John’s MIFF blog – George A. Romero LIVE! (of the dead)

If you’re me – and I am – one of the most exciting things in this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival is the mini-retrospective of horror legend George A Romero. The icing on the cake? Last night’s live interview with Romero himself, which took place at the MIFF Festival Club.

For those who haven’t been to The Forum, it’s like the last-days-of-the-Roman-Empire meets Studio 54 in a crazed fever dream of Zazoom, the donkey from Hanna Barbera’s Arabian Knights series. “Size of a late-1920s picture palace!”. It was too weird even for the Christian Revivalists, who owned it for a decade until 1995. It’s been part of the Marriner Theatre group for the last few years, as well as the central base of the film festival.

The Forum was long ago subdivided from it’s original three thousand seat configuration – the old dress circle is now a cosy 500 seat cinema, and the remodelled stalls section is mostly used for concerts. During MIFF this section becomes the Festival Club.

I had expected more of a beardy horror audience, so was both surprised and pleased to see such a mixed crowd. You could have been expecting an appearance from Krzysztof Kieslowski, rather than a man who has made four films with “of the dead” in the title (and one “of the living dead”).

When Romero discretely appeared at the side of the auditorium, awaiting his cue, the audience started applauding, loudly and warmly. By the time he actually reached the stage, it was clear that introductions were completely superfluous.

Sadly, my second-hand Sanyo Talk Book micro-cassette dictaphone was not up to the challenge of the evening, so I can’t quote George A. Romero verbatim. I can tell you he talked about his career with honesty and charm, and seemed completely at ease both with himself and his place in the world of cinema. Even when he’s negative he’s surprisingly upbeat – he dismisses the 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead with such grace it’s hard to imagine director Zack Snyder would be offended.

None of the interview was particularly new or revealing, but major points included:

His decision to return to the beginning of the zombie attacks with Diary Of The Dead was partly due to a feeling that Land Of The Dead had completed a larger story. We had gone from the original outbreak (Night), surviving the immediate aftermath (Dawn), trying to find a solution (Day), to finally a form of equilibrium between the living and the dead (Land).

He doesn’t really like working for studios. Studios require memos and meetings, and Romero finds this frustrating – he’s a man who would rather be making films than talking about making films. He stressed that Paramount allowed him to make the film he wanted with Land, but he generally finds that major studios limit his choices and slow him down. On Land Of The Dead he wasn’t allowed to hire his long-time creature-maker Tom Savini as “he wasn’t sue-able. He didn’t have enough stuff”.

He’s a little surprised when people try to find subtle, hidden meanings in his work. His subtext, he avers, is hardly sub at all. You know Dawn Of The Dead is a comment on consumerism because it’s “huge”. He’s not using subtlety, people.

The look of Night Of The Living Dead was heavily influenced by Orson Welles’ versions of Macbeth and Othello. Also, he’s a big fan of Powell/Pressburger films.

Zombies should be slow (this received a round of applause).

Surprisingly, Romero‘s never really sure what people are referring to when they ask him about the plethora of recent zombie films. As far as he can see, there haven’t been many at all, certainly not in the US. He obviously hasn’t been attending MIFF in the last few years.

Then came the Q&A. Tom Lehrer once said the reason why folk songs are so atrocious is because they’re written “by the people”. You would think aficionados of a film-maker’s work should be able to ask well-informed and useful questions, but the night’s Q&A teetered on the brink of parody. A first year film student asks an extremely vague and basic script-writing question. A man wants to discuss the usage of sans serif fonts on Romero‘s film posters. Others have the standard Freudian or critical theory barrows to push. Many of the questions are extremely confused and rambling, and it’s here that Romero really shines.

He manages to give extremely good answers to very bad questions. He takes the question, finds something in it that he can talk about, and gives back something interesting. In one case he gives a totally unrelated answer as he’s misheard the question, but it’s still works out better for everyone. No-one is made to feel stupid, and even the Freudian theorist gets something to take home.

When asked if he feels typecast as a horror director, Romero said that he was allowed to express himself on screen, and he’s more than happy with that. He’s a successful artist in his genre, and he gets to make socio-political comments while entertaining people. At heart, he stressed, his films aren’t really about zombies – they’re about people.

And people who eat people are the luckiest people in the world.

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11 Responses to John’s MIFF blog – George A. Romero LIVE! (of the dead)

  1. Janet says:

    The wonderful confectionery that we now know as the Forum used to be the Forum and the Rapallo thirty years ago. Downstairs was the Forum and upstairs was the Rapallo. I saw ‘Jaws’ and ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ at the Forum. I think I even saw ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ there too. But enough of ancient history . . .

    Audiences. Audiences? Audiences! I once sat in the audience of the American author (blank on name) of the Inspector Lynley books listening to her ‘readers’ – I use the term loosely – ask inane questions as to whether the Inspector would be getting a new car soon as the one he had was ‘a little shabby’. And the childish ‘awwwww’ that met the author’s response to a question regarding the Inspector’s love life and whether he would end up with his police side-kick. Mind you her response was, ‘over my dead body.’ I could see them sizing her up. And that wasn’t even a Writers’ Festival session, gawd help me!

  2. Chris says:

    I had the pleasure of seeing the first screening of Diary of the Dead with Q&A with George afterwards. The questions asked (buggered if I can remember them as I’m already suffering movie fatigue!) in general were quite good but much better was George’s responses, very well considered and engaging. I remember a similar question being asked twice but he gave two great but different answers.

  3. Dave AA says:

    John, I’m starting up a blog myself and I’ve been a big fan of yours for years now, so I was wondering if you could tell me, y’know, where you get your ideas for columns and how you go from the idea to the finished column because I always have trouble finishing them. Also do you see your blog as part of the ‘critical’ blog genre or is it more ‘analytical’?

    Finally, why arial?

  4. Anne-Marie says:

    Really Dave,

    His use of the popular sans serif font is clearly a post-post modern statement against the patriarchy inherent in Times New Roman. Any Freudian will see the continuous phallic imagery in the more traditional serif fonts. The internet is beyond such pseudo-critical guff and embraces the true critical genre of the blog.

  5. outlandinstitute says:

    Hello everyone, thank you so much for visiting the Institute!

    Chris: Yes, that George gives good answer. What did you think of Diary Of The Dead? I was a bit disappointed myself. I remember thinking the film would’ve been more powerful if the lead had been a combat journalist, rather than a film student, so I was surprised when George said the film was partly inspired by the fact that Tom Savini had once been a combat photographer. Perhaps I would’ve liked it more if he’d followed that idea, or maybe it would’ve just come across as yet another Iraq metaphor.

    (George also said that if Hitler was around now he’d be a blogger, but I think he realised that was pretty silly as he was saying it).

    David: I couldn’t remember the rest of that woman’s question – she asked if it was a “critical” genre or a… what? I thought none of it made sense and yet George then talked about how the zombies in his films aren’t really important, which I thought was quite wise. Also, I should be fair and say that I think Font-Boy was really trying to ask how much control George has over his marketing, which is a reasonable – if dull – question.

    Anne-Marie: How true, how true.

    Janet: My worst Q&A audience experience was one of the first I ever attended. It was a screening of Todd Haynes’ Poison at the Melbourne Queer Film Fest in 1991. I don’t think Haynes was in attendance, but one of the actors was there, and possibly the glorious Christine Vachon (how I love her). The film ended, they came on to do the Q&A, and the very first question was from The World’s Angriest Lesbian, who rose to declare that the staff of the Valhalla Cinema were horrendously homophobic. These New York film-makers had flown half way around the world to get front-of-house complaints. I thought, “Honey, speak to the duty manager”. It was a very odd – yet fervent – display of totally misdirected anger. There was a sense of cringing embarrassment in the room from which the session never really recovered.

  6. Narrelle says:

    Personally I hate it when audience members think they are being funny with a question that takes four minutes to get to and cannot possibly have a sensible response other than “sit the f**k down you moron.”

    Perhaps I’m being harsh.

  7. Bryn says:

    I’m just gutted I don’t live in Melbourne (only during MIFF, though) … Why couldn’t Sydney Film Festival have had George Romero too? I guess MIFF had an exclusive arrangement, being the older, more respected Australian festival.
    I’ve never seen Day of the Dead on the big screen, and it’s one of my all-time favourite horror movies, and I would’ve thrown Mr. Romero some doozy questions too. It gives me the shits when morons ask the proverbial moronic question at a Q&A.
    Cheers for the link to your post John, nicely done, and hope you dug my own blog …
    Did you see the Day of the Dead screening? If so, did it recieve applause? I champion it as the best of the series, as excellent as Night of the Living Dead is. Here’s hoping Romero will one day complete the series with Twilight of the Dead, and feature the dead battling the dead (as he intended in the original drafts of Day of the Dead).

  8. outlandinstitute says:

    Hey Bryn, Hey Narrelle,

    I suspect sometimes people only ask questions at a Q&A because what they really want is some interaction with a person they admire, and the question is basically irrelevant. All they want is for the admired person to see them, and say hello. Which is understandable. You just wish they could ask something that actually refers to the work.

    And Bryn, we also have excellent coffee and faux-European stylings to envy here in Melbourne town (yes, I KNOW it’s freezing, but don’t we all look lovely in our hats and scarves?).

    I’m not seeing any of the Dead movies this time around, but I am seeing Martin (finally! hurrah!) and The Crazies, as well as a doco about George. I can’t imagine Dawn wouldn’t have got applause, seeing the loving reception he got last night just for walking through a door! Dawn’s my favourite too, although I seem to be one of the only champions of Land, which I thought was really great.

    He seemed to imply last night that he’s going to be making smaller films in the future, so the dead battling the dead may be off the cards for a while. Then again, he seemed to suggest that he starts from an idea, from a point he wants to make about society, and then he throws zombies into it. So you never know.

  9. outlandinstitute says:

    Oh, and apologies for the worst ever picture of George Romero. You’re not supposed to take photos during the interviews, so I only managed three sneaky shots, and the other two were even worse…

  10. Sam says:

    Hey John,

    no need to add to the other astute Q&A comments, but one of his asides which tickled me was his interest in 3D film, the kind where they drip water etc on you at the right (psychological… bugger, too Freudian?) moments… imagine what he could do with a zombie film….

    lovely blog by the way

  11. Chris says:

    *diary of the dead spoiler warning*

    John: I mostly liked it. I really enjoyed the mixed media thing and think George has done a good job of it, not that theres that many out there currently to compare against (I disliked cloverfield). It wasn’t a dawn of the dead but thats damned hard to beat.
    A few things irked me about it, but the major one was in the end theyre stuck in the panic room, so I was left imagining that the zombies are just gonna be queing up outside the door trying to get to fresh meat. So do they make it out and create the film somewhere else or can they plug into the net from the panic room? Little things like that give me the shits.

    What did you think of Martin? I thought it was brilliant, and if thats an indication of whats possible for George on a small scale then we good look forward to some great future movies. He mentioned the filming only involved 14 people(if I remember rightly) before it went to post production.

    One of my fave Q&A sessions was a few years back for ‘One Man Show: A Musical Documentary’. Blurb being “in 1999 gay Puerto Rican performance artist John Falcon won 45 million dollars in the New York State Lottery in 1999. This show tells his story and includes parts of his one man show, now fully financed.”

    The obvious question was does money make you happy? The answer was something along the line of… Of course it does honey, and anyone that tells you differently doesn’t have 45 million dollars.

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