Best known for his Night of the Living Dead, filmmaker George Romero (1940– 2017) talked to Mike Wilmington and Barry Brown for the July, 1981 issue of High Times. Topics included bucking the Hollywood movie mafia, working with friend Stephen (The Shining) King, and the social structure of zombie society. In honor of Romero’s birthday February 4, we’re republishing the interview below.
In the World of Movies, we are in the Age of Horror. The Age of Homicidal Mania. The age of psychos, ghouls, vampires, werewolves and demons of every description. Theater lobbies across America blazon the murderous antics of these fiends. Audiences cram the aisles as nubile young heroines are clawed apart before their very eyes. Sociological critics view with alarm, and hucksters and entrepreneurs rake in multimillion-dollar grosses. A tidal wave of blood drips—no, pours!—from the movie screens of America, a Red Sea that shows no signs of parting. And who, in the midst of this carnage, is the champ of the charnel house? Who is the prime culprit, the reigning contemporary Master of Movie Horror?
Set up a special election, and here is how it might split up: Roman Polanski (Repulsion) and Brian De Palma (Dressed to Kill) slugging it out for first place. John Carpenter (Halloween) and Larry Cohen (It’s Alive) with a late, strong sprinkle of support. David Lynch (Eraserhead) capturing the esoteric bloc; and a minor punk rebellion seething around Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). A few more scattered ballots, stray screams in the night… and one other name, whose owner might, in fact—as the shadowiest of dark horses—wind up in the top coffin with the undisputed title of Godfather of Gore, Sultan of Slaughter, and King of the Skull-Strewn Hill. The name: George Romero.
Romero, of course, is best known for the “Dead” series—a series of movies (two so far, with more to come) that project the following landscape: a contemporary America where radiation-drenched corpses rise up from their graves and wander around, eating everyone they can get their rotting fingers on. In 1968, on the proverbial shoestring, Romero and some Pittsburgh buddies slapped together the first of the series, Night of the Living Dead, and proceeded to scare the daylights out of every drive-in-shocker devotee from here to Hong Kong. Consider this plot—this nightmare, rather: You’re trapped in a farmhouse. Night is falling. Outside, the ghouls are on the prowl. Hundreds of them. Dead, gray, determined, famished zombies. Rotting corpses, twitching with depraved hunger, thrusting their decayed, groping hands through the windows, grabbing your living companions and devouring them. Drooling excitedly, gorging down the bloody chunks, licking the bones, and coming back for more. And their victims, the half-eaten fresh corpses, now enlisted in the zombie army, coming back with them! You have one hope of living through the night: Lock the doors! Nail the windows! Hide! Cower in the attic! And pray—pray!—that the authorities will find you. Authorities who, unfortunately for you, turn out to be a local pack of trigger-happy redneck fascists, killing and burning everyone in sight—zombie and human.
That’s Night of the Living Dead. No Little Mary Sunshine. But the second film, Dawn of the Dead—which the MPAA refused even to rate—escalates even further. The ghouls are taking over the country. Rampaging unchecked. A last pitiful pocket of humans holes up in an abandoned shopping mall—with hordes of ghouls trying to flail and hammer their way in. Then—a rumble on the horizon! Is help on the way? No, by God. With savage whoops and hiccuping, exploding exhausts, a scurvy mob of deranged, filthy, psychopathic motorcyclists smashes its way in and starts an insane, three-cornered battle—knifing and strangling the zombies, as they sink festering fangs into the bikers’ syphilitic, smack-punctured flesh.
In 20 misspent years, I have never seen anything as violent as Dawn of the Dead. Everywhere you look, another corpse. The effect is numbing, cauterizing. A sane audience generally winds up reeling back in astonishment… and then laughing uproariously.
What kind of man dreams up stuff like this? George Romero grew up in the Bronx (and like Hitchcock, Buñuel and De Palma, he had a Catholic upbringing), broke into Pittsburgh TV and made the first “Dead” movie on a wing and a prayer (or, rather; a curse). There followed ten years of low-budget follow-ups (including his best movie—a brilliant updating of the vampire legend—called Martin). Then came the second “Dead” movie and a worldwide $40-million gross. And, as they say in the industry, clout.
But Romero, as you’ll soon see, is something of a maverick. He hasn’t left Pittsburgh—yet. He works with a tight-knit crew that follows him from film to film. And his current movie, Knightriders, is something of a paean to the independent spirit, to the dreams of community that many think died in the late ’60s—as well as to the vanished Arthurian ideals of knightly chivalry, courtly love and gallantry in combat. The rather original concept: a traveling band of stunt motorcyclists who go from town to town, re-creating the pageantry and pomp of a medieval tournament—with the twist being that the “knights” joust on Harley Davidsons instead of prancing steeds. Knightriders is not a bloody film—although the patented, sock-in-the-eye Romero action is still there: the quick cutting, the thrills, the irreverent satire. It’s a wistful movie—wistful in the way that Martin was wistful. Beneath Romero’s dark pessimism and mad cathartic humor—and his rather affable and funny persona—there seems to be a quieter guy, someone musing with a touch of regret on the devastation all around him and the coming apocalypse.
As to whether he is the Modem King of Horror—and not Polanski or De Palma or Lynch—well, who cares? In a field that crowded, no one is likely to assume Alfred Hitchcock’s old mantle for a long time to come.
But Romero does have one edge: His current script collaborator—and close friend—is the novelist Stephen King, author of Carrie, The Shining, and The Dead Zone, and a shriekmeister in the class of Robert Bloch or the young Ray Bradbury. King has written books that can give you the cold shakes just remembering them—but will he and Romero succeed in reducing movie-viewing America to shivering shock and howling catatonia? “George and I want to see if it’s possible to scare people. Big-time fear!” cackles King. And his affable, grinning cohort adds: “We’re just having a good time, man!” Here, now, is the man behind the blood-stained mask…
High Times: Listen—how did a guy from Pittsburgh—making commercials for Pittsburgh TV—manage to crack big-time filmmaking and distribution?
Romero: Well, in that sense, we haven’t really cracked the system. We’ve never distributed our own films. We now have gotten the rights back on a couple of them: on Night of the Living Dead and on The Crazies.
High Times: Who got most of the money from Night of the Living Dead?
Romero: The distributor. It returned money. Had I known then what I know now; I probably would have just sued for the rights back, ’cause it did return money. It returned a substantial amount—around six, seven thousand dollars in its first year.
High Times: Is it still returning money?
Romero: It should have been. It should have been, for eleven years now. But it stopped after that first break when it went out and played Middle America, and returned money. It just stopped.
High Times: But it’s still being played continuously on college campuses all over the country.
Romero: A lot of it’s pirate copies: sixteen-millimeter distributors who don’t really have a contract with anybody to show the film. There are a lot of negatives out on that film. I mean, you can buy it in Whelan’s drugstore. There was a copyright dispute that came up—which was really a problem on Walter Reade’s part. We did not design or put the credits on the film; they did, and they didn’t put a copyright on it. And I mean—we were a bunch of guys in Pittsburgh that made a movie; and we had filed a literary copyright on the screenplay. But that didn’t protect the film itself.
But that’s not the point. That was a learning experience for all of us. And it’s like there’s nothing really that we can do about it now. I really don’t care in a certain sense.
High Times: You really got screwed. But, tell me, considering what a financial gold mine—for somebody—Night of the Living Dead turned into, how were you able to put it together, on such meager resources, in the first place?
Romero: We did it on energy, man. I mean, that’s what it’s about. I had written a short story—which was actually a trilogy. And we had tried to raise money to do a couple of other features—we took inspiration from David and Lisa—and couldn’t raise it. And so ten of us got together and kicked in six hundred bucks apiece, and bought a case of film—and then rented the farmhouse and started to shoot it. We had a production company in Pittsburgh making commercials for eight years before we made the film. And so we had the equipment. We had our own cameras and our own dubbers, and sound, and the stage—and the whole banana.
So then, after we spent the money we had some rushes. And we showed the rushes, and people said, “Hey! It looks like a movie.” And they came up with more and more money and then we started selling investments in the film.
High Times: That’s almost the classic strategy for crashing the industry—the strategy of Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Halloween or Friday the 13th: Make a low-budget horror movie, and hope for the big grosses. Did you have anything like that in mind—or was this just something you thought would be fun?
Romero: Yeah, it’s something we thought would be fun. And, sure, I mean, we thought, “This is a lot safer, because it’s a horror film.” In those days there were fifteen horror films; every year they played at the drive-ins. The small distributors, East Coast distributors, were fairly effective then. Now, it’s a lot tougher, in terms of distributing.
High Times: What kind of sources were feeding in to you when you first dreamed up Night of the Living Dead?
Romero: The biggest single factor, I think, was a book by Richard Matheson called I Am Legend. And also, you know, just—1968. You know—everything that was going on. Night of the Living Dead is still basically a nitty-gritty scare movie, with some yucks. And a bit more fun and bawdiness.
High Times: What about Knightriders? What excited you most about doing it?
Romero: Well, it’s a microcosm of society, really. I mean, on an allegorical level, I guess it asks the question: Can you—can you King Billy—survive? Is that kind of idealism doomed forevermore? I mean, I don’t think it is—but I think that we’ve got to find a new way to express it… You know, to me, it’s a very ’60s kind of film. I think it’s probably been brewing around since then.
I suppose somewhere beneath it all, the bottom line on Knightriders is that I had wanted to make a movie about knights since I was a kid. And I finally found a way to do it, that I felt would be meaningful now. ‘Cause I think we don’t have any myths or heroes anymore—and we’re not really doing a lot to create them.
High Times: You started out wanting to do a bona fide King Arthur movie?
Romero: I wanted to do a “spaghetti knightsman.” At first, it was very different, completely differen—in fact, the exact opposite of what I wound up doing. I was talking to the people at AIP, and we couldn’t sell the idea at all. And I said, “Well, I’ll put the knights on motorcycles and I’ll give you some rock ‘n’ roll.”
High Times: They didn’t like that either?
Romero: Well, I said it facetiously… And they said, “Now you’re talking!” I thought about that for a while—but it really didn’t come together until I started to become aware of the interest in sword and sorcery, and those renaissance fairs that actually do go on…
High Times: One thing I really liked about it, and that I thought was quite different, was the idea of gallantry or chivalry in combat. Even the Black Knight.
Romero: Yeah. He’s not the Black Knight as he might be borrowed from real Arthurian stories. He represents an average guy. To me, he makes the most sense in the film—until you really start getting behind Billy.
High Times: Well, he’s a lot easier to connect with, simply because Billy seems so…
Romero: He’s in rarefied air. I mean, he’s in rarefied air from the moment he wakes up. In the very beginning of the film.
High Times: In the early part of the film, King Billy seems almost slightly crazy. For example, in the scene where he’s quarreling about the show with the lawyer and the bag man and they raise arguments against his idealism that you can’t strike down.
Romero: Who strikes them down? Who does strike them down? I mean—the problem is that those arguments are reasonable, and they make a lot of sense, and those are… That’s us, those guys. And that’s why I say Billy is in rarefied air. Because there’s no physical way to survive doing that, being idealistic, unless you want to hit the beach and just go somewhere… or go to Tibet.
High Times: Are your sympathies primarily with Billy—or are they divided among him and the more pragmatic characters?
Romero: Divided. Oh yeah, I think they’re divided. I mean—I’m just pointing out through Billy I think, that you can’t operate on that plane, and interface with what’s going on in the world. You can try—and those people come back and try and they’ll keep trying. But there’s a state of compromise throughout the whole thing.
Chris Forrest: [Christine Forrest, actress and assistant on Romero’s last three films, accompanied him to the interview.—Ed.] It’s showing people that have faith in each other—and respect one’s fellow man—which I think is a quite religious occurrence.
High Times: A friend of mine was mentioning that, in your films, you go out of your way to have positive role models for gays, blacks and women—and to show working-class people and alternative lifestyles with sympathy. And he said if the left-wing critics ever get rid of their negative fixations on sex and violence and get ahold of Romero, they’ll have a field day. Because here are all these elements in his films, and they play to huge audiences. But, you know…
Romero: Yeah… Well, with me, it’s a big “Why not?” I mean, that’s about all I can say.
High Times: Well, to get more pragmatic for a second: The action sequences—the motorcycle jousts themselves—are really impressive. Can you say something about those scenes, about the logistics involved?
Romero: It was bananas. The continuity and the logistics were really tough. It was tough. I mean, I wrote the script, and I’m not a motorcycle rider, and I don’t know… You know, I’ve always been a little bit romanced by bikes, but I’ve never owned a bike, and I’ve sure never ridden one. And I wrote a lot of that stuff not even being sure whether it could be done. And we really had a great stunt team; that’s where it came from. We sat down for a long time before production, and we drew little maps of the battlefield and figured everything out. And then we brought in a steady cam, and we brought in a lot of image stabilizers, and all kinds of things—and threw them all away. And we just went with the instinctive seat-of-the-pants shooting of the stuff the guys were doing. I just went back to the same old techniques that I’ve always used, and it worked out best.
High Times: You were sort of rough on the audience at the tournaments. When you show them, you tend to focus on the slobs. Like the guy who says it’s all a fake, and the other guy who…
Romero: That’s Steve King, by the way.
High Times: That’s Stephen King? The guy who… That’s Steve King?
Romero: Yes, the guy who says it’s all a fake.
High Times: Jesus, he really looks… I thought he was some slob from Pittsburgh. He’s practically drooling all over a hot dog or something. Now that I think of it, he did look a little like the pictures I’ve seen of King… Anyway you didn’t seem to be showing the people in the audience who might be attracted to the values of the tournaments. You get a sense it’s all being lost on them.
Romero: Yeah, I mean, I suppose that’s just the choice… The point of it is that it is being lost on them, in those little towns. And the little town where they have their parade, you know, with ”Free the Hostages” signs, and the American Legion Post—I mean, that town existed. Those people came out to see that parade; we didn’t do anything. Like, it happened, man. I mean, we just showed up, and did the parade, and there they all were. We hired no extras.
High Times: Some of the dialogue scenes in Knightriders have the feeling of being improvs.
Romero: Some of them are.
High Times: Improvs in what sense? During rehearsal or during shooting?
Romero: Improv during rehearsal—and some of them were improv during shooting. Not in the long scenes, or the set pieces. But we did a lot of it. I like to leave a lot of room for improv; and I like to leave a lot of room for the actors. I mean—we just talked about what we’re trying to accomplish in the whole, rather than rehearsing specific scenes over and over and over. I like that kind of spontaneity. I sometimes won’t even go look at a location until we’re there with the actors.
High Times: You’ve stayed in Pittsburgh— and it seems that, for a lot of independent filmmakers, staying outside of New York or L.A. means all the hassles of working with smaller budgets…
Romero: Let me say this. I don’t care about small budget, large budget. I just would like to have enough money to make a film. I’ll try to make a film on whatever money is available. What I’m shooting for is the proper amount of money. I’d love to be able to sit down with a script and budget it—and budget it reasonably. I didn’t stay in Pittsburgh in order to keep working in the two-hundred-fifty-thousand-dollar range.
High Times: Why did you stay in Pittsburgh?
Romero: There are a lot of things about it I like. There’s a lot of beauty. But it’s real eclectic. There are areas in that city that still have a real gutsy kind of work-ethic environment, and it’s a real melting pot. There are areas where it really feels like a flashback, like a fifty-year flashback. In every little neighborhood you can still find a little bar where you can get a whole fish on a bun, and a mug of beer on the side.
High Times: You saw The Deer Hunter?
Romero: Yeah. The art directors got off the plane, and said: “Oh, this isn’t what we expected.” So they moved on and shot somewhere else—in Ohio somewhere. But we have offices here. Our business offices are here. I like to come into New York, but I also like to get out of New York. I like not having the “state-of-the-art” influences on my back all the time. I mean, I hate going into a lab here, or a sound studio or whatever, and be forced into doing it “the way we’re doing it these days.” You know— there’s a sameness, which is like a nagging migraine headache about everything that’s being done in American film. I think it grows out of this vast volume of material that’s being made. And I just don’t like it. We do all our own work. We just bought some new equipment: We have our own mix stage, do all our own sound effects—you know, the whole banana. I wouldn’t want to job a film out—you know, send a film out to a sound-effects house while I was cutting it. To me, that’s a very important part of the soundtrack. And if I can’t do it, I just don’t want it done.
High Times: Martin is my personal favorite of all your films. How do you feel about it yourself?
Romero: I like it pretty much. It was my favorite film until Knightriders… I think Martin, in some ways, is my best work. It was a very personal film. I didn’t have my tongue in my cheek, you know. I wasn’t worried about the audience. I didn’t care about anything. I just made the film.
High Times: How did the idea start?
Romero: It started, again, sort of with a whim, almost as a practical joke. I just went off on this trip about… if a vampire existed today, he’d really have a hard time. He’d probably be working the street, you know, doing something to get by. He’d need a new I.D. every twenty years—and shit like that. Probably wouldn’t be rich, and wouldn’t have a castle to retreat to. And I started to just goof off on comedic things. I started by writing down a notebook full of ideas for a comedy. And then things started to connect. I saw some little films made by a young independent filmmaker in Pittsburgh. He’d made about seven films in Braddock, a little town where we shop. And they’re real sort of nitty-gritty slice-of-life things: no narration, just sort of little portraits about the people in that town. And then I was reading a book called Out of the Furnace. It’s a limited-edition book about the beginnings of the union movement in Pittsburgh, and the steel industry. And all those elements just sort of came together one night. I saw this sort of—this state of collapse that Braddock was in, and… then I got enamored with the idea of taking what, in fiction, had been an immortal character, and putting him in a very mortal world—making him much more mortal.
High Times: In a funny way, it’s like the collapse of values—or the fight for values—of Knightriders. Except that Martin’s all by himself, basically.
High Times: Do you watch other movies along the same lines? Not necessarily vampires…
Romero: I do. I do, if I get the chance. I don’t make a point of it; no. Some films I’ll make a point to go see; but very few, anymore.
High Times: What do you like to see when you do make the time?
Romero: Mostly genre things. Mostly genre pictures. I like to see well-crafted, visceral films. And I love genre stuff. I just love it.
High Times: Some examples?
Romero: I love jungle movies. I love Tarzan movies. I go to see a lot of horror films, a lot of science fiction. I like to see action films, adventure stuff. I like to escape.
High Times: I guess I’m asking about individual pictures.
Romero: My cassette library is: Citizen Kane, War of the Worlds, Frankenstein, both the Draculas—the Lugosi Dracula and the Langella Dracula—Alien, Close Encounters, Jaws… I have real eclectic tastes. I mean, I like films for weird reasons. Some movies work… and I don’t really even care why. Polanski’s stuff I like a lot. I like Rosemary’s Baby; I love Repulsion. I like Welles, all the early Welles stuff.
High Times: How come you never made a jungle movie? Would you like to?
Romero: Oh, absolutely. And I will.
High Times: I’ve got a problem here, because of the magazine. Somehow I have to get sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll into this interview—and for about a half hour I’ve been trying to think of the proper question. I have to get it in, and I’m stumped. Do you have—
Forrest: Sex and drugs!
High Times: Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll… Well, that’s the game, you know.
Romero: Well, rock ‘n’ roll is one of the values that are—
High Times: Like Knightriders?
High Times: So much for that. Can you tell me something about your next movie, Creepshow? Is that another independent production?
Romero: It’s an independent production that’s being financed by UATC—by United Film. It’s Stephen King. It’s a pure horror thing. It’s something that Steve and I have been having a lot of fun contemplating. I think it’s going to be fun. It’s very traditional; it’s a fun horror movie. It’s—I don’t know how else to put it—it’s an EC comic book. It’s an anthology; it’s five stories and they’re linked together as the five stories in a comic book—which we see on screen, pages blowing and all that.
High Times: Remember Dr. Frederick Wertham? He’s the guy who wrote Seduction of the Innocent and claimed that all the EC horror comics created warped, degenerate juvenile delinquents.
Romero: So, maybe they did. Maybe they did create warps. I used to love them. I wasn’t allowed to read them. So I did.
High Times: Do your parents see your movies?
Romero: Yeah, they do.
High Times: Do they like them?
Romero: They say they like them, but I’m sure they don’t.
High Times: So, now you’re making an EC horror comic yourself. You met Stephen King around the time of Salem’s Lot—when they were adapting that for TV?
Romero: Essentially… I mean, yeah, we just really hit it off. We’ve become real good friends. You know, he’s another guy who—He lives in Maine; he stays away. We’re having a good time, man.
High Times: What’s happening with The Stand?
Romero: Steve is now finished with the second draft of the screenplay and I haven’t read it yet.
High Times: And you have the screenplay in hand for Creepshow?
Romero: Creepshow is finished. Creepshow is ready. Creepshow we’re going to start to shoot in July. The Stand is a very expensive film—and Steve and I both sort of agree that if we can’t make the right kind of a deal on it, we’d rather not do it at all.
High Times: How expensive?
Romero: We haven’t done a budget on it yet. But if you read the book… it’s huge. It’s really huge. I mean, I think it’s in the fifteen- or twenty-million-dollar range. And that’s without the frills. No frills. I mean, we’re not looking to get a big budget so we can drive the staff around in tanks, and make sure that everyone gets a dope allotment or anything like that. We’re into enough money to make the film right; otherwise, the film shouldn’t be made. Or it should be made for television in four parts—and neither of us wants to do that.
High Times: Too many compromises?
Romero: Oh, yeah. Yeah. You still can’t… Unfortunately there’s no format—until HBO or disc or cassette or something that’s strong enough to support the production costs, we’re still in trouble. It’s not a viable medium; I mean, it’s not for an artist. Even something like Shogun: fairly successful, but not… You have too much to deal with: Standards and practices, and all that bullshit. There are just too many things involved. And let alone the problems on the creative side, then you have the whole legal department. And then you have the question of whether or not the network will air it; and you’ve got twenty lawyers looking at it to decide what needs to go out. My hope is for the videodisc, man—where there are enough disc players out there that you can go shoot something and press a thousand copies and sell them out on the street corner You know: contact the audience.
It’s the distribution mechanism that fucks it up. More so than the production mechanism; more than the studio. The distribution mechanism is so fucked up that you cannot compete. You’re not going to cut through the white noise unless you’ve got a six-million-dollar advertising campaign. You’re not going to make any money anymore unless you can distribute fifteen-hundred prints at a crack across the country. I mean, I’m talking in their terms. It’s real hard to regionally distribute something… I mean, it costs so fucking much. Just shipping those cans costs a lot of money. And they’ve reduced it down to this common denominator, and they have all the goddamned screens tied up. The majors have the screens tied up.
That used to be the domain of the independents: the drive-in theater, the neighborhood theaters in Pittsburgh. Everyone talks about this horror-movie wave that we’ve had in the last two years. Every year that I’ve been in Pittsburgh since 1959 there have been twelve or fifteen horror movies out every summer. Only they used to come from Joe Brenner, Crown International… They came from all over the place, because you could get those screens. Now, the majors have the screens tied up, because all the majors are making B movies. I mean, there’s no such thing as “A movies,” “B movies” anymore.
High Times: B movies have five-million-dollar budgets.
Romero: Not anymore. The average film is already eight or ten million—and they’re making nothing but B movies. They’re making action adventure stuff; so they have the neighborhood screens tied up this summer with Superman II, you name it. And they have all those screens tied up; you can’t get a decent break. Even the “four wall” people—you know, the Utah groups that come in with their little Swiss Family or Mountain Family Robinson or whatever—get obscure screens, and blast the shit out of television and get people to come out… But they buy the hall, you know. They buy the theater. And it’s always an obscure theater somewhere out on the circuit. They can’t get a good screen.
High Times: What are some of the things that happened to you when you were out in Hollywood trying to make deals with the biggies?
Romero: I haven’t had any nightmare experiences with them, simply because I haven’t made any movies. I’ve had them turn down ideas that I thought were really good. I’ve also had them offer me things that I thought were terrible. That’s mainly the reason I haven’t done anything out there.
High Times: But you don’t have any problems communicating with them?
Romero: No. My partner is a very knowledgeable and skilled businessman, thank God. I don’t have to deal with that side of it. We just have not been able to come to terms.
The only deal that I ever accepted was the deal to do Salem’s Lot, before they went to television with it. They saw nine vampire movies coming down the pike; and they happened to see Martin and made the connection: “A vampire in a small town; let’s try Romero.” Rather obvious, you know; that kind of obvious connection.
But it’s actually how I met Steve; and I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do this program.” The deal was: Go to Maine, with just enough money to make the movie; come back in nine months, and show it to us. ‘Cause they wanted to get it out, and they had a lot of money tied up in screenplays. Everyone in Hollywood wrote a screenplay on Salem’s Lot, and they had a stack of screenplays.
High Times: You had your choice?
Romero: In essence. But they were sort of leaning to Steve’s screenplay. Oh man, Silliphant wrote a screenplay with, you know—where the vampires were turning into gargoyles, and the snakes were coming out of their mouths… And I mean, why buy a book? I have no idea what they paid for the book—but not only have they paid for that; I think they wound up with something like a million eight in screen pledges. And they’re sitting with a two-million-dollar story cost on something, and they haven’t shot a frame of the film. That screws up the mechanism—and, the way they relate it, your story costs are supposed to be five percent of your budget. So, they would map it out backwards and say: Oh shit, two-million-dollar story cost. That means the movie’s going to cost…
High Times: Why didn’t they just stick with King’s original screenplay? In fact, why don’t they use him more often than they do?
Romero: I think Steve’s written screenplays for all of them, and I don’t think they were even seriously considered… I mean, he always gets a crack at it.
High Times: But they don’t accept it?
Romero: I think it’s almost automatic… I mean, Steve…
High Times: The director won’t accept it, or the producer won’t accept it?
Romero: Usually the producers. Usually it never gets to the director.
High Times: Why?
Romero: They have him notched. He’s a novelist; therefore, he can’t write a screenplay. That’s the way it is, man.
High Times: They won’t use him because he’s a novelist?
Romero: Yeah. I mean, I think probably that’s the big basic problem.
High Times: But that seems—
Romero: They categorize you, man.
High Times: That seems absurd on two levels, because he writes his books as movies. When you read them, you read them as movies. Number two…
Romero: Oh, yes. Very, very cinematic. He’s a movie lover. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He wants to become, I think, a filmmaker eventually—and I’d love to see him try to do it. Because I think he has a real good movie sense. I think his screenplays are really funny. But, I’m telling you, there’s an automatic prejudice there.
High Times: Well, they pigeonholed you right away too.
Romero: Immediately. They pigeonhole everyone. Unless you’re so hot… I mean, on the other hand, you could go out and have a hit record, and they’ll give you a three-picture deal. You know—I mean, it’s random, man. It’s like…
High Times: And money breeds money on any level. Who has the rights to The Stand right now?
Romero: We do. Between Stephen and me. We formed a partnership. And the same with Creepshow. It’s a lot easier. We’ve been in situations where we’ve agreed to certain terms—this is not even with studios, but with big independents—and shook hands, and made the deal, and everything else… and then the contracts come in; they don’t even reflect the deal as we discussed. But you come to expect that, and you just sort of roll with it. It’s crazy man. It’s, I think, one in two hundred projects that get developed out there, that turn into movies—and then, they don’t even look like what they’re intended to.
High Times: Well, I still haven’t got sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in here, and I’m running out of time. I don’t know what to do about it!
Romero: Why isn’t there more? That’s a good question.
High Times: What is the future of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the American movie industry?
Romero: In the American movie industry?
High Times: No, scratch that.
Romero: Or—what is the future of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? It might be dying out. Dying out with the rest of—
High Times: Perhaps the counterculture is dying. But, in your films, you seem to be dealing with outsiders. Your theme seems to be outsiders, and how they collide with society—and particularly society in decay. And we seem to be entering an era where people don’t want to be outside anymore.
Romero: What you’re saying is true. I think people want to be a part of it; want to be a part of the societal whole. But I think that where the real desperation is coming from now is that we can’t define that societal whole. We can’t—and I don’t think we can perceive it anymore as something that’s reachable. It may not exist, in fact, anymore; there may not be a community anymore, man. We’re not keeping up the cities. Bridges are collapsing, and everything is worse. And maybe the only way to any kind of order is really the old-fashioned, Eurocentric way of small-town, small-community survival.
High Times: Like Knightriders.
Romero: To some extent. Well, we grew way beyond that; and I don’t think it can work. I don’t think it can work today because there’s no way to get any sense of fulfillment, or a sense that you’re a part of the whole, in a huge city. Not anymore. I think people have this overwhelming sense of not being able to contribute, not being able to affect what’s happening here. And I think that’s why there’s this incredible growth in the West. I mean, you walk into Salt Lake City and you feel like you might be able to have an effect on what’s happening.
My God, you’re faced with this incredible monster, you know; which is really in a state of collapse. Society can’t support huge mechanisms like this, with any chance of an individual feeling a part of it. And even, when no matter what you accomplish, no matter what your accomplishments, the sense of satisfaction on a level of: Well, okay I did that, and that was my work, and I can relax now. You don’t ever get that sort of personal reward, that personal feeling of completion.
High Times: Small towns are changing anyway because they’re all electronically strung together.
Romero: They are and they aren’t. That’s the fascination of the shopping mall, for example.
High Times: I drove through a city on the way to New York, about four months ago, that I didn’t believe. It’s called Maumee, Ohio, and the entire city was fast-food chains and mass-market chains and outlets. Nothing indigenous.
Romero: Oh, yeah. Man… I think it’s really out there. One thing that New York has going over all of them is that you can find something close to the real small town in some of the neighborhoods—and you have something of that experience in New York that you don’t really have in the other big cities. Pittsburgh and L.A—forget it.
High Times: And you’re saying the shopping centers…?
Romero: Yeah, they sort of synthesize us to me. That’s where people hang’ out, man. They go to the mall and hang out. That’s the downtown. It’s the new downtown.
High Times: That’s reminiscent, of course, of Dawn of the Dead, where you have this bizarre, three-cornered war being waged among the zombies and the humans in a sealed-off shopping mall. Obviously—despite all the gore and the violence and the laughs—you’re also making an implicit comment on the social breakdown of the future.
Romero: Basically, the thrust of it, ever since I wrote the short story was that it appears as though the zombie society has taken over, and they have become the new society. But, actually they’re just sort of operating on the surface—and, underneath, down in the bomb shelter somewhere, there are humans who are really controlling it. And they’re controlling it by feeding the zombies, and farming the food.
High Times: Is there some kind of social structure to the zombie society?
Romero: To some extent, yes—although, mostly they’re just out there on the surface of the planet, doing what they’re doing now: being fed.
High Times: An interesting thing about the zombies, as villains, is that they have no malign motivations. They’re just—
Romero: They’re just hungry. That’s all you have to do to control the—is keep them fed. They find this out in the third film—the last one—but it’s suggested in Dawn of the Dead.
High Times: So what are the people who are controlling the zombies? They’re little pockets…?
Romero: Little pockets. Yeah, little communities. Little warring factions.
High Times: And they’re using the zombies to fight against the other communities?
Romero: Yeah. That’s where it winds up. I haven’t written the last screenplay yet. I have the short story; and I wrote a slightly expanded version of it. We have a production deal, and I don’t have to do it for five years, but… I wanted some more… I wanted time.
High Times: And there’s a real conclusion at the end of the third “Dead” movie?
Romero: There is, yes. There’s a conclusion. It’s not really a “restoration of order” ending… But, well, I’m going to put a little hopeful tag in it.
High Times: Do you feel hopeful, in general, about things?
Romero: Yes. I think that I’m pretty optimistic. But that’s only… I don’t know. My optimism—I mean, if I have an optimism—it comes out of a sort of… it comes out of me. I’m not necessarily optimistic about this, as it stands; I’m optimistic in a more general sense. And I’m confident that I’ll manage to somehow get to Australia before it blows up here.