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George C. Romero is finally entering the zombie 'Deadverse' on his own terms
George C. Romero has been in the horror game for a long time. He’s gone from film school P.A. to indie film podcast emperor and hit all the steps in between, with a Heavy Metal-published zombie story next in his sights. But that’s what you get when your father is also the father of the modern zombie. George A. Romero created the horror subgenre with the 1968 Night of the Living Dead, kicking off a franchise and creating a legacy unmatched in the world of genre. And nobody’s as qualified as George C. Romero to pick it up.
While Romero’s upcoming comic, The Rise, is one of the newly announced projects he’s got in the works with Heavy Metal under the iconic genre magazine’s big content push from CEO Matt Medney, the story itself — and Romero’s embrace of zombies — has been a long time coming.
Now he’s doubling down on the undead: Not only is Romero entering the "Deadverse" with the '60s-set The Rise, but he’ll also be scribing a zombie tale featuring long-time Heavy Metal character Nelson titled Cold Dead War. That story arc — which artist Agustin Alessio helps tease in the cover below for Heavy Metal’s July issue #300 — sets the era perfectly for all the things Romero wants to capture now that he’s finally wading into the subgenre.
The filmmaker and writer sat down with SYFY WIRE to talk about paranoia, the Romero legacy, and kicking off the Deadverse.
Do you remember when people first started asking you about making a zombie movie?
Yeah, I think it was the day that I announced that I was making my first movie. I went, “Hey guys, I’m making a movie,” and they went, “Oh, is it a zombie movie? Oh, you’re making a zombie movie. Zombie, zombie, zombie.” I’d have to say, “No, it’s not.” My first horror film had nothing to do with zombies, it was actually a quick little one-man type movie about a killer prepping for a mission in his basement. And everyone was like, “Well when does he turn into a zombie?” And I would say, “That’s my dad’s thing, you know?”
When you’re young, you want to forge out on your own. If you’re a lawyer and your dad is the partner of the law firm, you don’t necessarily want your first law job to be at your dad’s firm, right? You want to do your own thing and find your own voice. So that’s what I spent a lot of time, energy, and effort when I was young trying to do.
Then it became one of those things where you just dig your heels in. “Hey, you making a zombie movie?” “No, motherf*****!” You know? Then one day, a lot of years ago, somebody at a meeting asked me, “Hey, we want you to make a zombie movie” and I said, “No,” and they said, “Why not? We’ll pay you.” I told them, “That’s great but I’ve got all these other things I’d rather to make and zombies are my dad’s thing.”
So then this guy looks at me and he blows my mind. He says, “Listen, what zombie would you want to make?” It was like an explosion in my brain.
I had the answer immediately. Hadn’t even written it, hadn’t even thought about it, but literally the second the question was asked it was like lightning in the bottle. I saw the story front to back. I said there was only one story I would tell and wouldn’t be after Night, it’s not gonna be in my dad’s trilogy. It would be a prologue. A period story that takes place years prior to my dad’s film Night.
“So it’s a prequel?” No, it’s not a prequel. “So it’s people stuck in a house surviving zombies before Night?” No.
It deep-dives into a time before Night of the Living Dead... the turbulent times of the '60s and it covers a really great time in world history and American history. I’ve always been attracted to writing in that time period and writing period stuff because you don’t necessarily have to worry about all the modern things that writers have to worry about when they’re writing modern stories. It’s almost more freeing when you don’t have to worry about computers and cell phones.
I really like the '60s because it was a time when independent thought was being championed by the artistic community. It was a time when there was all kinds of stuff going on around the world that was bringing Americans together as a country. There was all kinds of stuff going on around the world that was bringing other countries together as their own countries.
Those were all the ingredients that freed me up to go write The Rise. When I was writing The Rise, it became more about paying attention to the canon that existed, paying attention to what the fans had turned everything into. What my father and those guys did when they released Night, it went into the public domain and I can only imagine how much that must have stung as the artists responsible for it. But the way I’ve always looked at it is that they created this open-source monster.
When you look at what that means — to have so many people inspired by it — and look at how the zombie creatures (the ghouls) became such an iconic pop culture creature, there’s a lot of responsibility when you decide you want to take on a story in this world. I think that’s the reason why so many zombie movies out there these days pay attention to the rules. There’s rules with vampires, there’s rules with werewolves — name a monster, it’s got rules. The same thing with zombies. Pretty simple rules: shoot them in the head, avoid the hordes, and Romero zombies don’t run.
That’s limited the playing field because everybody pays respect to that ruleset. There’s a sandbox. How do you play in that sandbox with these rules and not wear handcuffs at the same time? This was another contributing factor to why I went back so far before my father’s work started and why I wanted to do a true prologue rather than any sort of prequel. My vision is not “Here’s how everyone ended up in that house.”
Right, you didn’t want to do The Night Before the Living Dead.
That’s one of the most pitched ideas out there. My dad probably heard half a million pitches for it. I wanted to look at how universes are built. Rise was the cornerstone foundation of, I guess I’ll say it, the "Deadverse."
What’s come from it is a chance to explore an entire universe of creatures that’s never been explored from a perspective that I believe is unique because George was my dad. I believe that from conversations with him over the years, I have a very different perspective about what he and those guys did in the ‘60s. I wrote a story that’s designed to earn the respect of diehard fans and introduce a new generation of fans, but most importantly pay attention and pay respect—and do that with love and honor — to a legacy that my father created and left behind.
You talked about modern zombies being strict with their rules, but now they come in every shape and form. There’s the comedy zombie, the musical zombie, the mainstream zombie for people’s moms. How are you, to quote your website, keeping Rise dangerous?
Anybody that’s talked to me about how I say, “Films used to be dangerous,” knows where it comes from. When my father made Night and put it out, there were people in the U.S. government starting movements and trying to pass legislation saying stuff like “Filmmakers and artists like George Romero should not be allowed to continue because they’re a danger to society.” The reason for this being... because he was promoting a way of looking at society that was frowned upon. That’s what made films dangerous. Things that allowed people to think that radical thought was OK.
Everything I was just saying is the spirit of Night. My father made a film that made people afraid of their uncles and their neighbors and their mailman. He would take the little moments of story between these characters and turn somebody that was close to a person into a creature that was trying to kill that person, which then made that person kill somebody that they loved. That’s f***** up. It all was born from the thought processes of the time. Going back to that time period made it easier for me — once the research was done — to think about how to keep this stuff dangerous while still appealing to a lot of audiences.
The '60s are known for producing great paranoia films — could you tell me a little about some of this research you did?
It’s funny you use the word “paranoia” because that was the crux of the research I was doing. I was looking for things that perpetuated that feeling of paranoia. If you look at the '50s and the '60s, the Cold War was about propagating paranoia.
People turning on each other because of “Russians”... this fear that if you saw your neighbor go into a restaurant that serves Russian food you’d have to turn them in because they might be responsible for someone hitting a button and nuking the U.S. Paranoia was at epic levels back then. It’s interesting because there’s a lot of that happening these days, especially now with the quarantine [and COVID-19]. There’s a visceral exposed nerve from the ‘60s that can be poked with a stick in 2020.
When it came to research, I did a lot on the science of the times and a lot on the history of actual zombie stuff — before my dad made Night, all the zombie stuff was Vodou-based. There’s a reason for that.
In 1962 there was genetic research being done, people trying to figure out how humans could survive mutually assured destruction... That was the nugget I landed on when I started the story of the science behind it.
I was looking through Rise’s production diary and I saw that somewhere in the pitching process, people came to you and asked to turn it into a CW-style musical?
I stopped pitching the concept for a while after that... It was one of those stories from Hollywood where you go in and have your meeting at Paramount.
They gonna get contracts in front of you, deal memos and all this other s***, then you go to sign and in comes the partner you’ve never met. He says, “As soon as you sign this, my first call is going to be to The CW network and we want to really update this thing. We’re thinking High School Musical with zombies and we’ll put your dad’s name on it.” Then you’ve got two choices: You can either sit there and be polite, or you do what I do and stand up and walk out of the room. F****** see ya.
But it’s tricky because that actually gave me a reputation for a minute that I was some kind of hard-to-work-with, precious guy that didn’t want to change my s***. The reality of that situation is that I’m the most collaborative person anybody’s ever met.
Everybody just wants to sell and for the longest time, the only value anybody ever saw in anything I wanted to do was my father’s name. Everyone just wanted to slap his name on things. The biggest struggle I’ve had trying to get stuff done is finding people who were willing to not tell me, “You know what’d be great? If you do all this work and then we just put your dad’s name on it instead of yours because yours doesn’t carry as much weight.”
Joe Hill wrote about his back-and-forth relationship with the work of his father, Stephen King. Part of him said don’t be defined by this, part of him said, “Well, I was raised by this; it’s who I am.” How do you navigate both sides of that?
I used to be this guy where if you’d say something to me, I’d go out and prove you wrong. People said to me when I was young and trying to do this, “The problem is that you’re George’s kid and George wasn’t commercially minded. He only cared about his art and didn’t understand the commercial side of it.” So I opened an advertising agency.
A lot of my early content I was motivated by not wanting to be like him or be defined by that. I think that’s normal... a lot of my fans may have found me because of who my father was, but I’m grateful every day my life that they stuck around because they liked what they saw when they found me.
You spend so long, especially as the kid of somebody like George, trying to forge your own path and find your own voice that you over-worry that people are being too critical. And most of those are coming from people whose opinions don’t really f****** matter. Then you realize one day that it doesn’t f****** matter and all you gotta do is be true to yourself, true to your story, and true to your inner creative.
Back to planning out a universe. Does that mean y’all are string-and-corkboarding it right now, where there’s Rise and you’re saying “This can go here, this can go here in the future?”
Yeah. [Laughs] We’re not talking about it a whole lot just yet, but yes I think that’s safe to say.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity)