Romero - master of the macabre

Veteran director on zombies, religion and genocide.

by Richard Mowe

George A Romero in Karlovy Vary: 'I am afraid of people and what they do to each other'
George A Romero in Karlovy Vary: 'I am afraid of people and what they do to each other' Photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary
Night Of The Living Dead director George A Romero says his nightmares lurk in reality rather than anything supernatural. He’s one of many special guests appearing at this year’s 50th anniversary edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Romero, 75, who gave a master class and, introduced a packed screening of his own film The Crazies as well as a screening of the newly restored version of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Tales Of Hoffmann, said: “I’m afraid of people. I’m afraid of what people do to each other. Can you imagine the concept of genocide? How can somebody do that to somebody else? There must be at least two kinds of people. People who won’t hurt a fly and people who will happily blow away Palestinians because they’re a different sect. Religion is the worst.”

Raised as a Catholic, Romero soon became disenchanted with religious hypocrisy. He added: “They were teaching that you can live beautifully all your life but if you commit a sin, and then you die at that moment, you’re going to hell. My grandmother died, and everybody sai,d ‘Well she’s in heaven now,’ and I said, ‘Maybe not!’ My uncles and my father kicked my ass all over the street, at the age of seven. That makes you re-examine things.”

Romero on Tales Of Hoffmann: 'It is beautifully made and wonderfully conceived'
Romero on Tales Of Hoffmann: 'It is beautifully made and wonderfully conceived'
When Romero made The Crazies, it was partly motivated by his anger about Vietnam. He thinks that many of the issues raised in the narrative are as applicable today as they were in 1973. “Part of the anger back then was because things didn’t change," he said. “The Sixties didn’t change anything. I think there is just as much prejudice in the States now as there was then. Maybe it is even worse. You have politicians who are appealing to their bases and the religious right gives them strength. I cannot believe that people buy it.”

In career terms, Romero has always struggled to raise budgets but found that he could do so if he relied on his cult horror speciality and emphasised the entertainment value rather than any social commentary.

Paradoxically, he claims not to be obsessed with zombies or have a particular affinity for them. He explained: “I just wanted to make a film about something extraordinary that is happening and the people are unable to grasp it. They continue to argue about stupid things instead of recognising that there’s something really awful going on. So that’s what I wanted, and I thought, ‘What if the dead don’t stay dead and what if they were going around eating people?’ That was my idea of something awful!”

His introduction to the screening of Tales of Hoffmann (as part of the Festival’s Out of the Past sidebar section) came about because it remains one of his favourite films which he first saw an impressionable age. “It is beautifully made and wonderfully conceived," he said. “I saw The Tales of Hoffmann first when I was 12 or 13 and in those days if you wanted to watch a film at home you had to go and rent a projector and a 16mm print. So I would use all my allowance money to take out The Tales of Hoffmann. And it was always available. Nobody else ever took it out.

“Then all of a sudden somebody else started to book it. It turned out to be [Martin] Scorsese. We were the same age. He lived in Brooklyn and I lived in the Bronx and we were the only two guys that were taking out this movie.” It goes without saying that they have had some laughs about it since.

As for big budget zombie films like The Walking Dead and World War Z, he finds that they leave him cold. “This whole idea of zombies who swarm like army ants – I don’t find it frightening or entertaining, I just find it stupid. Now you can’t do [zombie movies] any more for a low budget? So I decided to do a comic book. It’s very traditional. It’s got zombies and vampires. It’s set in post-apocalyptic New York City and the vampires are basically the ruling class, and zombies are used for entertainment or ignored.”

He doesn’t much appreciate being typed as the king of the zombie genre He says disconsolately: “I never wanted to just make zombie films but I found out that I could easily talk about social issues by using that genre. And that’s the biggest disappointment for me right now, because zombies have become something else.”

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