By Jerry Chandler
I love you, George, I really do. I've loved your films for years as well. Not just your zombie films either. I loved the original Crazies, I found the vision and ideas behind Knightriders to be both interesting and enjoyable, some friends and I have been once again extolling the virtues of the sheer joy that is Creepshow, and I regularly tell people that Martin is an underrated classic. Plus, you know, your original four zombie films helped to build a genre and inspire others.
But, damn, you're talking out of your backside here, George.
For those of you who are late to the news, George A. Romero is not a fan of AMC's The Walking Dead. He's made that clear in any number of interviews over the last few years, shooting down the fan buzz about the possibility of him directing an episode or two. Well, in a recent interview with IndieWire, Romero says that he can't get funding for a new zombie film because things like The Walking Dead and World War Z (which I also hated as a film) have made it so he can't make a new zombie film.
Here's one of his primary points as to why he says can't do so.
"Then, all of a sudden, here came “The Walking Dead.” So you couldn’t a zombie film that had any sort of substance. It had to be a zombie film with just zombies wreaking havoc. That’s not what I’m about."
He also references World War Z. In his comments on the matter, he states that the show and the film have made it so you can't have a zombie film with any substance to it, you can't have political or social commentary in it, it has to be a big budget, and it has to be all about zombies just wreaking things.
Again, I love you, George, but that's utter hogwash.
First, as much as I disliked the film version of WWZ, even I will admit that they tried to keep some of the sociopolitical content intact. In some ways it was almost impossible to not touch on some of the themes found in the book. As for TWD, it has its moments of social and political commentary as well.
Second, looping TWD into the criticism about big budgets and just being about zombies going around wreaking things seems odd since his repeatedly made previous beef with TWD has been that it is in his view nothing more than a soap opera with the occasional zombie showing up. Hell, even the fans have complained that not a lot of action happens for way too long on the show; especially serious zombie action. Yet now it's suddenly a show that has conditioned people into expecting nothing more out of a zombie story than just zombies wrecking stuff?
Third, there are a lot of little zombie films out there getting funding. They pop up on my Netflix and Amazon streaming video services every month. They're by no means big budgeted films, they aren't wall to wall action, and many of them try to say something about people. Far more don't try to say anything, but some of them do. They’re getting backing, they’re getting made, they’re getting some level of distribution, and they don’t even have the name George A. Romero attached to them as a selling point.
Of course, that last bit may actually be helping them out.
There are three reasons that are the most likely reasons you can't get funding or backing right now, George. We'll tackle them in reverse order of importance.
3) Your zombies don't mean a lot these days.
I don't even mean that in that they're slow or that they act in a "traditional” manner or that they feel dated. They just don't mean a lot these days at all. The zombies in Survival of the Dead were like sad jokes. They almost came off as a bad parody of the "Romero Zombie" that everyone talks about when zombie films are being discussed. They never felt like a threat- certainly not like death slowly, constantly, and inevitably coming for you -and they were even the butt several not very funny or cool visual gags.
The zombies from your last two films also felt extremely limited. I referenced the "Romero Zombie" just now. I've long held that there were no actual "Romero Rules" to create the "Romero Zombie" in the first three of the Romero zombie films. Almost all of the things that we see people crying about and claiming are breaking the "Romero Rules" in various films that came along later are things we see in the first four Romero zombie films.
We see zombies jog and run. You can see that in both Night and Dawn. We see zombies use tools in all four of the original Romero zombie films. The original four Romero films all gave us to greater or lesser degrees thinking zombies. Hell, the zombies in Dawn can even climb ladders and pull their body weight up onto something above their heads. If you say they can't, there's a huge problem with the ending moments of Dawn of the Dead. We see zombies in Romero zombie films that learn and communicate with us and each other. We even see zombies that can make the conscious choice to not attack and kill every human they see. We see zombies show an afterlife memory of where their victims are and how to get there as well as (with Land of the Dead) the ability to go after a specific chosen target.
The point- because I could keep going on here -is that the zombies of the first four Romero zombie films were not limited by some artificial set of rules. They actually even broke "the rules" more than just a few times.
By the time you gave us Diary and Survival, you'd let your fanbase tell you how to make "real" zombies rather than just doing your thing. You stopped having Romero Zombies in your films and you’d let the fans dictate what your “Romero Zombies” would or would not be. In a way, you cut your own creative nose of to spite your face.
The zombies of Diary and Survival were the first zombies you did that actually seemed to be governed by the "Romero's Rules" your fanbase had flogged others with for decades for not following, and they were probably your least loved zombies by that fanbase; especially with Survival. They were the zombies that made it feel like you were just phoning it in.
I love your original zombies. The zombies from your last films did nothing for me other than make me feel like you’d lost a step or three. And then there’s…
2) You want to have a message hidden in there.
Okay. I can see you wanting to say something about society in your story. That's not an issue by any stretch of the imagination, and it can even be a really good thing. But, George, when you do that you very often need to be subtle with the delivery. Your problem is that you're about as subtle as a brick to the face.
The last time it felt like you were being subtle about conveying a message in your story was Night of the Living Dead, and that was likely because some of what was there was only there by an after the fact fluke of casting. Even you have admitted that you never intended to have in there certain racial commentary that now gets praised, but rather you all cast the best actor you auditioned and didn't bother changing the script afterwards. But after that, all subtlety went out the window. Dawn and Day certainly had very little subtlety about them with anything you were saying as your message, and they ended up seeming like examples of the fine art of subtlety compared to Diary and Survival. I’m not even sure how to rate Land of the Dead in that, because some of the commentary was so over the top and free of subtlety that it felt like a deliberate attempt at deliberate satire.
People actually do enjoy having thinking, meaningful entertainment put in front of them, but they get a little bit turned off when the message the filmmaker wants them to think about is flashed at them from the screen in giant, hot pink neon letters every other minute of the film. Horror fans really do like to go see a solidly entertaining film and then afterwards talk with their friends about what the things in the film seemed to mean to them. You can go to any good horror board or forum and see that in electronic print. You can go find any good horror podcast like the various Horror News Radio podcasts and hear fans talking about what the various things in a film meant to them and what the filmmaker was trying to say.
But do you know what else you’ll see and hear there? You’ll see and hear fans groaning about how annoying it is when filmmakers lack appropriate subtlety with their message. They dislike when the message gets in the way of being able to enjoy the story up on the screen almost as much as they dislike messaging throughout a film so lacking in subtlety that it feels like the filmmaker is treating the audience like they’re stupid.
You’ve never been particularly subtle with the messaging in your zombie films, and it really felt as if you’d lost all ability to be subtle with your last two zombie films. There was also another huge issue with your last two zombie films. Sadly, that brings us to…
1) Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead were really bad films.
I liked Survival of the Dead better than most people I know, but even I’ll admit that it was nothing compared to the original trilogy of Dead films or even things your original works inspired like Zombie. Granted, it was a lot better than Diary of the Dead, but I can unfortunately say that of some Syfy Saturday night originals.
I know diehard Romero fans who felt like you’d lost your mind after seeing Diary of the Dead, but they decided it was only your touch that you’d lost after seeing Survival of the Dead. It felt like you still had a solid eye as a director, but it unfortunately felt like most everything else involved with storytelling had left the building. It actually hurts to write that, but it’s the truth.
The Walking Dead and World War Z did not come along and ruin your chances to get funding for your type of zombie film. It was Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead that did that. It’s not modern zombie content not having commentary on society in it or substance to it that made it impossible to sell a film to potential investors when you tell them that you want to say something with your film, it’s how you’ve delivered that message in your last several zombie films.
I love you, George. I’ve loved your films. I really am one of your biggest fans. But the honest to God truth of the matter is that if I won the lottery tomorrow and had millions of dollars to spend on such a venture, I would not back the funding for one of your films. It’s not even the fact that I would likely get nowhere near my investment back either. It’s because the one reason I might do something like that I almost know as a certainty would not come to pass at this point. I don’t know that you’d deliver a film that I could sit down and enjoy. I’m not the only George A. Romero fan who feels like this either, and a lot of the people who apparently feel that way are potential investors.
Enjoy the stuff that’s out there that you helped inspire. Maybe even take up the offer to play in someone else’s sandbox every so often. If you can’t do that, just leave it alone. Stop blaming the other stuff that’s out there for what you can’t do right now. We have enough creators who we loved for decades but remember for being cranky, bitter old men and women in their later years. You’ve been kind of drifting in that direction a bit lately, and that’s not how a lot of your fans want to remember you years from now.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.