Remembering George Romero, A Filmmaker Who Brought The Dead To Life

Jul 17, 2017
Originally published on July 24, 2017 9:40 am

When horror film pioneer George Romero first released Night of the Living Dead nearly 50 years ago, the critical response wasn't enthusiastic. The New York Times called it "a grainy little movie acted by what appear to be nonprofessional actors." But today, it's a cult classic — and one of many beloved movies Romero made over a decades-long career.

Romero, who died Sunday at age 77, made Night of the Living Dead on a shoestring budget, working on the weekends. It showed corpses rising up to feast on the living and was known for graphic shots of zombies munching on body parts.

The film shocked audiences at the time. In 1988, Romero told Fresh Air, "I certainly didn't make Night of the Living Dead for it to be shown at a kiddie matinee." (Though in an era before movie ratings were widely used, that's exactly what happened.)

After Night of the Living Dead, Romero directed several sequels, including Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005). He also directed Martin (1978), about a teenager who thinks he's a vampire, and executive produced The Crazies (2010), in which the residents of a small town in Iowa suddenly start going insane.

The audio link for this story includes an excerpt from Fresh Air's 1990 interview with Tom Savini, the special-effects artist who worked with Romero on Dawn of the Dead. Below are highlights from Romero's 1988 interview.


Interview Highlights

On teaching film extras to walk like zombies

The moment when you have 40 people in makeup looking at you and you're trying to direct them and tell them what you want them to do — if you make the slightest little arm movement in the next shot, everyone makes that arm movement. So I pretty much leave it up to them and ask them to do whatever they think a zombie might do if it had just recently come back [from the dead] and had stiff limbs. ... Because truly, if you demonstrate at all, then all of a sudden you get everyone doing exactly that, and the only way that I've found to keep everyone doing their own thing is to let them do whatever they want to do.

On the bright red stage blood he used in Dawn of the Dead

I liked it. And Tom [Savini, the film's special-effects artist,] and I will always argue about it because I like the fact that it looked comic book. Tom felt it looked too bright red, it didn't look real; and I feel that that helps ease the pain a little bit, the fact that it was more comic book.

On what drew him to horror films when he was growing up

I liked them principally because they scared me. They were the most fun for me, I think, because the things that scare me in real life are always the more realistic things — the fear that someone might drop a bomb on my head. ... When I was growing up, I actually went through, in New York City, blackouts when we had to close the windows and worry about air raids. I don't know whether or not those were realistic worries or not, but as a kid, when we all had to run around pulling down the drapes and turning the lights off, it was a very frightening experience. ... I remember when John Cameron Swayze over the television told me personally that the Russians now had the atomic bomb; then I knew that we were goners.

On being arrested while making a movie when he was 14 years old

I grew up in New York City. And I lived in the Bronx in a place called Parkchester. And I was shooting with my uncle's 8 mm camera, and I was making a movie called The Man From the Meteor. And the man from the meteor was ultimately shot with his own ray gun and fell flaming off the roof where I lived, in Parkchester. And I set fire to a little dummy and dropped it off the roof, having failed to contact the police and let them know I was going to do this. And so, yeah, I was hauled away by the police and my parents were called. It wasn't a serious arrest, I didn't have to spend the night in jail or anything.

On whether there's anything he'd be too squeamish to film

I couldn't shoot news, I don't think. I mean, again, it comes back to that. I don't think I would want to cover Vietnam. I don't think I could do it. In the context of fiction, I'm not bothered by it because, I guess, I feel that it's safe. And I'm always actually a little bit alarmed by the way that people react to it. I'm more alarmed by people reacting violently to the violence in my films than I am by the violence in films.

Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted this interview for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Horror film director George Romero died last Sunday at age 77. But his legacy lives on, especially in the realm of the undead. Romero, filming on a low budget in rural Pennsylvania rather than Hollywood, had a massive genre hit in 1968 with "Night Of The Living Dead." That black and white movie and its devilishly gory full-color follow up, 1979's "Dawn Of The Dead," spawned an appetite for zombies that has only grown in the decades since. Everything from Michael Jackson's dancing zombies in his "Thriller" video to the current walkers of AMC's hit TV series "The Walking Dead" owe a huge debt to the dark vision of George Romero. Other memorable Romero films include the "Creepshow" anthology and the movie "Monkey Shines."

Makeup and visual effects wizard Tom Savini didn't work on the original "Night Of The Living Dead." But when Romero decided to direct the sequel, "Dawn Of The Dead," set in an abandoned shopping mall overrun by zombies, he asked Savini to come up with the recipes for the blood and guts and the violence that would look convincing in living color. Terry spoke with Tom Savini in 1990.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TOM SAVINI: When I first saw "Night Of The Living Dead," you know, as the - as an effects guy, I thought that the zombies, the makeup, the effects could have been a lot more sophisticated, more state-of-the-art. Well, George there was very - I think George was actually doing the effects on the film. He was using chocolate syrup for blood and mortician's wax for makeup. And having to do everything, you know, I think that suffered. So in "Dawn Of The Dead," clearly here's an opportunity - and it's a - it was a color film - to do something - I guess we went overboard - more graphic because of how primitive I thought the first film was.

I mean, we would sit around thinking about, you know, how to kill people. I mean, that was our daily - you know, our exercise. And we would go to George and say, how about if we took a screwdriver and drove in a guy's ear? And he would say, OK. You know, and we would just go do it a couple hours later. So it was like Halloween for three months, you know? And it was like anything we wanted to do George would let us do. And I think because it was released unrated, everything stayed in.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: I'd like to hear more about the makeup that you used for it. It's a movie with a lot of blood. What do you like to use for blood? What's the most realistic looking blood?

SAVINI: Well, I'm embarrassed about the blood in "Dawn Of The Dead." It looked like melted crayons. It was terrible. It was - 3M Company made - used to make a blood called 3M blood. You know, sometimes it looked good. Most of the time, though, like I said, it looked like melted crayons. The best blood is Dick Smith's formula. Dick Smith is the god of makeup artists. "The Godfather," "The Sentinel," "Midnight Cowboy," "Taxi Driver" - you know, it goes on and on and on. His formula is basically Karo corn syrup, red and yellow food coloring, a preservative and a wedding agent. His is the blood used throughout - every makeup artist uses his formula.

GROSS: What kind of special makeup or casting or whatever did you use when people were eating other people's limbs?

SAVINI: Well, most of that was sausage and bologna and chicken with some kind of a, you know, blood-colored barbecue sauce, you know? Or something - anything that they might have at craft services that day we would throw in, you know, and have them chewing on it. But some people were chewing on some pretty awful things that were laying around for a while.

GROSS: What do you mean?

SAVINI: Well, you know, like, there might have been, oh, a big ham bone or something. The worst thing was "Day Of The Dead" when we had a five-gallon drum of real intestines from a slaughterhouse. We went to Florida to shoot some beach scenes and came back and jumped right into the - you know, the tearing apart scenes where they were chomping on intestines. And while we were gone, somebody had unplugged the refrigerator. And you can't imagine what it was like, what that stuff smelled like. And we couldn't get new stuff. I mean, these poor extras were with wax up their noses and, you know, English leather on their mustaches and upper lips to try to fight the smell, you know, were chomping on some of the real stuff there.

GROSS: Did they get sick?

SAVINI: No. It's amazing. The one actor that had happened to was trapped in a floor because we had to tear him in half and his real body was underneath the floor and the fake body was on top. And I have a video of the actual - of the scene. And he was ready to heave any second. You know, luckily we got him out of there in time and away from the aroma.

GROSS: Did that work for the movie to have him look that sick?

SAVINI: No. You never saw him sick in the movie. He - the only cuts they used was when he screamed, choke on them when they dragged his legs away. Hey, it's a living, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Visual effects and makeup artist Tom Savini spoke with Terry Gross in 1990. Two years before that, in 1988, Terry spoke with George Romero himself. She started by asking what had drawn him to the horror genre.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, I presume you loved horror films when you were growing up. Did you like them because they scared you, or were there other things in terms of the mood of the movies that you liked a lot?

GEORGE ROMERO: I liked them principally because they scared me. They were the most fun for me, I think, because the things that scare me in real life are always the more realistic things - the fear that someone might drop a bomb on my head or that someone - when I was growing up, I actually went through in New York City blackouts when we had to close the windows and worry about air raids. And I don't know whether those were realistic worries or not.

But as a kid, when we all had to run around close - pulling down the drapes and turning the lights off, it was a very frightening experience. And then to think that - I remember when John Cameron Swayze over the television told me personally that the Russians now had the atomic bomb. Then I knew that we were goners, you know?

GROSS: Is that why there's always some newscaster telling about the latest progress of the zombies in your movies?

ROMERO: Probably, yeah. I have a real strong concern for what electronic media has done to us in bringing us the news as quickly as it does and, you know, not letting us sort of discover things for ourselves or have - or allow them to gestate. You know, it's just a little too - I think it's the pace more than - I don't - I'm not saying that we shouldn't be brought the news, but it's just the pace at which things are fired at us, I think, is maybe a little too fast sometimes.

GROSS: Can I read something that Variety wrote when "Night Of The Living Dead" came out in 1968? It said, this film casts serious aspersions on the integrity of its makers, distributor Walter Reed, the film industry as a whole and exhibitors who have booked the picture, as well as raising doubts about the future of the regional cinema movement and the moral health of filmgoers who cheerfully opt for unrelieved sadism. Until the Supreme Court establishes clear-cut guidelines for pornography or violence, "Night Of The Living Dead" will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example.

Well, did you feel when you made that movie that you were compromising your moral health or that of your audience?

ROMERO: I didn't feel that way at all. And "Night Of The Living Dead" did, I think - I attribute much of its success to the fact that it was one of the films that people wrote about in those terms. The piece that you just read was one of a hundred pieces that were pleading for some sort of - you know, that was in the period of time between the Hays commission and the MPAA, which we have now. And there was no governing panel at all that was indicating - there was no censor board. There was no one indicating what - in any fashion what was to be expected from the content of a film.

And, you know, I certainly didn't make "Night Of The Living Dead" for it to be showed at a kiddie matinee. And that was principally what it was criticized for, and I believe that rightfully so, that it shouldn't be - shouldn't have been shown at kiddie matinees. That's not who the film was made for.

GROSS: Well, Tom Savini, who's done a lot of the special effects for your movies, said in his book that he wasn't happy with how the 3M stage blood photographed in "Dawn Of The Dead," which is the second in your zombie trilogy. And I wonder if you felt that way, too.

ROMERO: No, I liked it. And Tom and I will always argue about this.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROMERO: I liked the fact that it looked comic book. Tom felt it looked too bright and red. It didn't look real. And I feel that that helps ease the pain a little bit, the fact that it was more comic book. I liked the fact that it looked very comic book.

GROSS: How did you come up with the way you wanted the zombies in your zombie movies to walk? Did you demonstrate for them how you wanted them to look?

ROMERO: No. It's funny. You know, the moment you - when you have 40 people in makeup looking at you and you're trying to direct them and tell them what you want them to do, if you make the slightest little arm movement, then the next shot everyone makes that arm movement.

And so I pretty much leave it up to them and just ask them to do whatever they think a zombie might do if it had just recently come back and had stiff limbs and come back from the dead with stiff limbs because if - and truly, if you demonstrate at all, then all of a sudden you get everyone doing exactly that. And the only way to - that I've found to keep everyone doing their own thing is to let them do whatever they want to do.

GROSS: I know that a lot of students were in "Night Of The Living Dead." Have people kept up with you over the years trying to be extras, trying to be zombies in your movies?

ROMERO: Oh, yeah. It's so funny. It's like someone wrote once that it's sort - that's it's some - there's some kind of a cultist kind of chic to being a zombie in one of these movies. I don't know. I'm always amazed at people that call and say they want to come in and they want to be a zombie or they want to do a special kind of a shtick or a special kind of business. We haven't been able to accommodate as many people as have requested to come in. So it's never a problem getting zombies.

GROSS: You've said that you've never really been afraid of the kind of images you create. What scares you is real stuff. Nevertheless, have you ever been haunted by any image that you've created for a movie?

ROMERO: Only to the extent that I've been typecast (laughter) as someone that makes this kind of movie. And so that's a kind of haunting, I guess. But again, that's reality. That's not anything - that's not part of the fantasy. No, I haven't been. The...

GROSS: Anything you'd be too squeamish to film?

ROMERO: I couldn't shoot news, I don't think. You know, I don't think I would want to cover, you know, Vietnam. And I don't think I could do it. In the context of fiction, I'm not bothered by it because I guess I feel that it's safe. And I'm always actually a little bit alarmed by the way people react to it. I'm more alarmed by people reacting violently to the violence in my films than I am by the violence in any - in films.

GROSS: Well, I thank you very much for talking with us. Thank you.

ROMERO: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: George Romero speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. The director of "Night Of The Living Dead" and other classic horror films died last Sunday at age 77. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Dunkirk," the New World War II movie written and directed by Christopher Nolan. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.