George A. Romero on Brad Pitt Killing the Zombie Genre, Why He Avoids Studio Films

George A. Romero - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images
The horror legend is preparing to debut a restoration of the 1968 classic 'Night of the Living Dead.'

Nearly 50 years ago, George A. Romero changed pop culture with Night of the Living Dead, a scrappy, low-budget film that would become a surprise hit and single-handedly spawn the zombie craze that's taken hold in the ensuing decades.

The 1968 film saw a group of strangers trapped in a farmhouse under siege by the undead. Romero didn't call them zombies back then, but his idea of creatures who returned from the dead and craved human flesh would later redefine what the term "zombie" meant.

The film fell into the public domain, with more than 100 home video releases (many of poor quality) circulating over the years. That's now been fixed, as Romero prepares to unveil on Saturday a new restoration undertaken by Museum of Modern Art and Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation, which brought the movie back to pristine condition as part of the 14th To Save & Project festival.

What does it mean to you that Night of Living Dead is getting this restoration? 

It looks like exactly the way we shot it. It looks like the very first print that we ever saw of it. It's in correct format, which is in 1:3:3. Think of the Maltese Falcon. It's that format. All of these people who are working on it are such dedicated, wonderful professionals. There were some pimples [in the restoration]. Fans that want to look for it, you can see there's a script in the corner of a screen. I'm not going to tell you where it is, but I know fans love to look for stuff like that.

Is there anything in particular that stands out to you that fans will get from this restoration?

When the world first learned it was public domain, they had prints, I think even some of the original prints that Walter Reade made, they printed them on toilet paper. They were grainy and dark, and now in this restoration you can appreciate maybe some of the photography and some of the things that were lost here and there. There are also errors. I mentioned the script, but there's another point where later in the film, I think Ben — [played by] Dwayne Jones — is puling a board that's been nailed up, and you can read the writing on the back of the board, which says, "upper right corner." (Laughs.) I kept arguing with the people restoring it. I said, "Is that charm or should we fix it?" and they said, "No, it's charm. Leave it alone."

The movie still feels socially relevant. The final scene shows the African-American protagonist killed by police, which is particularly disturbing to watch in today's climate. Do you think the movie is still relevant today? 

We didn't cast Dwayne because he was black. We cast him because he was the best actor. He actually changed some of the dialogue because when John [Russo] and I wrote the script, we wrote the [role] as an uneducated truck driver and Dwayne didn't want anything to do with that. He wanted the character to be "respectable" ... those were the only things he changed. There's nothing in the film that points to race. You have to interpret that into it. [Actor and producer] Russ Streiner and I were driving the film to New York to show it to distributors, and that night on the car radio we heard that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. All of a sudden, even in our minds it became a racial film.

Part of the magic of this is the low budget. Why do you prefer the smaller budget to a giant blockbuster?

It's all about control. I've only actually done one studio film. I want to be left alone. I'm telling you, man, after I did Land of the Dead, which Mark Canton produced, Universal picked it up and I had to use stars. I didn't think I needed stars — Dennis Hopper was in it. I loved him. We hung out. I loved him, but his cigar budget was more than we paid for the entire budget of Night of the Living Dead. (Laughs.) I mean, I'm sure I'm exaggerating a little but. But I wanted to say, "Wait a minute — what's this line item? Oh, that's Dennis' cigars."

Do you have thoughts on the future of the Dead franchise?

I've sort of dropped out of it. The Dead are everywhere these days. I think really Brad Pitt killed it. The Walking Dead and Brad Pitt just sort of killed it all. The remake of Dawn of the Dead made money. I think pretty big money. Then Zombieland made money, and then all of a sudden, along comes Brad Pitt and he spends $400 million or whatever the hell to do World War Z. [World War Z author] Max Brooks is a friend of mine, and I thought the film was not at all representative what the book was and the zombies were, I don't know, ants crawling over the wall in Israel. Army ants. You might as well make The Naked Jungle. As far as I'm concerned, I'm content to wait until sort of zombies die off. My films, I've tried to put a message into them. It's not about the gore, it's not about the horror element that are in them. It's more about the message, for me. That's what it is, and I'm using this platform to be able to show my feelings of what I think.

After Night of the Living Dead's success, did you feel much pressure to go out and make another zombie film?

We actually made money. The distributor for the first time and only time in my entire career actually returned money. The film cost 114 grand or something. After we paid off all of the deferments, it returned $600K or $700K. We thought, "Wow, this was cool." In the meantime, in the end, we found out that they knocked us off for about $3 million. But then I never knew. I shot another film. And I was shooting a third film, Jack's Wife — now called Season of the Witch — and the local Pittsburgh film critic who was a friend of mine. George Anderson, knocked on my door, and I was actually shooting a scene in my house. Next to him was [critic] Rex Reed. Rex said, "Do you know your movie is huge in France?" That's exactly how I found out. The next hint that I got that this film was becoming, in quotes, "important," was MoMA. The first public appearance I ever made anywhere in relationship to my film career was at the Museum of Modern Art, probably the same theater where we're going to show the restoration. They invited it into their permanent collection. I sort of feel like I'm home again or something.

The restored Night of the Living Dead premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. at New York's Museum of Modern Art, with Romero in attendance  to introduce the film. An additional screening will take place at the Museum at 7 p.m. on Nov. 12. Get tickets here.