LIKE the flesh-eaters that tear apart their victims in his groundbreaking zombie films, it seems a lot of people want a piece of George Romero.
• Survival of the dead directed by George Romero. Picture: Complimentary
Or at least they want his name. Last week, a remake of his 1973 cult film The Crazies was released with the boast that it came from the "creator of Dawn of the Dead". Romero, however, was merely an executive producer which, he says, "means they'll call me up when it's finished and invite me to a screening". The irony is that while that film is being sh
Romero changed the face of horror in 1968 with the seminal zombie film, Night of the Living Dead. Shot independently on a shoestring budget in Pittsburgh, the film was raw and uncompromisingly graphic. Daringly for the time, it featured a black actor, Duane Jones, in the lead, whose casual shooting by an all-white posse in the shocking climax seemed to reflect the rifts violently appearing in late-1960s American society.
Though critics such as Roger Ebert damned the movie's gory excesses – "He said, 'This film proves we need some kind of a rating system. How far will a guy go to make a buck?'" Romero chuckles – Night of the Living Dead turned a profit in its first year. "It then went away and I figured it was gone, dead and buried," the director says.
However, its disappearance was only temporary. Thanks to Cahiers du Cinema pronouncing Night of the Living Dead a powerful statement on racism, the film was reappraised by American critics and invited into New York's Museum of Modern Art collection.
Romero says more was read into the film than was actually intended. He and his friends were not, it appears, terribly radical nor particularly politically active: "I don't know if it's not caring or if it's just that we felt all the groundwork had been done and we were just at the right age to benefit from it and take advantage of it."
If Romero had had his way, his first feature wouldn't have even been a horror movie, but a "Bergmanesque" coming-of-age film set in the Dark Ages called Whine of the Fawn. As luck would have it though, the genre fit him perfectly and there is a fiery intensity to much of Night of the Living Dead that still resonates; not least the final 20 minutes, shot like newsreel to reflect the violence and chaos of the time. "That was definitely conscious," Romero says. "But I always thought that I was pushing that a little too far."
Far from Jones's casting being a comment on the divisive issue of race in America, he was chosen simply because he was "the best actor from among our friends", Romero says.
But then, as Romero and his producer were driving the film to New York in search of a distributor, news came over the radio that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. "So all of a sudden the idea that Duane was black gave the film much more weight. But we certainly weren't consciously thinking about that. So a lot of the analysis that I have seen written about the film is, I think, a bit overblown." Even so, its sheer gravity meant that for a long time Romero resisted requests for a sequel. "I thought, 'How can I top that?'"
Yet he could not lay the dead to rest for ever and with support from the Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, and a sudden flash of inspiration after seeing a huge shopping mall under construction in Pennsylvania, Romero eventually returned to the zombie genre with 1978's Dawn of the Dead. More followed, and now Romero, 70, is back with his sixth instalment: the aptly titled Survival of the Dead.
The director insists he is not obsessed with zombies. He just realised while making Dawn of the Dead that he could use the format to "make my own political observations, social observations, criticisms, so forth, whereas if I was trying to make serious films about the same topics, I would have a much more difficult time. So it's become my own franchise, in a way." For this reason it's also the path of least resistance. Which is especially important these days. "I'd love to make another film without zombies. But at my age I don't know if I want to have to get into battles and have to develop something else."
Other recent zombie films, such as 28 Days Later, Dead Snow, Zombieland, and even Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead, have turned the undead into fast-moving attackers, but Romero's can still barely manage more than a shuffle, and in small numbers are more of a nuisance than a life-threatening hazard. The point, Romero explains, is that his films are really about how the living "screw themselves up". "The humans are the important characters. The zombies are almost incidental. They could be a hurricane or any disaster that shakes things up enough and that people don't address properly, or address stupidly."
Thus in Survival of the Dead – an entertaining but awkward mash-up of the classic Western The Big Country and Romero's Dead tropes – two families living on an island turn the zombies into just another excuse to continue an age-old feud. Seamus Muldoon wants to keep them "alive" and is trying to train them to eat animal flesh; his counterpart, Patrick O'Flynn, thinks the dead are better off staying dead.
At first sight this looks like a scenario inspired by the pro-choice/pro-life debate in the United States. But although this was discussed, Romero says he was exercised far more by the general theme of tribalism. "I probably started to think about it because of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan," he says. "These young guys are going in there and being confronted with these tribal wars, and you're never going to resolve that. I said, 'Gee, that's a pretty universal and much broader theme than I have dealt with before.'"
This makes Survival of the Dead sound rather more serious than it actually is, being possibly the funniest entry in the franchise to date. Romero knows he risks alienating some of his fans but claims he couldn't resist throwing in some "Looney Tune" style "kills" and comedy action sequences.
Romero may be the crowned King of Horror, but Survival of the Dead suggests he may really be its court jester at heart. In fact, he has never been able to take gore seriously: "If I go to a movie and it's particularly violent and people are leaving the theatre ready to vomit, we're sitting there with our popcorn just chuckling."
If this makes Romero sound odd, he says that contrary to what some people might think, he and his pals working in the horror genre are all pretty normal. "I have a very quiet life. There's nothing weird. My film collection is all oldies. I sit around listening to classical music. I don't play video games I love to go to dinner, go on picnics, travel."
Hopefully Romero will at least tell me he has nights where he's racked by terrifying dreams about being torn apart by zombies. Please say it's so. "I've never dreamt about them," he says, disappointingly. "Steve (King] says, 'We don't have nightmares because we give them all to you.' So maybe there's something to that."
• Survival of the Dead is released on DVD on 15 March. The Crazies is in cinemas now.