(Article by Lee Karr ©, added 1-Jul-2009)
Lee Karr was lucky enough to talk to George A. Romero about his latest zombie film... and other interesting stuff too!
Nearly 25 years ago I became a fan of George Romero. One night, during the early Summer of 1985, I was watching one of my then favorite shows, Late Night with David Letterman. On the show that night was a guest named Tom Savini who was on the show to plug a horror film called Day of the Dead. Before this I never watched horror films - I was 13 years old and scared to even watch the end of Jaws! Well, that appearance by Tom Savini changed all of that. I was fascinated by the effects & props and it sparked a lot of curiosity about these type of films. I went to Walden Books at my local mall a few days after this and discovered Fangoria issue #47 with the zombie "Dr. Tongue" on the cover. I read that issue countless times and studied the photographs from the film. This led to my renting of Dawn of the Dead at a local video store and being formally introduced to the cinema of George A. Romero.
Later that Fall, on Halloween night to be precise, I was fortunate enough to get the chance to see Day of the Dead in the movie theaters. While waiting in the lobby, I can remember a girl coming out of the previous showing laughing and screaming about how gross it was. I went back several times that week to see it again and even took my uncle to one of the viewings. At the end of the film when the soldiers are eaten, he turned to me and said "Jesus Christ, what the hell did you take me to see!" I loved it! I enjoyed every minute of the film and it still remains one the best times I've ever had at the movies.
A couple of years later in 1987 I purchased the book The Zombies that ate Pittsburgh, an absolute must have for any George Romero fan. By this time I had become a full blown Romero cinephile and was as hardcore of a fan as you could find. At that time, the thought that someday I might have the chance to be a zombie in one of his films, visit one of his film sets to write an article, or sit down in his home to interview him was something that never occurred to me. Those things would never happen and it was silly to even think of such things. However, all of those things did happen for me and they all happened in the last 5 years!
The opportunity to interview George came about because of a chance meeting after the close of the Chiller Theatre convention this past April. I was assisting John Amplas at the show and John wanted to do some catching up with George, so we went up to his room in the hotel. George, after a couple of drinks, gave me his home phone number and told me to call him whenever I wanted. He also did this because of a possible project that I am playing a very minor behind the scenes role in for George, the idea of which came about during the meeting in the hotel. This possible non-horror project is a massive long shot at best, but you never know, so we'll see what happens with it.
One day it hit me, what if I gave George a call to see if he was willing to sit down and discuss his newest film and maybe even talk about the old days in Pittsburgh as well? I'm sure George has better things to do with his day than sit down for another interview, but George was generous enough to say yes to this amateur reporter. The interview that follows is divided into two sections, with the first section dealing with the currently titled of the Dead. The second section is more of a "getting to know" type of piece on George as we discuss his personal life and former collaborators as well.
Part I: "Blank of the dead"
Walking into the lobby of the downtown Toronto apartment building that George Romero lives in and telling the man at the concierge desk that George Romero is expecting my arrival sounds so strange to me. I almost expect him to laugh and tell me to please leave. Thankfully this does not happen and he calls up to Romero's suite and I am given the approval to head upstairs. When I arrive upstairs and find his suite, the door is already propped open for me to come in. This small gesture basically says it all about George and how welcoming of a person he truly is.
When I step inside, George greets me with a smile and a handshake. As we walk to the living room I notice a framed movie poster for The Tales of Hoffman and a framed photo of George and Simon Pegg. Then we walk into the living room and there I see an actual muppet version of George that his girlfriend had made especially for him. George has added a cigarette to it's mouth and affectionately refers to it as "Mini-Me". I also spy a Pittsburgh Steelers Russian nesting doll of QB Ben Roethlisberger that George purchased in Moscow, of all places.
After sitting down and getting situated, we dive right into the new zombie film and discuss what George's message is this time out. "It's mainly about tribalism, which I think is what is screwing the world up - tribalism, nationalism, religion -people taking sides. All of my zombie films have had a little touch of that, but this is specifically about it. It's about a feud, a long standing feud between these two old guys on an island, where it should be safe and it's away from most of the chaos that's happening on the mainland. But these two old guys can't stop shooting at each other and that's more important - the feud is more important to them than trying to address the crisis." He pauses and then continues on this theme. "It's any of these wars that are based on old standing rivalries, whether they're religious, political, family, whatever. It's specifically about that." Ironically, just after George finishes, his cat Hamilton becomes entrenched in a stare down with George's bird. So even in the Romero abode, factions just can't come together it seems.
Even before Diary of the Dead was released in February of 2008, there was talk of a sequel. Reports on the internet were saying that it was going to be a direct sequel, something Romero flirted with briefly. "There was never going to be a direct sequel. There was a brief moment where I wanted to follow the three survivors in Diary that wind up in the panic room, and I actually started to write a script, but I got off it really quickly. I've never done a really direct sequel like that, with the same main characters. So it is a bit of a sequel, in that it takes minor characters from Diary and follows them to this island." Romero is already thinking ahead though for further adventures with his peripheral characters from Diary of the Dead, mainly because his "money people" want more of these films. "You know Diary had a small theatrical release. It did great financially on dvd worldwide. These guys keep wanting to make them and I have to do them. They have the right - if I don't do them - they have the right to do it themselves, so I'd rather do them. So I have this idea of taking minor characters - if there's another one after this, I'll take another minor character, probably the black guy from Diary and take him somewhere and maybe wind up with three or four films that are a pretty good description of what the world is like." He continues, "Given the fact that these guys seem to want to keep making them, I just didn't know what else to do. You can't really find new themes in the world quickly, the world doesn't change that much that fast!" When George talks about his "money people", he is speaking of Artfire Films, who also bankrolled Diary of the Dead. "Even though we're partners with them in these, we still retain ownership of the films, they call the shots because they write the checks. They don't have any creative control in the film, but they have all the business controls. Once I'm finished with the movie they can make decisions - distribution decisions - things like that." He continues, "They're great, I mean they're great partners, but I probably wouldn't want to do these this quickly, rapid fire. But I like this idea, I'd love to do maybe three or four films. We own them for the first time, well we own a piece of them with Artfire, which I don't have any ownership in any of the older ones. It's nice to finally have a little piece of the action!" This last line George delivers in his best Marlon Brando as The Godfather voice, something George loves to do.
As of this interview, George still has no idea what the title of the film will be and did not seem concerned with the issue at all. In fact, it could be a case where he will not even name it himself. "Well the distributor always has the right to choose a title.", he says. Romero feels that this film will probably go the same route as Diary of the Dead and premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival Midnight Madness event and most likely get released sometime in early 2010. He likes the idea of potential distributors bidding on the film, increasing the chances of a better deal. During this topic, out of the blue, George also drops in a tease regarding "zombie rules" and that something unexpected happens in this newest film. I have a feeling that a lot of fans might already know what this unexpected happening involving the "zombie rules" is.
During my set visit back in November of 2008, several key members of the production used the term "western" to describe the film, and George agrees. "It's not really a theme, it's a flavor that I just wanted to put on this film and I could do it because they're off on this island and there's no cars and they're all on horseback, so I pushed it a little bit and I just went a little further with the western thing."
In a recent USA TODAY article, Romero was quoted as saying that this one would be closer to Dawn of the Dead as far as action goes, but he softens that a bit. "To the extent that if you had to say that Diary was close to one of my other zombie films, it was closest to Night. Initially I was thinking well this is going to be a little closer to Dawn, because it's more colorful and it's narrative and there is more action in it, but not a tremendous amount. It's not like Dawn, it's not like a romp in the park, fun all the way - this is a little heavier. But it's definitely more action than Diary and it's more of a "story". And it's not subjective camera, except for little pieces of it that sort of wrap around. That's the way I would do them all."
One of the biggest reasons that Romero's films have resonated with fans are the characters. He has always had a knack for creating colorful and complex characters that are usually at odds with one another. "Well the main characters, the heroes if you want to call them that, are the four national guardsmen. They're the guys we get into the movie with. But there's a back story on the island and it's about these two old guys that have been feuding since kindergarten - it's the Muldoon's and the O'Flynn's! A couple of little surprises, I don't want to - well I can't give them away, they're too...well they're too important. I'll tell you, but you got to keep it a secret. You think he has a daughter. When you see the island in a flashback in the beginning of the movie, he's got a daughter - O'Flynn is the guy. O'Flynn believes we should go around and kill the dead - seems to make sense(laughing). Muldoon is sort of a religious fanatic, who say's you want to kill our sisters, our brothers, our children - maybe somebody will find a cure for this. So he believes in keeping them chained up and hoping for the best. He thinks it might be a virus, it might be something curable. They're sort of back woods people. So in addition to all the old stuff that they used to feud about, now they have this new issue. Muldoon kind of gets the drop on O'Flynn at some point and is going to kill him and O'Flynn's daughter intervenes and say's why don't we just send him off, we'll put him on a boat, get rid of him - so they ship him off the island. They don't want any strangers on the island, so O'Flynn makes it his point to send strangers. He gets this abandoned little boat shed in a pier in Delaware on the mainland. He's renting boats and telling people -he actually goes on the internet and say's 'come on out to Plum Island, it's safe out here!' So he's sending people out there to annoy Muldoon and then of course our guys hook up with him." It's here that I have to stop. Unfortunately I cannot divulge the rest of what George has to say, simply because I gave my word to keep it a secret. Sorry guys.
For the score this time around, George originally turned to an old friend in John Harrison. John's scores for Creepshow and Day of the Dead are very memorable, so it was exciting news when it was announced that he was returning to create the music for this film. Unfortunately, now that will not be the case. "No, he's gotten too busy. He hasn't done a score for a long time and was a little nervous about it in the first place, but he did a sample. He did the first reel and I thought the stuff was beautiful. He would have had to hire a producer and a studio, and the equipment, because he doesn't have it at home - he doesn't have the production facilities. He can't really get all the voices and make it sound less "synthy". And he lost a big job and needed to hustle to get something else going, because he wasn't going to make any money on this, so he decided to bail. Too bad, we had our spotting sessions, we were hanging out - you know, I love John from years and years of hanging out with him. I felt really bad when he bailed, because the work that he did was really great." According to George the film does have a new composer, Robert Carli, who has worked with the Toronto Symphony and teaches at the University of Toronto. Carli has done film scores for Canadian feature films and television films, and George seemed pleased with what he has heard so far.
Diary of the Dead was very different from his past efforts. The subjective camera work and young cast gave a new flavor to the series. Besides the western theme, can the fans look forward to something a little different this time around? "No(laughs). As I say there's a little bit of subjective camera in the beginning and if I do this collection - if I wind up doing a couple more of these I would start it that way, just in deference to Diary. I sort of like that connection. The opening shot is Alan Van Sprang on a subjective camera. NOW, that's the way it's playing. The problem is all this shit can change within the next few weeks. We saved all of that to use now, so that we can go thru the film and see if there was any other places where we could use a little bit of narration or throw them in to help the story, same thing we did with Diary. We did all the narration after everything else was done, so that you could watch the movie and say well this is a little unclear, maybe we can bring in a shot of that to explain it. It's a trick, it's a device, but it works pretty well. It helps you glue it all together."
Besides the social and political allegory in his films, one of the biggest trademarks of George's work is the gore. He held back a great deal with Diary of the Dead, showing very little. How will this newest one compare? "It's restrained compared to Day or Dawn, I mean it has to be these days because it has to be R, nobody is going to put it out un-rated. It certainly has more than Diary and there's one really sort of spectacular sequence, but we're worried whether the MPAA will allow it - where they pull a guy apart, a bit reminiscent of Pilato. But it's at night, it's darker - I hope we can get away with it. You know, it's always how do you kill these guys, and it's always about coming up with interesting or funny ways of getting rid of one of these guys. There's a bunch of that and some of them are funnier than they are gory. I think some of them are pretty incredible, if I say so myself." George excuses himself to the kitchen to pour a drink and continues, "There's a hell of a lot of gun play. Everybody say's oh man, you're just shooting them now, but I bet if you go back to Dawn, 85% of the kills in Dawn are gunshots. It's the fastest way, most logical way, if you have a gun. Not everybody has a helicopter(laughs).
Unlike the last two zombie films, George say's not to expect any famous cameos or voice-overs this time around. He also wishes that the film would go directly to video, making it easier for the fans to access it. The film, which was shot digitally on The Red One camera, was a very challenging experience for the 69 year old film maker. "I loved the experience, except that we got KILLED by weather, I mean we just got killed. We weren't able to shoot all of the scenes that were in the script because we were just killed by weather. There was one big zombie scene that I would have loved to have gotten, but we just ran out of time- I mean we got snow, rain - we lost about three and a half days to weather, on a 25 day schedule."
Recently an online trailer for the film was released by Voltage Pictures, stirring up debate among fans. As some suspected, Romero was not involved with the it's release. "We weren't aware of it until it appeared and then people started calling up and saying wow it looks great (Romero shrugs his shoulders). Everybody hit the roof, I mean skyrockets went off, because they have no right to do it - Voltage had no right to do that. They're sales agents, the materials they were getting from us were suppose to be exclusively for selling to European distributors, and they shouldn't have put it online. It was not color corrected, there were zombies dying with no blood flying, none of the effects were in it...it's bad and that kind of shit can kill you. You know, it's like these kids that somehow rip it off and your movie gets reviewed before it's even out of the lab. Some asshole at the lab lets out a work print or something - people have it and it's getting reviewed and people are saying it's garbage, don't go to see it! You're dead before you start, it's awful, I mean it's terrible."
Fans expectations for Romero's films are always extremely high and you can never meet those standards for some, but what kind of expectations does he have himself? "I don't think it will be as exciting, Diary had this unique quality to it and this one I'm not sure does. I like it a lot, but it doesn't have that flavor - Diary had this unique thing with the subjective camera and all that. Nobody knew about Cloverfield, when we were making it nobody knew about Cloverfield, that other people were doing it. But it had that touch of, some people called it, sophistication and it got good reviews. I think this film will get - my shit always gets mixed reviews - but I think this will get it's share of good reviews. The acting is terrific and there's obviously a point to it. But I don't know if...you know we just have to wait and see."
Before closing I wanted to see if George might have a message for the fans and I honestly expected a typical response that encompassed some thanks and appreciation but George, as Peter Grunwald had told me on the set, is unpredictable and gave an honest and blunt message to all of us. "Basically what I want to say is forgive me. I guess the basic thing that bugs me, the biggest thing that bugs me is that fans want me to do either the last movie I did or do another Dawn or do another this or do another that - and that pisses me off! That's not what I'm about! I'm gonna make a movie, look at it, if you don't like it that's fine. If you like it, then I love it. In other words don't punish me because this was not as good as Dawn. This is what I'm thinking right now, I'm making this movie right now, this is what I'm thinking, give it a break! Look at it, maybe it will take you two or three times to look at it, but look at it. All I can say is that I'm trying my best and don't punish me because it's not as "good" as Dawn, because Dawn was not even "good", it was fun, but it wasn't "good". I think this new movie, Blank of the dead, is much better in a cinematic sense than Dawn, but I worry that a lot of people might think it's not."
It's here that I can't help myself and I tell George the reason why I feel so many fans gravitate towards Dawn of the Dead, explaining that they really like and care about the protagonists in the film and they also love that fantasy of being in a mall and having it all to themselves. The film hit a nerve with people! George tells me that he understands and does appreciate the sentiment but, "I'm satisfied that what I did with this film is what I would I like to do with it. The fans may be expecting something else, maybe not, I don't know. It's this magic, you don't know. You work on a film, you work on it in a bubble, you're completely in a bubble. Here's the movie - I like this, I like this, I like this, you shape it, you make it what you want it to be. Now you kick it out there and all of a sudden people either like it or they don't. I've never been an A list guy, I didn't do huge movies. I'm grateful that I'm still around doing these little movies, but even doing little movies somebody bombs you! It's really frustrating, it's very frustrating to sit there and you know exactly what you're doing, and you're doing things within a budget. You're not going to compete with the big movies of the time, I can't compete with the big shit that's out there. And you hope that at least your fans will come around and say 'Woo, cool man we're with you still'. Except that even your fans, even the 19 fans that you have, are split. 19 doesn't split evenly, so it's 10 - 9 liking it, not liking it. C'mon boys, I mean I did this, this was the idea that I had, I did it. C'mon stick with me."
Part II: Being George A. Romero
The view from George Romero's top floor apartment balcony is a great one, especially for a film location geek. If you look to the north you can see a section of town that a lot of Bruiser was shot in and if you look to the northeast you can see the top of Filmport Studios where some of his latest film was shot, plus the Cherry Street drawbridge from Land of the Dead as well. One bad thing about being so high up though is that the wind can take your plants and flowers and send them flying, as Romero found out very recently, and we won't even mention the table umbrella that became a helicopter one night. Back inside I can hear what sounds like the laundry dryer going and this gets me to wondering, what does a horror legend do during his off time? What's a typical day in the life of George Romero like? "Well you just walked in on one... I'm trying to work a peace deal between the cat and the bird, mostly(laughs). When Susan is around we play Scrabble. When you leave I'm going to have to write some more." George is in the middle of writing some new scenes for of the Dead, that he and producer Peter Grunwald have brain stormed over a period of several days. "See this is what happens, Peter comes in for three days and we beat out this stuff! Peter dutifully types it while were talking and he sends me these reminders of what we talked about. It's great you know, but now I have to make somebody actually say this shit."
When George mentions Susan, he is referring to his girlfriend, whom he met during the production of Land of the Dead. They live in the St. Lawrence Market area of Toronto and enjoy a low key, no frills life style. "We bought track lighting this weekend and put it up. It's a completely normal life! I go to movies, I watch Turner Classics mostly. I have a very simple life, I like simple things. I don't want rich things, I don't care. Love to travel - this was Memorial Day in the U.S. and I completely forgot, because up here, last weekend was Queen Victoria day, or whatever the hell it was. I swear Canadians have more holidays than Americans, which is also a good reason to be up here(laughs). We went to Lake Huron, we hung out, we got a little cottage, there was no one around, and did a jigsaw puzzle. I mean this is the shit that I love to do." He continues, "You know Scene It, this game Scene It, the movie game? We have all the editions of that and we're at the point where we know it already by heart, we need a new edition. Luckily Sus loves board games, I love board games, and we hang out. We have a great time together - she's great, she's really terrific. We're just regular guys."
I was surprised to learn that George really does not watch a lot of news or listen to talk radio, considering how political his films are. "There are only two things that are ever on t.v. when I'm home alone. It's either CNN, which I go to only if there's a shit movie on Turner Classics, otherwise it's Turner. It's Turner all the time, except when Fred and Ginger come on I switch over to CNN (laughs)." He continues, "It becomes wall paper - I can write, I can do anything. Mainly it's write, that's all I ever do here. If I'm sitting home alone, I'm either writing on a deadline or I'm writing for the fun of it and it never bothers me. I probably steal lines, without knowing it(laughs)." Another thing that I discovered about George is that he enjoys spending time in the kitchen. "I love cooking, it just really takes the world away. It takes the world away completely."
Contrary to many reports on the internet and in magazines, Romero is not a Canadian citizen. He is considered a permanent resident of Canada, but is still a U.S. citizen. He also is currently working out a divorce agreement with his long time wife Christine. I asked him about his new life in the great white north. "It's really not very different at all, I think I'm the same guy. I don't know if Chris got tired of me or I got tired of her, whatever happened there I don't even want to go into that, so I don't know. I love Sus, I'm the same guy, my kids come up and visit, you know, so I don't feel a big difference at all." He cites his daughter Tina, who is studying to become a film maker herself, as the one thing that he is most proud of in his life. "I hope she really wants to do it and isn't doing it just to follow in the footsteps. She's very talented, she's really good."
George grew up in The Bronx in New York and was raised Catholic. He talked about his Latino heritage and how his own Father held certain prejudices against Latinos. "I'm half Latino, I'm a New York baby right. So my Dad is Cuban, my Mom is Lithuanian. My Dad say's 'I'm not Cuban!'(George shrugs his shoulders) - but you were born in Cuba? 'I am Castilian, from Spain! Family went to Cuba to open a hotel!' Okay, well let's say you're a Cuban, you're a Spanish guy? 'Yes, but I am not a Puerto Rican!' I grew up in New York with a Spanish Dad right in the days of West Side Story, where you know the Puerto Rican gangs and shit? My Dad is telling me Puerto Ricans are shit. I have a Latino Dad who's telling me that Puerto Ricans are shit.(laughs) I mean this is a very confusing situation...anyway."
Listening to George tell stories is a blast. He shared so many different little anecdotes "off the record", that it kills me not to include them in this piece. He told stories of former colleagues that were both hilarious and jaw dropping at the same time. He shared the story of his childhood competition in New York with Martin Scorsese in renting a print of The Tales of Hoffman. "When we finally met, we never met back then, but we knew who we were, because we were the only guys that were renting The Tales of Hoffmann! I didn't meet him til way later, I mean way after, even after Goodfellas, was the first time I met him. And I said, you son-of-a-bitch! And he said, YOU son-of-a-bitch!(laughs)" He spoke about finally meeting his hero Michael Powell, who directed The Tales of Hoffmann, thru his encounter with Scorsese and how exciting it was for him. He credits the director and the film with making him want to make movies. George truly loves and respects the film and is even interviewed on the Criterion dvd release.
He also spoke about another legendary film maker, Dario Argento."When I first met Dario Argento he was really powerful, he was a powerful guy. He could do anything he wanted, he was the Spielberg of Italy or one of them, one of the top names in Italy. So he could wake up in the morning and say I'm not going to shoot today because I've changed my mind about that scene and he could get away with that. I've never done that! I've never shown up and said guys go home."
One really fascinating story that George shared was about the casting of the Barbara character in the original Night of the living dead and how Fred Rogers changed living dead history. "Nobody knows this I don't think, I've never seen it in print. Remember Lady Aberlin on the original Mister Rogers' Neighborhood? Her real name was Betty Aberlin, a Pittsburgh actress, and I thought she was the best actress in town. So when we were casting for Night of the living dead I called up Betty, because I knew Chef Brockett and all the cast that were on that show, and so they gave me Betty's number and I called Betty and said 'you want to make this movie ,we're gonna make this movie here'(in full Marlon "Godfather" Brando voice), and she said yes! And Fred said no. My old buddy Fred said I can't let Lady Aberlin be in a horror movie and that's why Judy O'Dea got it."
The longer my conversation with George went, and the more "truth serum" he downed, a side came out of him that surprised me a little. I've always known that he is an extremely humble man and is almost uncomfortable with people heaping praise upon him. At one point he tells me not to be more impressed with him than he is with himself. He is very critical of his work and I got the feeling that perhaps he thought his success was just luck. "It's not that special! I look at a cheeseburger B-movie on Turner and whoever made that movie was more professional and did a better job than I did on Night. Yet all of a sudden I get these accolades for Night. I know why - there was a black guy, there was social commentary, I know why - but the movie is not that well made. It is not well made AT ALL!" He continues, "I didn't know how to make a movie. I was telling a story and I had a couple of radical ideas and, you know, it's more of a political statement than it is a film. Bruiser was the first film where I felt that I really knew what I was doing and that's like, Christ, my eleventh or twelfth film. I really felt that I know, I think I know how to control this now a little bit."
For the last twenty years Romero has worked with producer Peter Grunwald and their working relationship has lasted twice as long as his former partnership with Richard Rubinstein. I was curious as to how the two compared. "Well it's very different, first of all Peter's a good friend(laughs). Richard was a friend - I still talk to him and we still sort of get along - but he was a real hard driving, business kind of guy. Peter is half me, I mean he's half creative. He's a wonderful story editor, he cares about the story, he cares about the film itself. Richard was the kind of guy who would, and I don't mean this to cut Richard down, but he was the kind of guy who would say 'oh I give George all the freedom in the world' - but it was only cause he wasn't interested. I could never sit down with Richard for two days straight, forty-eight solid hours, with no sleep and talk story, and try to map it out and all that. Peter's game for all of that stuff, so that's wonderful. He's very smart and he's very good at business - he's probably not as aggressive as Richard was, but that's fine with me too. I don't like sharks, I'm a not a good enough swimmer(laughs)."
Much like he did in his Pittsburgh days, Romero is building a "family" in the Toronto film community. People such as cinematographer Adam Swica, costume designer Alex Kavanagh, and actor Alan Van Sprang all are now Romero film veterans. Romero doesn't just prefer to work with people he knows and trusts, he needs to. "You really need a relationship with the key people - A.D., script supervisor, director of photography most importantly, and the editor probably even more importantly." He continues, "So I wound up meeting a whole bunch of new people. It's just hard, it's hard to start up a relationship with somebody fresh and try to explain - you get to meet the DP three days before you go to camera. You don't have time to sit down and get drunk and talk about what you want to do. Tony Roberts, on The Dark Half, thought he was going to win an Oscar for something, actually took off and went out to the Oscars for a week and we had to work with another guy. Because of that, he thought that he was the most important person on the set. We had huge fights over ridiculous things, any way, I won't go into that."
Romero feels that he had nothing to do with the creation of a viable film community in Pittsburgh. He feels that Flashdance was responsible for opening the eyes of Hollywood to Pittsburgh and it in turn brought many productions to Western Pennsylvania.
During our long, nearly three hour talk, I decided to have a little fun with one of the most cliched things you can do...word association. Of course, this was simply impossible for George to do though. First up, Richard Rubinstein - "It ain't a word, it's hard, that's a ten year relationship that you can't sum up in a word. I wound up thinking differently than he thought, I'm still friendly with him - we're just different. Different! You want one word, different." George also spoke about Rubinstein's 3-D project involving the original Dawn of the Dead. "I loved it! I loved the footage that I saw. Richard gracefully invited me and my daughter, when I happened to be in New York, to look at a test screening of this. I was completely blown away! Apparently it's gonna take a long time to completely do it, but man it was beautiful. The colors were exact, the 3-D was not cookie cutter. When Ken points the rifle...outside the airport, you see the entire rifle. It's not a pop up book, it's real. I'm blown away these technicians can actually do this. I loved it, I thought it looked gorgeous. I said 'hey Richard, this is going to be a whole new revival of this movie'. I don't know if the movie is important enough to make a big deal out of releasing it? The 3-D is unbelievable! I'm sitting here telling you it's unbelievable!"
Next, Tom Savini - "Tom was responsible for much of my success because he would invent things on the spot that are still talked about in the movies that we did."
Next, Greg Nicotero - "Greg Nicotero - long hair(laughs)... Nobody will understand this, but I will say Alfredo's." George is referring to a chance meeting Nicotero had with Romero at a restaurant in Rome, Italy while he was a kid vacationing with his parents.
Next, Vince Survinski - "Vince Survinski was a saint! He was the guy that built a bridge, a little bridge across a little stream - enough for cars to get across, that got us to the house where we shot Night of the living dead. He used to own a roller rink and said 'oh, I like showing people a good time...you gonna make movies? Well I like a certain kind of movie, I like outdoor movies.' The guy was just a simple, plain man...he went to church every day, he'd come to work every day at Latent Image. He'd park his car and walk over to St. Mary's, or whatever that downtown church is, and go to mass and then come back. At the same time he had this semi-violent streak in him. If he saw a pigeon on the sidewalk he would drive on the sidewalk to kill the fucking pigeon! This guy was a complete dichotomy, but none the less, basically a saint. Listen, I could write a novel about Vince Survinski. I can not answer this question in a few words. This guy was one of the most extraordinary men I've ever known. I would say next to Fred Rogers, this is odd, I'd put Fred on the top of people that I know who were selfless and helped other people and had a dedication. I'd put Fred way at the top, above anybody I've ever known, and Vince is the second."
Next, Joe Pilato - "Joe Pilato! Gimme a break, how can I say anything bad about Joe, because I love Joe - even though I don't enjoy Joe(laughs). He knows this, I still see Joe, he was over there at Chiller. I love Joe, I want him to always be there. Here's the thing, what you want is for these people to always be there. Unfortunately, you get to my age and people stop being there. I want Joe to be there longer than me at least, so that he's always there! There's certain people you want them to be there longer than you, so that when you leave their still around. Joe is one of those guys."
Next, John Russo - "I love John, I still love John. John is the most practical guy - you can have a conversation with John about anything, politics, movies, whatever. Anything he says you may not agree with it, but he's got a practical approach to it...and there fore you can never defeat his arguments, even though you would like to! I just wish John would cut a couple of chords and loosen himself up a little bit. I think he is too strict on himself and he chooses a business approach. I think he could have been a superstar, but he took the safer route. He bet the red-black, instead of ever putting it on number 17."
Next, John Amplas - "John is one of the sweetest men I've ever known. I thought when he went to New York he was going to be discovered by Bob Fosse or Mike Nichols or somebody. I thought John was the most talented actor I'd ever seen and a particular angelic sort of type. He had a wonderful look, he had a wonderful presence. I don't know whether he never got an agent, I don't know what happened. I don't know why John never made it, but I think if the right guy had seen John, he would have been..." He continues, "What a talent, John is a huge talent, and yet he's not an identifiable type. He's somewhere between, I can't even think of what he's between, but he's somewhere between!"
Next, Ed Harris - "I think Ed is maybe the greatest American actor of all time! I also think that Ed is a beautiful person. You go to Ed's house for dinner and he makes you hold hands and he say's grace. I mean this guy is the most gracious, wonderful guy in the world." He continues, "The scene with him on the bicycle in Pollock where he's trying to open the fucking beer. Not only does that deserve an Oscar, it deserves a Purple Heart! He's unbelievable...Ed is sometimes unbelievable in the shit that he does."
Another former colleague that we discussed was cinematographer Mike Gornick and probably the most interesting stories that George told revolved around him. Most of them I have to leave out, due to George asking me to turn the recorder off when he told them. "He's a priest! I could probably, if had his phone number, I could call him right now and tell him that you were up here and you got a flat and you have this very peculiar kind of car that nobody can fix, except him...and he would come up! He'd be here as long as it took him to drive from Pittsburgh, he would be here! He's a priest, but sometimes he's not." One story that we spoke about with Gornick, that I was allowed to record for some reason, was the mystery of the missing long version of Martin and the rumors that Gornick was the one who took the print from the Laurel offices in downtown Pittsburgh. I asked George if that story made any sense at all to him and he said that it did, because Gornick did not like some of the shots. Of course nobody knows anything for sure, so it remains a mystery to this day and will probably stay that way.
As the interview winds down, George wants to go grab some dinner, but I'm forced to do the unthinkable and say no. It's getting late and I have a five hour drive ahead of me back to Pittsburgh and I have to be at work the next day. Plus the thought of trying to squeeze a man the size of Romero into the car I was using and then driving around Toronto looking for a good restaurant struck me as a lengthy and time consuming process, so I wimped out. The time I did spend with George though was incredibly fun and filled with very memorable moments. Seeing him laugh out loud at my Billy Bob Thornton impersonation of Carl from Sling Blade doing Ken Foree's famous speech from Dawn of the Dead, about there being no more room in hell, comes to mind right away. He even joked that he would write a part for me in his next movie.
There is no way to put into words what an honor it was for me to be able to spend the time I did with George. This is a man who is responsible for films that are burned into my mind's eye forever and I sat in his home where he treated me like he had known me for years. He is a hero from my youth and someone that I have an immense amount of respect for. Thank you George.
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