Dead Reckoning: George A. Romero in the Land of the Dead

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The Director and Cast of Land of the Dead Discuss Zombies
Suddenly, a cell phone starts ringing and the journalists around the table look at each other. How embarrassing! Who forgot to switch his cell off? After some signals, Dennis Hopper sighs, puts his hand in his pocket and picks up the ringing cell phone.

“Hi, baby,” he says. “I can’t talk right now, I’m being interviewed. I bought a carton of cigarettes for you, it’s in the room. Bye.”

Dennis Hopper is at Cannes to promote the upcoming LAND OF THE DEAD. After twenty years, the fourth installment in George A. Romero’s zombie saga is on its way. Yup, it’s actually been that many years since DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). The first two parts were of course NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).

LAND OF THE DEAD opened in the States in the summer of 2005, but before that, UIP brought the movie’s first fourteen minutes plus an extended trailer to Cannes. The mood is dark and apocalyptic, it made me think of Mad Max versus zombies – and it’s extremely violent and gory! I wouldn’t be surprised if Romero ran into problems with the MPAA.

George A. Romero doesn’t look very well. Old, very thin and frail, the impression is made even stronger thanks to his enormous glasses that are bigger than his head. But he’s happy and relaxed.

“I stole the whole idea from Richard Matheson’s novel I AM LEGEND,” he says when explaining where he got the idea for his world of zombies 40 years ago. “However, in Matheson’s book, it was vampires that had taken over the world. My zombies are vampires in disguise. But I never called my living dead ‘zombies,’ they are referred to as ‘ghouls’. As you know, real zombies are something different than just reanimated corpses.”

Romero’s movies are big horror classics, but Romero himself doesn’t find them frightening.

“No, I don’t think so,” he says. “I look at them as adventure movies with some shocking scenes in them. When I made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was afraid of the bomb, not of dead people. I’ve always sympathized with the zombies and not with the humans in my movies.”

All of Romero’s movies have strong elements of social satire.

“Well, I’m not a political director like Michael Moore,” Romero says. “But I don’t think I would be invited to the White House. George W. Bush is just awful!”

So, why did it take so long before he finally made LAND OF THE DEAD?

“Today, there are two types of American movies. The ones that aim for blockbuster, and the ones made for Sundance. I’m making a different kind of movies. I was very frustrated and made a movie called BRUISER, which nobody saw. Then I started writing my fourth zombie movie, but suddenly 9/11 happened and all work just stopped.”

Romero shot his earlier movies in Pittsburgh, but this time, he shot in Toronto, since it is a lot cheaper filming there. He wouldn’t mind shooting in Pittsburgh again, but only of nostalgic reasons.

Last year, a remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD was released, and it seems that Romero doesn’t like this new version. In 1990, Tom Savini remade NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Romero agreed on Savini’s movie mainly of economical reasons. He didn’t get paid very much the first time around, because they did a stupid thing: they put the copyright symbol just below the title in the opening credits. When different distributors re-released the movie and retitled it, they removed the title card including the copyright notice. Because of this, the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is more or less in public domain. Savini’s movie was made so that Romero would get his fair share of the franchise.

Originally, Romero wanted to call the fourth movie DEAD RECKONING, but the studio complained and demanded that the title must end with “of the Dead.”

An actor I’ve never really liked, is John Leguizamo. He’s often pretty annoying and overacts. However, he turns out to be a really funny guy.

“I play a zombie killer,” says John Leguizamo. “I’m trying to get supplies and I’m aiming for power and respect. My character works for Dennis Hopper, who’s a very powerful man, kind of an emperor in a safe area.”

It was the movie’s script that attracted Leguizamo.

“When I saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD on TV as a kid, I got so scared I called my mom,” he says. “I never thought I would ever end up in a horror movie, but LAND OF THE DEAD has real characters. It’s all quality; quality story, quality actors, and it also has an action movie feel to it.”

John Leguizamo gets to the zombies:

“I think the zombies represent the blue collar Americans in the South. The zombies voted for Bush and then Bush took away everything they had. They were doomed from the beginning and they got tricked.”

He continues discussing the zombies.

“George really believes in this stuff, it’s his world. He directs the zombies and gives them individual ticks. Usually, zombies always move in the same way in horror movies. George gave them personality. It’s kind of like in Lars von Trier’s THE IDIOTS: ‘find the zombie inside you’! And one reason George didn’t like the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD, is because the zombies in that one run. Zombies can’t run! They have rigor mortis. That’s why the move so slowly and jerky in George’s movies.”

Asia Argento, who’s also in the movie, had to cancel her interview, but John Leguizamo talks a little about her.

“Asia was amazing. She did all of her stunts herself. She really is a fuck-you-chick!”

Australian Simon Baker is the least known of the actors attending Cannes. I’ve seen several of his earlier movies, among them THE RING TWO, but he’s never made any impression. I don’t even remember him from the awful Ring movie, which I saw just a couple of months ago.

“My manager sent me the script,” Simon Baker says. “He’s a big fan of George’s movies. I’m not a fan myself and had to educate myself, so I rented the movies.”

Baker does also talk about zombies:

“Slow moving zombies are more interesting. It’s like tennis: you can lob a ball that goes slowly over the net, but then when you’re going to hit the ball, you fuck it up.”

It seems to be impossible avoiding politics when talking about Goeorge Romero’s movies. Simon baker doesn’t have that much to say, though.

“There’s no middle class in George’s movies,” he says. “It’s upper class or working class.”

Simon Baker is a nice guy, but suddenly he makes me a bit nervous. He stops talking in the middle of a sentence and stares at me. What did I do? Is my fly unzipped?

“The ghost who walks!” he says. Aha – he’s seen the skull ring on my finger. Of course an Australian would recognize it. These days, the comic book character The Phantom is only known and popular in Scandinavia and Australia.

…And then we have Dennis Hopper, the legendary actor. He has a moustache, smokes a cigar and looks a bit old – he actually turned 69 during the Cannes festival. He’s nice, cool and talks a lot, but interestingly enough, he doesn’t speak much about LAND OF THE DEAD.

“I saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD back in 1968,” he says. “At that time I was comparing different independent directors, so I went to see it.”

Instead of discussing the movie, he talks a lot about his life. He’s soft spoken and it’s a bit hard to hear what he’s saying because of waiters running around and loud laughters from the other tables. He talks about all the villains he’s played and that he in the beginning of his carreer preferred being a guest actor in TV series instead of being stuck with a series, and if you were a guest actor, you often had to play the villain.

Here Hopper gets to David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET and to everybody’s delight, he turns into that movie’s bad guy Frank – he pretends inhaling gas and looks crazy.

Dennis Hopper does of course hit the subject of politics as well, and I must say I’m surprised when he, the man behind EASY RIDER and unlike the rest of the people involved with LAND OF THE DEAD, says that he voted for Bush and for Bush’s father.

He talks about his interest in art, about his drug abuse and says he hasn’t had a glass of alcohol for twenty years.

“I’ve done almost everything you can do in my country and never ended up in jail, he says. “I’ve been lucky and I’ve had a very good life.”

One thing we never talked about during the interviews, is how LAND OF THE DEAD will be received by today’s young audience. I’ve a feeling that lots of people will think that Romero’s movie is a sequel to the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD.

2005 was the Year of the Zombie. There were at least three more zombie movies on the market at Cannes; RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 4, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 5 and the splatter comedy BOY EATS GIRL. And the last few years, we’ve seen a whole bunch of zombie movies; the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD, 28 DAYS LATER, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOUSE OF THE DEAD and the two RESIDENT EVIL movies.

The dead have definitely returned from their graves.

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