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The Secret Behind Romero's Scary Zombies: 'I Made Them The Neighbors'

George A. Romero says zombies are just the disaster in his films. "My stories are more about the humans," he explains. Romero's latest project is a comic book called <em>Empire of the Dead.</em>
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George A. Romero says zombies are just the disaster in his films. "My stories are more about the humans," he explains. Romero's latest project is a comic book called Empire of the Dead.

Director George A. Romero grew up on classic movie monsters — and he says he never dreamed he'd be responsible for creating the modern zombie that now lurks alongside those monsters. "I never expected it. I really didn't," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. "... All I did was I took them out of 'exotica' and I made them the neighbors ... I thought there's nothing scarier than the neighbors!"

Zombies are everywhere in Hollywood — there's a new batch of films every year, and AMC's The Walking Dead continues to kill it in the ratings. All these zombies can be traced back to Romero's Night of the Living Dead. The 1968 movie wasn't just a low-budget, black-and-white film about corpses that came back to life to feed on people — it was also a commentary on the racial and social tensions of 1968 America.

Romero went on to direct another five films in the zombie canon — most recently 2009's The Survival of the Dead. Romero has chosen to tell his latest zombie tale — which takes place in New York City — in the form of a comic book. The Empire of the Dead is being published by Marvel, and the first five installments are being published as a book.

Interview Highlights

On zombies, humans, and, worst of all, vampires

In my work, [it's] usually the humans that are the worst. ... I have a soft spot in my heart for the zombies. But there are also vampires around — so I'm dabbling a little bit mixing genres and metaphors or whatever. ... I like to ... have a little political satire in the stuff that I do and that's actually a big part of this. The vampires are running the city and the mayor is a vampire. No relation to [former New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg. ... I just see them as villainous, and I always have, since childhood, you know. I grew up on the famous monsters of film land so to me they've just been the villains all along. There are a few sort of 'OK' vampires in the story, but most of them are the oppressors.

On what was going on in the U.S. when Night of the Living Dead came out in the late '60s

We shot it in '67, but it was right in that period ... where there was all that anger, you know race-riots coming up. There's a story I always tell, when we were driving up to New York to show it to potential distributors, and that night, in the car, we heard that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. ... And here we had a black lead [actor Duane Jones as Ben] in this film, and so, I think that was largely what made the film noticeable. ... He was, quite simply, the best actor from among our friends. And we didn't change the script from when Duane agreed to play the role. It's never mentioned, it's never a story point or anything.

... We never thought of it being a racial piece at all, never. We were talking much more about how people remain stuck on their own agendas even though there's something extraordinary going on outside. There's still fighting about mundane, stupid things. But because the character was played by an African-American, you almost don't notice anything else. We didn't realize that, Duane did. Duane was aware of it and he was concerned about it. There was a scene where he has to slug the white [character] Barbra... and he said, "You know what's going to happen to me when I walk outside the theater if I slug this woman?" ... He was concerned about all of that.

On why Romero's latest project is a comic book rather than a film

I really didn't want to make another zombie film. The last two that I did, I did them at two, three million bucks, and was, in fact, able to creatively control what I wanted to do with them. But then all of a sudden, came Zombieland, that was the first one to turn the ... box office corner and you know, gosh, all of a sudden, you can't make a little zombie film anymore. I figured well, if I do it as a comic book I can let my imagination go bananas and I don't have to worry about shooting it.

On using zombies as a vessel for commentary

I've sort of been able to bring them out of the closet whenever I need them. ... They are multi-purpose, you can't really get angry at them, they have no hidden agendas, they are what they are. I sympathize with them. My stories have always been more about the humans and the mistakes that they've make and the zombies are just sort of out there. ... They're the disaster that everyone is facing, but my stories are more about the humans.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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