, etc.
Ironically, in those same years that you were stuck in development hell, a proliferation of movies clearly influenced by your work flourished at the box office. It was very frustrating that we never got pictures made, but it’s been a little more frustrating with the zombie stuff, because I thought, “How come nobody calls me up?” However, had they called me up, had I not had an idea, I would have said, “I don’t have an idea.” I don’t really look for work. I’m not on the phone now with my agent saying, “Get me another one!” I don’t need it. I don’t have to support a beach house in Malibu. I can get by. The fees on this will give me a few years if I need to take them. I’ve said no to a lot of stuff, and for that reason, I think, Hollywood has always been a little afraid of me.
In Land, the planned community of Fiddler’s Green feels like a steroidal version of the shopping mall from Dawn of the Dead—everything you could possibly need all under one roof, right down to the mechanical canaries. The financial stakes are a little higher, too. In Dawn, it was just about getting a pair of Nikes. But, you know, this is the era of Halliburton.
But it also seems a skewering of the suburban dream, of the idea that you can lock yourself away in your little glass high-rise and screen out all the world’s unpleasantries. And it’s about disenfranchisement, the schism between the haves and the have-nots. It’s that disenfranchisement that probably causes everything from Columbine to post office bombings. How do you say, “Hey, I’m me. I’m a person.”
Your films always take a few potshots at the exploitative tendencies of mass media. To what extent was that sensibility informed by your own early experience working in TV news? My first gig was bicycling these film newsreels around to the TV stations. I knew a lot of the newscasters. And I used to hang out with these guys. I’d go out for drinks with them, and they used to talk about “We’ll sell this” or “We’ll sell that.” It wasn’t about reporting, even then. It was about what would sell. So it’s hard not to take a few jabs at that kind of stuff.
Does this represent the end of the Dead series, or is there more to tell? I’d love to continue the story, and if this movie does well, it might be the first time where I’m asked to do another one quickly. Which is what worries me—unless we get nuked in the next six months and then there’s something else to talk about.