Traveling North: The Day I Met the Knight of the Living Dead by Tony Earnshaw

Twenty years after his zombies last roamed the earth, horror king George Romero returned to the big screen with Land of the Dead. Tony Earnshaw travelled north to Edinburgh to meet the knight of the living dead.

I met George A. Romero just once, back in 2005 when he was back on the interview circuit promoting Land of the Dead. I was 39, but I could have been 16 again, such was my unbridled excitement. I was vibrating in my boots.

I’m sad that Romero is gone. It’s nearly 39 years since I was introduced to his work via a screening of Dawn of the Dead at an event at the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology (UMIST). That movie – the first of thousands of times that I have watched it – opened my eyes to mature cinema and spurred me onto a voyage of discovery. George A. Romero dared to do things differently and in doing so made supremely intelligent cinema. That’s a rare thing these days. 

When we met I shook his hand, asked for his autograph and blurted out that I’d wanted to meet him for 23 years. ‘Gee,’ he said, ‘I hope it was worth the wait.’ 

By George, it was.

Not many filmmakers can justifiably claim credit for inventing an entire genre. One of the few that can is George A. Romero, the 6ft 4ins New Yorker who, in 1968, turned established horror cinema on its head with a modest black and white flick about a nocturnal siege.

The main premise – a band of terrified strangers, holed up in a remote farmhouse, beat off sustained attacks by mysterious assailants during the course of a long night – was pretty run-of-the-mill. Romero’s twist was that the attackers were formed from legions of the recently dead, now restored to stumbling life, who roam rural America searching for warm human flesh.

That film was Night of the Living Dead and its combination of chills, thrills and a hard-hitting unhappy ending (nobody emerges alive) made Romero, at least briefly, a red-hot property.

Between 1968 and 1993 Romero became a major cult figure in the annals of modern American horror cinema. He followed Night of the Living Dead with two sequels – Dawn of the Dead in 1979 and Day of the Dead in 1985 – made a successful TV series (Tales from the Darkside) and enjoyed a fruitful association with novelist Stephen King.

Then, in the ‘90s, after a lacklustre adaptation of King’s The Dark Half, he faded from view. He briefly re-emerged in 2000 with Bruiser, a film that, in his words, “nobody has ever seen”. It looked like he’d blasted his last zombie.

Then a strange thing happened. Romero’s substantial cult reputation began to spawn copycat movies. The first was the hip Brit flick 28 Days Later…, written by novelist and Romero devotee Alex (The Beach) Garland. Then Romero’s ‘70s masterpiece Dawn of the Dead was given the remake treatment. Finally the team behind TV’s Spaced gave us Shaun of the Dead – a delicious, comedic spoof on Romero’s biggest hit.

Such a cascade of tributes opened doors that for years had been slammed shut. Suddenly, almost 40 years after Night of the Living Dead, Romero was back in business with the fourth episode in his on-going saga that chronicles the never-ending war between the living and the newly ambulatory deceased.

Speaking during last month’s Edinburgh International Film Festival 65-year-old Romero laughed when asked to consider the irony of his position. After years in the dustbin, he’s back on top – at least temporarily.

“What the general public doesn’t realise is that I am working all the time,” says Romero with a touch of asperity.

“Often projects don’t happen. But in that longish period before Bruiser I made more money than I have ever made in my life – writing scripts, re-writing this and that. You do something – it might even be your own material – and then somebody rewrites it. It’s a very frustrating process because all of a sudden there’s three million bucks against a property and you (ITALICS) can’t make it. It becomes ‘cast dependent’ and they don’t know whether I am a big enough guy. So it’s frustrating. You have to embrace it. I have to. I don’t feel any anger.” 

In that murky five-year hiatus Romero had a number of projects on the boil. One was something called Before I Wake, which was slated for production with 20th Century Fox and ultimately shelved. Another was The Mummy – a very different film to the one eventually released with pistol-packing Brendan Fraser as a quasi Indiana Jones. 

In the end Land of the Dead was green lit and put into production within five short weeks. Immediately, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was unhappy. Romero’s reputation as a gleeful purveyor of visceral gore preceded him. He laughs at the memory.

“Some of the MPAA stuff is a bit ridiculous,” says this gentle giant of the horror genre.

“We consciously did a few things that were meant to escape the MPAA’s wrath – a scene in smoke where [zombies] pull a corpse’s hand apart and another in silhouette and shadow where a guy’s neck gets pulled off. We did that in order to squeak by the censors. It’s funny, because people say that this film is gorier than the others but I don’t think it is. There are a couple of moments in Day of the Dead that are much more graphic and much more gory than anything in Land of the Dead. Maybe it’s been a while so people think ‘My God! This guy is nuts!’”

Notwithstanding the frustrations of his many unrealised projects Romero relishes being back in the limelight. He knows he’s only ever going to be known as the ‘king of the zombie flicks’ and accepts it with a mixture of good grace and weary resignation.

Yet there is so much more going on in his films than just blood and guts. Romero peppers Land of the Dead with allegorical references to the September 11 attacks, the war on terror and homeland security. The zombies, however, are omnipresent.

“I have this conceit: Night of the Living Dead was the ‘60s, Dawn was the ‘70s, Day was the ‘80s and I wanted to do the ‘90s [but] I just missed it,” he says with a shrug.

“The first film was a rip-off of Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, unabashedly, except [in that] they were vampires. I needed something else so I went with ghouls. I never called them ‘zombies’; I didn’t even think of them in that way. I thought of them as ghouls – flesh-eaters. Our original title was Night of the Flesh Eaters. The word ‘zombie’ never even popped into my head. Zombies in those days were from Haiti! Now I think maybe my fans expect it of me.”

Tony Earnshaw’s complete interview with George A. Romero appears in his book FANTASTIQUE: Interview with Horror, Sci-Fi & Fantasy Filmmakers (BearManor Media, 2016), which was nominated as Best Book in the 2017 Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards.

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