This story originally appeared in the March 23rd, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.
Night of the Living Dead has been described a “the most horrifying, stomach-churning charnel in the history of horror.” That description makes its creator, George Romero, chuckle. He’s a large, bearlike, affable man who looks more like he should be directing Benji than what he’s doing right now What he’s doing right now is hanging out in the Monroeville Shopping Mall, near Pittsburgh, up to his armpits in blood and gore. He’s directing a sequel to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, which is a terrifying chronicle of the dead coming back to life and eating the living. The day before, I had watched the uncut version (it’s heavily edited for TV) in his New York ofﬁce – right after eating a hearty lunch. I kept it all down but there were moment when I thought I wouldn’t, for that is one strong movie – the banality of evil personified; slow, deliberate zombies coming after you and catching you and eating you alive. Run them over with a truck and they get right back up and keep lurching after you; blast hell out of them with an elephant gun and they reel for a moment but keep on coming. Glassy-eyed stares and lunging arms that can smash through a wall to grab you and rip your arm off and beat you to death with it. And then eat you. I mean, there is no way to reason with those creatures.
That’s why, when Romero asked me if I wanted to be a zombie in the sequel, Dawn of the Dead, I almost knocked him over getting to the makeup table in the “Community Room” of the Monroeville Mall.
“Regular or special zombie?” asked Tom Savini, the makeup and cosmetic special-effects whiz.
“What’s the difference?”
“Regular is just dead and decaying. Special means you’re really deformed.”
“Gimme the works. Ugly as possible.”
“You picked a good night,” said Savini, as he started putting dead gray pancake makeup on my face. “Tonight I’m gonna behead one of the zombies. I play one of the bikers who break into the mall and I ride by with my machete and whoosh! off goes the head and the blood spurts up – that’s the fun of it. I’ve never chopped off anyone’s head before and this is creative.”
Next he started working a latex mold onto my cheek, along with gray lipstick and brown eye makeup. “You didn’t get to see the zombie that walked into the helicopter blade, did you? We made a foam latex head full of gore, with two ﬁre-extinguisher pumps full of blood off camera. When that blade shaved that head, it was like slicing an egg, it was beautful.” A little bit of yellow hair spray and he was done, “OK, you’re dead.”
I looked in a mirror and almost fell over: there was a living corpse staring back at me, with a terrible gaping wound across its cheek. Clayton Hill, one of the “lead zombies,” came over and slapped me on the back. He looked deader than I did. “I could see,” he said, “that you really wanted to be a zombie and I appreciated that, I can see you’re into it. Some of these zombies around here don’t care that much.”
We walked through the mall’s upper level, toward Penney’s, where the night’s ﬁrst scene was being shot, Since it’s hard to ﬁlm gun battles with the mall full of customers, the crew was shooting every night from midnight till dawn. With the mall brightly lit, almost glowing, and the stores all closed and the hallways deserted save for a few wandering zombies, I began to mentally slide into the fantasy Romero had working here.
Hill was carrying a Thompson submachine gun as we walked. A retired Air Force officer, he’s the ﬁlm’s weapons coordinator, but he really likes being a zombie.
“This is supposed to be a horror movie,” he said, “but it’s also an action thriller It’s a whiz-bang. We’ve ﬁred thousands of rounds of blanks; every type of weapon available.
“Now, let me tell you about being a zombie, When you go into your zomb, you’re in a fantasy. I go into the role feeling I am the living dead, I can’t focus on things, I can’t get it together. I researched it in books – the wide-open eyes, the clutching hands, the slow movements. Then I made my own zombie. I asked George and he said, ‘Be your own zombie.’ I intend to be the best zombie there ever was. I want people to come away from this movie saying, ‘Wow, he was a good zombie.’ Sharon, the nurse zombie, got into her zomb so heavily the other night, she made herself sick. We’ve got some good zombies. When we were shooting the exteriors and it was zero degrees, there was this 300-pound guy showed up every night in a bathing suit. He said, ‘I’m not cold. I love it.'”
“The zombies lost in Night,” I said, “but don’t they win here, don’t they start getting smarter?”
“Maybe the bad guys win here,” he said, “and I like the switch – but I’m not sure the zombies are the bad guys because we can’t help being zombies. I love zombies.”
We reached Penney’s, where Romero was shooting and reshooting a dialogue scene with thge four human heroes, and I took the opportunity to study the script. At the moment, it had no beginning and two endings. “Some directors work from day to day,” Romero told me. “I work from moment to moment.”
The plot, loosely told, is this: The dead are returning to life and eating the living. Four human heroes flee the city in a helicopter and land on the roof of a suburban mall. They kill off all the zombies inside (kill the brain and you kill the zombie), secure the outside doors and set up housekeeping in the mall. They live the good life for some months until a scavenging gang of (human) bikers breaks in to get their share’of Baskin-Robbins and Sony Trinitrons. In an extraordinary scene, 21 bikers on their hogs crash the doors and, with machine guns blazing, try to rape the mall. The zombies follow them in and there are ﬁerce battles between heroes and bikers, bikers and zombies, and heroes and zombies. The surviving bikers flee and the zombies get two of the heroes. The remaining man and woman – in one ending – get away in the helicopter, which is dangerously low on gas. In the other ending, the woman kills herself by leaping into the helicopter blade. The ending is still unresolved, as is the problem of explaining at the beginning what is happening and why.
As I listened to the dialogue in the scene in front of Penney’s, I caught one line that began to offer an explanation. The four heroes are trying to figure out what’s going on, and one of them says, “It’s something my granddaddy, who used to practice macumba in Trinidad, told me: ‘When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.'”
“George,” I asked, “where did you get that line?”
He laughed: “I just made that up. Truly. On a drunken night when I was really crashing to ﬁnish the script and I thought that was kind of nice. It was from something Dario Argento [the Italian director of Suspiria, who’s doing the sound effects and score for Dawn] told me. My family is Cuban and Dario said, ‘Well you have a Caribbean background and that’s why you’re into the zombie thing; zombies originated in Haiti.’ I said, well, all right, and I just ﬁgured that’s something a voodoo priest might say. Whee! I’m just having fun, man.”
George Romero, at age 38, is understandably a bit apprehensive about the reception that Dawn of the Dead, as his ﬁrst “big” production (with a budget near $1 million), will receive. His film reputation remains rooted in Night of the Living Dead which, done for about $114,000, was a critical masterpiece and has grossed $10-11 million.
After studying drama at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, Romero did TV commercials for years until the Night idea came to him. After its success, he was deluged with offers to do a Night II. He became “paranoid” about it and turned completely away from the horror genre. His next movies did not do well: Jack’s Wife was briefly released as Hungry Wive, and There’s Always Vanilla was brieﬂy released as The Aﬂair. The Crazies, which Romero feels was a prototype for Dawn, was not successful but may be rereleased.
In the meantime, he mined the Pittsbutgh area for commercials and began doing network sports documentaries (such as Juice and Loose) and political spots for Lenore Romney, among others.
In 1973, he wrote the sketch for Dawn and at the same time formed a partnership with New York stockbroker Richard Rubinstein. “Up until that time,” said Romero, “I really didn’t have any kind of pipeline into the operative industry at all. I was operating out of Pittsburgh very naively. Then I started to get back into it.”
He foresaw a ﬁlm called Martin as his “reentry” to directing ﬁlms. Martin, which was shown at Cannes and has not yet been released in the U.S., is a “quiet” Romero horror ﬁlm. Already acclaimed in Europe, Martin is more or less a modern-day vampire story set in a small town near Pittsburgh. It is, of course, sympathetic toward (or at least understanding about) the vampire.
We moved down to the ice rink for Tom Savini’s beheading scene. Stardom ﬁnally called me: I was cast as one of the zombies who try to snatch Savini out of a motorcycle sidecar while he chops off the head of the zombie behind me. Romero offered only one bit of direction: “OK, zombies, remember this: that’s your food on that motorcycle and you want it. Get as close to it as you want but that cycle is not going to swerve out of your way.'”
Before the scene, Clayton Hill caught me over by a potted palm, where I was putting dirt under my ﬁngernails.
“Really into your zomb. I like that.”
I stationed myself in the Pup-A-Go-Go stand and the minute Romero yelled “action” something remarkable happened: my eyes went out of focus, my hands clenched grotesquely, and I developed a lurching gait as I went after that motorcycle. I wanted that food and I almost got it. By the time the scene was shot twice – once with a mannequin that is beheaded – I was our of breath and my pulse was pounding.
“This is beginning to feel like Dachau,” a man beside me was saying later as we watched a zombie get his hand – very bloodily – cut off in a door. “This is far beyond Sam Peckinpah.”
“Maybe there’s a little zombie in all of us, eh?” George said only half facetiously.
Sharon Ceccatti, the nurse zombie, came up to congratulate me as I caught my breath. “Is it always like this?” I
asked. “You bet,” she said. “Most mornings I go home and I shake. I can’t sleep.”
“This is beginning to feel like Dachau,” a man beside me was saying later as we watched a zombie get his hand – very bloodily – cut off in a door. “This is far beyond Sam Peckinpah.” The man speaking was Gary Zellet, who supplied the weapons for the ﬁlm and handled explosives and breakaway special effects. Among many other projects, he worked on both Godfather ﬁlms. He is one of the few crew members not acting in the ﬁlm. “I didn’t want to,” he said, “this is getting depressing. Twenty gallons of blood used, animal intestines for the zombies to eat – this morning I was eating a corned barf sandwich and somebody said, ‘Hey that’s a prop.’ We use corned beef in some of the artiﬁcial arms. Real amputees volunteered, makes it look real. I’ve rigged over 500 bullet squibs. We kill ’em every possible way, burn ’em, shoot ’em blow their heads off. It’s good there’s some comic relief now and then because this movie runs like a machine gun.
“It’s funny how this gets to you. This morning, I was cleaning one of the Tommy guns in my motel room. I had just showered and was nude and I hear a key in the lock and the door opens and this businessman is standing there with his suitcases. I automatically train the gun on him and his mouth hits the floor: I say, ‘Get outta here and don’t say nuttin’ about this.’ He just run. But really, man, I want to get back to New York. I feel like I’m out on the edge here, on the edge of civilization.”
At seven every morning, the Dawn crew starts shutting down. At 7:05 am. every morning the mall’s computer turns on the Muzak. Also at 7:05 a group of cardiac patients arrives, with a doctor, to stroll through the mall for “exercise under stable weather conditions.” The zombies start filing out and the cardiac patients start ﬁling in. Life in the mall. A clerk arrives early for work and she isn’t wearing any makeup and one of the film crew says to her, in all seriousness, “Hey, zombie, are you through for the night?”
After a long night of killing zombies, George Romero sat down to a big breakfast at the Sheraton Inn-On the Mall. One of the motel’s features is a “Mall Shopping Weekend Plan, $49.95 per couple.” That amused Romero a great deal.
I mentioned to him that I liked the mall better at night, that the zombies seemed to have more purpose than the shoppers.
“That’s how I got the idea!” he said. “I know the people who own it and I went through the mall, empty, one time and I said, ‘Holy shit! That’s the perfect place for the fulcral episode where we can show the false security of the whole consumer America trip. That’s why this is in color – Night was black and white – because of the mall. So I wrote a little sketch about it and then put it in a drawer while I did some other things I’m really surprised no one else picked up on the idea, because now there are these shopping developments where you can live on top and work and shop down below and never have to leave the building. That’s a trip. In this ﬁlm, the mall becomes the cause. The four heroes get in there to get some Civil Defense water and food and then they rack out and this consumerism, it’s too tempting for them to resist. They arm themselves heavily, they become banditos fighting for all that stuff.”
Are the bikers then supposed to be an antidote for them or are they actually an exaggeration of that; racing through the mall at l00 miles an hour and scooping up color TVs?
“I think they’re the ultimate of what the heroes are becoming, ﬁghting for control of the Mothership. In fact, when they ﬁrst see the raiders, the bikers coming over the hill, Peter takes off his new watch and all his other shit and that’s a ﬂash toward realization. The raiders are consumerism at its extreme and they just storm in there and go bananas and then of course that causes the downfall. But the heroes, even though Roger is dying at that point, he still has his candies and radios and shit … and that’s why they’re so extreme in their garb during the attack scenes, all the crossed gun belts, fighting over microwave ovens, I mean…”
He doubled over with laughter. Romero has a weird slant on the world, to say the least. With Night and Dawn he has filmed some of the most explicit violence imaginable and yet he can argue, convincingly, that it’s detached violence because it’s directed at things rather than people; that the zombies become merely so many insects to be swatted aside. At the same time, he’s starting to make the zombies smarter and mots sympathetic because he genuinely likes them. On a set, he resembles a giant, bearded shepherd with his poor dead flock shuffling after him. Sometimes he refers to his zombies as “sharks,” which is a startling but dead-on comparison.
Zombies have been staples in horror ﬁlms for decades, I said to him after his laughing ﬁt, but until Night of the Living Dead they were harmless and ineffectual. Night made them deadly dangerous enemies. Where did he get his zombie notion and where will he take it?
He answered seriously. “I originally wrote Night as a short story, following a character through three stages. It was from Richard Matheson’s book I Am Legend, which became a lot of movies: The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man, it was done three or four times. My story was in three parts: the beginning of the phenomenon, which was Night.
The cusp, as I call it, is Dawn of the Dead, a cusp or balance where we feel the zombies will take over because they have the mall at the end. By the end, the mall looks just the way it does during the day. And in the third part, the zombies will take over and become the operatives. Zombies in the White House.
“The zombie was just an intriguing character, it is a sympathetic character. It always has been, really, Lugosi always had a bunch of them working for him. But they never got a piece of the action before. There’s a sequence in Dawn that really shows the change. When the raiders ﬁrst invade the mall, they’re really dealing cavalierly with the zombies, to the point of throwing pies, and then there’s a sudden turnaround that puts the zombies where I’d like them to be. The raiders get their comeuppance.”
Despite Romero’s avowal that he’s just making “comic books,” I reminded him, he gets very close to a message when he talks about “human sellouts” and “operatives” versus the “alternate society.”
“Well. Night is obviously part one of that. The revolutionaries appear but the operatives are still on top. Dawn is the midpoint in the seesaw and then the dead take over and the operative society collapses. But human sellout…”
Another attack of laughter toppled him, for a moment.
“The sellouts,” he ﬁnally continued, “the scientific community is saying, ‘Let’s feed ’em. They’re wasteful. They eat only five percent of a body and then the body’s intact enough to revive and it comes back as a zombie. The government says we should feed them and control that pattern – which seems probably what those cats would do. So if someone has died in your family, cut them into meal-size bits.”
He was roaring with laughter and the businessmen at breakfast around us began throwing odd looks toward our table. George wiped tears of laughter from his eyes and went on: “That’s probably the way it would go. My idea to take it further is to actually have human operatives that are trying to preserve their own kind of operative situation and in fact using the zombies initially, training them to serve their own needs. There are beginnings of that in Dawn. I show a few ﬂashes of intelligence or at least a learning capability in the zombies. If there are human sellouts that first start teaching them to do things so that they become really operative, then it’s over. But that is also what’s happening to us, those kinds of monsters, our corporate monsters that prey on us more as we fear them less. I mean, that’s this whole false security concept of the mall, being funneled into it, the temple to consumerism, the mall. And being perfectly happy, you know, absolutely lulled by it and yet eaten by it like that.”
But isn’t that temple, the mall, also fragile in the ﬁlm?
“Fragile? If you attack it in a direct manner, yeah. I mean, it’s fragile only to the extent that it doesn’t need to attract you. I mean, you can just walk away from it. Which is another reason I like the character the zombies because you can … if you don’t get involved with them, you’re OK. I mean, you can just push it away.”
Romero paused, obviously feeling he had gotten carried away with philosophy. He laughed. “I do think of my ﬁlms as morality plays, even though my reputation is, you know, splatter ﬁlms and like that. But I think of them as very moral. The splatter and everything else is the format… I mean, I’d be willing to put the POW! BANG! SUPER! on it. It’s comic books, man, it’s paperbacks, you know, that’s what they are. I want Dawn to play like a cowboys and Indians movie. I’m trying to see if I can get past all that violence and just hoot and holler and cheer and throw pies and shit.”
A few weeks later, George ﬁnally decided which ending to use (we’re keeping it a secret) and he had worked up a beginning, which had worried him greatly. He was criticized in Night for having a deux ex machina – in that case a radioactive satellite – activate the zombies. Dawn will begin with a TV newscast – with the ﬁlm’s credits over – just announcing that the zombies are out and about. I called him up to suggest that recombinant DNA would be a good cause, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “I want it to be unexplained because the zombies really just come out of to rather than a third party. It just happens.”