Horrormeister George A Romero transformed the zombie genre in 1968 with the groundbreaking chiller Night Of The Living Dead. Two sequels, Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead, followed. More than simply horror films, they were satirical, political, and grimly funny. 20 years later, with zombies back in vogue thanks to films like 28 Days Later and Shaun Of The Dead, Romero's flesh eaters are again shuffling across our screens in the brilliant Land Of The Dead. Below, the director discusses his absence and why he thinks zombies could save America.
How did you come up with the idea of the living dead originally?
Well I always say I stole the idea from Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend. That was vampires so to try to disguise my theft, I went with flesh eaters. His story was about the last man on Earth - vampires had already taken over the world - and I wanted to go from day one, because I thought it would be more interesting to watch it happen, and I thought it would be more right for metaphor. That was the late 60s and our idea was really about revolution. What I say is that if the real living dead in America would come back to life, maybe this administration and its policies wouldn't stand a chance.
Why has there been 20 years between Day Of The Dead and Land Of The Dead?
Well that's a long story. My partner and I had a housekeeping deal at New Line, and we were tied up in developments deals at different studios for eight years. We made a bunch of dough but never made any flicks, and when you don't make a movie you drop off the radar.
So what did you do?
Out of frustration I went off and did a little film called Bruiser that nobody saw, and then I immediately started to write this. Then 9/11 happened and everybody wanted to make fuzzy movies, friendly movies, so it was on the shelf for another couple of years. Then, you know, I took it down and re-jigged it to try and fit it into the new model. We were in negotiations at Fox for over a year and then all of a sudden [producer] Mark Canton came along and said, "You mean that deals not done yet?" We had a deal within five weeks. It was like after all of this time, bang!
The films have always had a political dimension.
That's the underlying thing which is important to me. That's what I go in looking for.
Do you consider yourself partly as a political filmmaker when you do these films?
Not like Michael Moore. But I don't think I'll get invited to the White House.
What do you think of present day America?
I just can't believe that everybody's [likens Bush to a controversial Christian evangelist] voting for 'Oral Roberts' as president. And I don't know whether that's really the majority or just the religious right, it's so hard to get a picture of what's actually going on. It's just so disappointing. The policies are disappointing. The war, of course...I'm p****d off!
John Leguizamo, who plays Cholo in the film, says he sees the zombies as the Red states - who voted mainly Republican - and people who were duped by Bush. Is that also how you see the film?
[Laughs] No, it's almost like the zombies are this external force in my mind. It's like the story is happening in and around them and nobody's paying attention to them. That's the real world. Nobody's paying attention to global warming or to the reason why [America] is disliked. It's like, "Let's argue about this s**t, man. Let's argue about social security. Let's argue about..." In the meantime there's this huge shift going on. And, I guess, in a distant sort of way, they represent what mankind should be and what the people should be about, that power-to-the-people thing.
The zombies have continued to evolve since the first film. Was this your intention from the start?
Well I've always sympathised with them. When Peter's escaping at the end of Dawn Of The Dead, a zombie with a gun grabs Peter's gun and makes a decision that this is a better gun. So I've been working toward trying to progress them that way. This time they're a little more organised. Bob, in Day Of The Dead, to me, is [Boris] Karloff; he's this classically sympathetic monster. But I've always felt less sympathy for the humans. There's always a protagonist or a guy who is maybe thinking a bit more clearly, but I really don't sympathise with the humans. It's a different approach. The villains in my film are always the living, not the dead.
Land Of The Dead is released in UK cinemas on Friday 23rd September 2005.