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.