Produced piecemeal on a shoestring budget, George Romero's debut feature, Night of the Living Dead (1968), was a fever dream of EC Comics and old Universal horror, crossbred with the fleet realism of the television newsreels Romero had once bicycled from a Pittsburgh film lab to local affiliates.
The tightly framed black-and-white images of walking corpses consuming the flesh of live humans shocked many. But already it was obvious that, for Romero, the real horrors of society needed no special-effects amplification. His undead were merely a prism through which to examine human behavior at a state of heightened anxiety. And by casting a black actor (Duane Jones) as Night's selfless hero, the film became, among other things, a blistering portrait of homeland race relations in the year of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination -- its final image, of Jones being gunned down by a posse of zombie-hunting yahoos, as potent a symbol of the blown-out American dream as the ending of Easy Rider.
The film became a midnight-movie phenomenon, ensuring that Romero's primordial creatures would long continue to walk the earth. In contrast to Night's chiaroscuro terrors, its first sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), was a Day-Glo assault on American consumerism at the outset of the shopping-mall era, with asides on classism and feminism. One of the great films of the 1980s, Day of the Dead (1985) is a poetic, Hawksian horror picture (with allusions to the Frankenstein story) that questions what it means to be human while anticipating the coming culture wars between scientific rationality and religious faith.
By then, Romero was fully enshrined as a cult movie deity, and the ensuing two decades would see more than its share of respectful homages (28 Days Later), comic send-ups (Return of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead) and blatant rip-offs (the Resident Evil video game franchise and its subsequent film versions) of his work, though, curiously, only four new features by the master himself. "Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated," Romero deadpanned in a July 2000 welcome letter to visitors of his Web site. But, kidding aside, it was a low moment for the iconoclastic auteur, coming at the end of seven years spent on retainer to an assortment of major studios, during which time he watched several high-profile projects all come within a hairsbreadth of getting made. Eventually, with French financing, Romero managed to make Bruiser, a scabrous satire of the corporate workplace and the suburban American dream that couldn't help but seem influenced by its maker's own season in "development hell": In the film, the main character's figurative facelessness becomes a literal condition, allowing him to exact revenge on those who have sought to turn him into an emasculated drone. Like Romero's earlier Jack's Wife (1973) -- in which an underappreciated housewife liberates herself by becoming a witch -- the movie was so merciless and mordantly funny as to make American Beauty look like an I Love Lucy episode. Not surprisingly, no American distributor dared touch it.
In truth, Romero and Hollywood have never made for easy bedfellows. Only four of his 14 feature films have been released by studios, and one of those (his 1993 Stephen King adaptation, The Dark Half) became an unfortunate victim of the Orion Pictures bankruptcy. The rest of the time, he has worked from his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh to create a body of work as truly independent (both financially and ideologically) as any in American movies. And so it may be that no one is more surprised than Romero that his latest film, Land of the Dead, is being released today by Universal Pictures, on several thousand screens, at the zenith of the summer blockbuster season. "It was very frustrating in those years that I never got pictures made," says the tall, ponytailed, rail-thin Romero, who calls money "dough" and refers to his collaborators as "cats." "But at the same time," he continues, "I did work on some very big things, so I didn't feel like I was out of the game. It took me a long time to realize that, after a while, you really do drop off the radar."
Romero's return to movie and radar screens was consecrated last month by a standing-ovation tribute at the Cannes Film Festival, which included a sneak preview of Land's first 15 minutes -- an occasion that, for all its triumph, also pointed up the dismissive treatment genre fare like Romero's has long received from festivals and critics alike. "Even for a lot of the industry, George Romero is a name, nothing more," notes Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux. "When I was 17 or 18, I used to stay up all night with friends watching videotapes of horror movies, which was where I discovered George Romero. And to me, having him onstage was as important as having Abbas Kiarostami or Woody Allen. I like the fact that Woody Allen loves Bergman's movies and Bergman loves Westerns. This is something very important -- that to love cinema is to love all of cinema."
Romero paints with his boldest brushstrokes yet in Land of the Dead, blurring the line that separates zombies from humans while sharpening the one that divides society's haves from its have-nots. Set again in Pittsburgh, the film unfolds in and around a luxury high-rise called Fiddler's Green that has become the last outpost of moneyed (and white) high society in a world where money ceases to have any meaning (other than that ascribed to it by its bearers). Overseen by a venomous gatekeeper called Kaufman (a tip of the capitalist hat to the wealthy Pittsburgh department store entrepreneur), the Green towers above a Hooverville-like slum inhabited by those deemed unworthy of admission to Kaufman's shining planned community. All is enclosed by an electrified fence that has, until now, kept the undead at bay, forcing them into outlying areas where they are shot for sport by the rogue bounty-hunter types who keep the Green supplied.
But as Land of the Dead begins, the oppressed flesh-eating masses show unprecedented cognitive signs, and stir with revolutionary fervor as they rally behind a zombified gas station attendant called Big Daddy. For Romero, these once-fearsome adversaries now seem to represent all of the world's displaced, disenfranchised people, from the streets of America to the contentious cities of the Middle East. "It's more a reflection of the times than it is criticism," Romero says. "I guess I was trying to say something about complacency, which has always been the case in America -- this idea that we're protected, that we don't have to worry about things. As for the imagery, I don't know if people will pick up on all of it, but some of it is obvious to me -- the financial center being a high-rise, and a tank riding through a little village and mowing people down while we wonder why [the zombies] are pissed off at us." Indeed, in the world of Land of the Dead, it's not just the zombies who must learn to be human again.
How often does a director on the wrong side of 60 get the budget and the resources he deserves for the dream project he's been longing to make? Not often, but Romero has done so and done it brilliantly. Land of the Dead is fast, mercilessly funny, gleefully gory and uncommonly thoughtful about the times in which we live -- a horror picture to shake audiences from the complacency engendered by so many Rings and Grudges. Promoted as Romero's "ultimate zombie masterpiece," Land is a rare case of truth in advertising, little dulled by its arrival in the midst of so many other comers to Romero's throne. "You know," Romero muses, "people ask Stephen King, 'How do you feel about these directors ruining your books?' And Steve says, 'They didn't ruin them. Here they are right now, on the shelf here.'" Last week, during his stop through L.A. en route to yet another career tribute (this time at Las Vegas' Cinevegas festival), I talked with the director about the latest chapter in his ongoing zombie epic.
The use of the original Universal Pictures logo at the start of the film is a nice touch.
It's a way of saying, "Guys, this is going to be a little old-fashioned here!"
This is your first Dead movie in 20 years. Was it challenging to find a new approach to the material?
I always wanted to do another one and then we got hung up, my partner and I, in that seven or eight years -- stuck on projects. I fled after all of that and made this little film called Bruiser which nobody's seen. Then I started working on this script mid-2000 and finally got a draft and sent it out days before 9/11 -- after which everyone wanted to make soft, friendly movies. So I took it back home and, sometime after the invasion, dug it out and twisted it around a little bit.
Though the film is set in Pittsburgh, budgetary matters dictated that you shoot most of it in Canada.
I wanted to shoot in Pittsburgh. If we would get smart here, productions wouldn't keep going to Canada, but they offer such incentives over there, and they also take care of their personnel. The regs that we all complain about when we go up there keep those people working. I think they do a fabulous job.
Often, particularly in a film like Martin (1977), your work has contemplated the Pittsburgh landscape as a kind of Norman Rockwell town that never was, or that was once and then vanished.
Which it is. When I got there -- I went there to go to college and I've lived there ever sinceÃ‹â€¡ -- the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, "The mills will reopen someday. Don't worry about it." It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there's a little bit of that in this movie too -- it just so happens that it's now a reflection of the entire country.
Though the zombies have always been human on the outside, this is the first movie where we really sense them being human on the inside as well.
Exactly. I tried to throw that big ace out there right away, because I've always had an African-American lead in the other three, which was a conceit. So this time I said, "Okay, I'm gonna switch sides with this guy." I do have this idea in my mind that if I go on, if I live to do another one, that the humans are getting nastier and the zombies are getting a little more human. I've tried to follow a pretty clean line with it, though. Even in Dawn, some of the principals that get turned into zombies are showing cognitive signs, and at the very end of the film there's a zombie who's been dragging a rifle around not knowing what it is, who grabs the hero's rifle and decides, "That looks better!" And then Bub in Day of the Dead -- he's an experiment, but he's basically imitating the scientist. "Push the button, Bub." And he pushes the button. So now, there're other zombies that are imitative, up to a point, but they have Big Daddy to imitate now. So I don't think this has taken a giant leap forward. It's just the idea that they're getting more dangerous.
Michael Moore notwithstanding, it still seems risky to make a movie this political in what is effectively a risk-averse Hollywood climate. I'm thinking particularly of those scenes where we see captive zombies turned by their human captors into Abu Ghraib-style sideshow freaks.
I'm not sure if you showed this movie at the White House that anybody would get it, except when the money burns at the end -- then they might feel a little pang of sadness.
You were making short films from a very early age.
But I never thought I could have a career in it. I went to Carnegie-Mellon to study painting and design. My dad was a commercial artist, and I realized I wasn't very good. They happened to have a theater school, so it was just on impulse that I decided to transfer there. But then I had to take, you know, movement and speech and all of that shit. Pass! So I walked. Back then, cities the size of Pittsburgh at that time had film labs. I had an uncle who supported me, got me an apartment for a year. So I just went and spent a year hanging out at this film lab, back when the news was on film -- journeymen guys with cigarettes hanging over the flammable glue pots gluing together the shots.
One of the most distinctive aspects of your films, the early ones in particular, is the way they achieve movement through the cutting of what are mostly static shots. How did you develop that technique?
It's a little bit of a throwback to Michael Powell's stuff, the war movies that he did, which were very much staged that way. It was also a little bit of ass-covering, in the early days, when I couldn't afford dolly track or a dolly. So I would just shoot a lot of coverage, and I developed more of an editing style than even a shooting style. It was really only with The Dark Half that I started to feel more confident, to shoot longer dialogue scenes and do things more efficiently. You know, you start learning some tricks. John Ford, after 150 films, probably had a bag full of tricks. I'm still learning them.
Land of the Dead is the first of your films to be shot in the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio.
I've always loved the frame. I grew up on all of those movies too: Ben-Hur and all of that stuff. It's always been either a little too expensive or a little hard to achieve. But now with the digital intermediate process, we shot film and did all the finishing digitally. That enables you to change the frame, do whatever. It's really like a darkroom; you don't have to time the whole shot -- you can go in and touch things up. That was fun, and we had a wonderful d.p. who got it and I think did a beautiful job with it.
Even with the comeback they've made in recent years at the box office, horror films still tend to be looked down upon by many so-called serious film aficionados.
It's a shame, but I have to say that there aren't a lot of people out there who are doing stuff with real heart. John Carpenter did a few things that I thought were wonderful. I loved They Live and The Thing. But there's not a lot of people doing Caligari these days.
How do you personally view the zombies?
I think of them as a primitive society. It's the quest for fire, putting two and two together. I always tell the actors, "Just think of yourselves as infants discovering things for the first time," like when Big Daddy is looking at the real building and its reflection in the water. But they're almost an external force. It's this incredible sea change in the world.
"In what has become a tribal ritual, accusations are again flying about the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature Film." With that line, critic Ann Hornaday began her New York Times article titled "Documentaries and the Oscars: No Cinderellas at the Ball." The date was March 14, 1993, and Hornaday was reporting on the peculiarities of a selection process that had consistently excluded many of the most acclaimed, groundbreaking and/or popular documentary films of the moment from its list of nominees. Many in the press – to say nothing of the overlooked filmmakers – were up in arms, accusing the Academy's documentary screening committee of being at best antagonistic to innovation and at worst mired in corruption. (Around the time of Hornaday's article, it was revealed that one documentary committee member was also a documentary distributor whose own films accounted for a suspiciously high percentage of the nominees.) And given the list of omissions – Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time, Michael Moore's Roger & Me – such allegations seemed more than a case of proverbial sour grapes.
Now flash forward 11 years. Responding to pressures both internal and external – and an ever-lengthening roster of high-profile non-nominees – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has instituted widespread changes to its documentary nominating process. Perhaps most significantly, an actual documentary membership branch has been created, meaning that nominees are now selected by the documentary filmmakers themselves, rather than (as under the old system) by a group of volunteers culled from all the Academy branches. Morris and Moore – as if anyone could have missed the latter – have finally been invited to the ball. Yet in a year that was widely hailed (as was 2003) as the Year of the Documentary, with nonfiction films playing in record numbers of theaters and to record attendance, the Academy's recently published list of the 12 semifinalists for 2004's best-documentary statuette suggests that all is still not well in the house of Oscar. Though the final five nominees won't be unveiled until January 25, already out of the running are Control Room, The Corporation, Dig!, The Five Obstructions, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Tarnation and Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession – in short, a veritable honor roll of the year's most lauded movie achievements, documentary or otherwise.
Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't in the running either, though that owes to Moore's own decision to withdraw the film for documentary consideration and concentrate on a Best Picture campaign instead. Of course, there's no Academy rule prohibiting a film from being nominated in both categories. There are, however, abundant regulations governing which films are eligible for a documentary Oscar in the first place. While both narratives and documentaries seeking Oscar eligibility must first play qualifying runs of at least seven consecutive days in at least one Los Angeles cinema, where documentaries are concerned that represents but the first step on the long and winding road toward hoped-for Oscar gold. As detailed in the Academy's official rulebook (available in both pamphlet form and as a download on the Academy's Web site), having cleared that initial hurdle, documentaries must then either open in theaters in four additional U.S. cities or, failing that, be withheld from television broadcast, anywhere in the world, until the day the Oscar nominations are announced. If a film is Oscar-nominated, it must be withheld from television for an additional nine months following the announcement. As for those films that do roll out to other cities, they too are prohibited from television airings, but only for a comparatively lenient nine months from the date of their first theatrical exhibition.
Ostensibly, these rules were first deployed to protect and empower documentary filmmakers. As Academy documentary-branch governor Freida Lee Mock notes, "For a while, there were documentaries that simply did the minimum qualifying run without the spirit in which the rules were written – which is to qualify and then roll out, like most narrative films – and were on television the following Sunday night. And that undercut the vitality of our genre. There's always been this distinction for the Academy, that their mission is supporting theatrical motion pictures, be they fiction or nonfiction. Our whole goal is to support the filmmaker." Yet, in 2004, the Academy's television "blackout" rules were directly responsible for the disqualification of Control Room and The Corporation (both showed on international television within nine months of their U.S. theatrical premieres) before the Academy's documentary-branch members ever had a look at them – something that Control Room director Jehane Noujaim doesn't find particularly helpful or empowering.
"Our film had one of the widest theatrical releases of this year, and one of the highest grosses for a documentary, but it was still disqualified," she notes, before going on to point out the key role international television financing plays in documentary production. "Seed funding for documentaries is virtually nonexistent in the U.S. So why are these foreign broadcasters who are taking the risks being penalized by the Oscars? If the filmmaker wants to go for the award, the broadcaster must wait until after the Academy Awards to show the films they have financed. Which can be three years or more after the initial financing."
In the Academy's defense, Mock insists that the documentary branch is constantly revising its guidelines to keep up with changes in the industry, and that more changes are on the way. "We certainly didn't want our rules to handicap true rollout releases," she says. "So, under our new rules for the coming year, which haven't been published yet, we've actually allowed for an exception to the blackout if your film has expanded to a certain number of markets."
Even if a documentary does qualify for an Oscar nomination, however, the battle hardly ends there – just ask Metallica co-directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Two of the best documentarians on the planet, Berlinger and Sinofsky found themselves embroiled in the original documentary Oscar controversy when their debut feature, the remarkable account of murder and dairy farming Brother's Keeper (1992), failed to garner a nomination. In her investigation at the time, Hornaday referred to the film as "the Elijah at the Academy's table," and it's a seat Berlinger and Sinofsky have occupied many times over the ensuing years, as all of their subsequent work (including the two Paradise Lost documentaries, which have gone a long way toward sustaining the controversy around an Arkansas child-murder case) has gone similarly unrecognized by the Academy.
Back then, the co-directors did little to publicly conceal their disgruntlement. "But now I've gotten to know the process a lot better," says Berlinger, himself (along with Sinofsky) a new Academy member. "I have my analysis as to why it happened, but I no longer think it's some conspiracy against well-reviewed, commercially viable dark movies, which is what I used to think."
"Not making the shortlist – believe me, it hurt almost as bad as Bush getting re-elected," adds Sinofsky. "I was depressed for a week, but then we got an Independent Spirit Award nomination, which in many ways is almost as good as an Academy nomination."
The key problem, as Berlinger sees it, is systemic: "The nominating process, despite having gotten infinitely better, still has a long way to go. There were 60 feature-length entries this year. They get divided into four groups of 15, and about 100 of the documentary-branch members agree to be divided into four screening groups. That means that only 20 to 25 people watch each group of the entries." At the end of the process, the screeners in each group rate the films on a scale from 6 to 10, with any film receiving an average score of 8.0 or higher advancing to the shortlist. Only these shortlisted films are then viewed by the full membership of the screening committee.
"The lack of consistency required to produce that shortlist is inherently flawed," says Berlinger. "My suggestion to the committee is that somehow more people, more peers need to watch all of the films. To me, even the shortlist is too short."
Which brings us to those titles that did make the 2004 Oscar shortlist. It's anything but an undistinguished group, including a few audience favorites (Riding Giants, Super Size Me, Touching the Void and The Story of the Weeping Camel), some relative obscurities (Howard Zinn, Born Into Brothels) and several pictures (In the Realms of the Unreal, Tell Them Who You Are) that won't go into wide release until 2005. Of the 12 contenders, I've so far seen eight and can say that none are less than good, a few are better than that, and at least one – Paola di Florio's Home of the Brave, about slain civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo – is downright superb. But I'd also be lying if I didn't say that, in many cases, these works strike me as triumphs of documentary content over documentary form, and that it's hard to imagine there was ever really space on this list for Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation, a kaleidoscope of tortured adolescence; Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself, a dyspeptic three-hour essay about Los Angeles and the movies; or Berlinger and Sinofsky's chronicle of heavy metal rockers struggling to stay relevant.
"My observation is that when it comes to documentaries and those who judge them – not just the Academy – people put subject matter ahead of craft," says Berlinger. "In the dramatic arena, if a story is great but it's poorly made, that film will get ripped to shreds. In the documentary arena, it's different. That's not saying that Fahrenheit or any other film is a bad film or poorly made, but I happen to think that people don't care enough about craft when evaluating documentaries. And let's face it, in terms of subject matter, a heavy metal band going through therapy might strike some people as frivolous."
For the Academy's Mock, however, these long-running controversies boil down to a familiar bit of conventional wisdom: You can't please all the people all the time. "Remember that under the old committee system, some of the best films were still nominated. What happens is that three out of five films everyone can agree on, and four through nine generate more widespread opinions. Of course, it's all very subjective."
There, at least, is something everyone can agree on.