Undead live on through George Romero

Director's 'Survival of the Dead' opens Friday

The nice thing about summer moviegoing is there's no need to apologize for enjoying escapist entertainment.

Moviegoers will be turning up, for instance, for the guilty pleasure of watching George A. Romero's new zombie slaughter fest "Survival of the Dead," opening Friday in New York and L.A. via Magnolia Pictures.

It's Romero's sixth zombie film since redefining the horror genre in 1968 with "Night of the Living Dead." While it might be hard to find moviegoers willing to admit a passion for the undead, Romero's success with "Dawn of the Dead" (1979), "Day of the Dead" (1985), "Land of the Dead" (2005) and "Diary of the Dead" (2007) certainly suggests somebody's been buying tickets.

"When we made the first one I never thought I'd still be around doing these, but that's the way it goes," Romero said.

Although Romero's regarded as the father of zombie movies, he never used the term in "Night."

"I called them 'flesh eaters' or 'ghouls,' " he recalls.

So who came up with the name zombies? "I think the French did," he replied, adding he believes the magazine Cahiers du Cinema was the first to refer to them as zombies.

In any case, by the time Romero made "Dawn," the word zombies had caught on and that's what he called them.

He thought of a world where zombies rule after reading Richard Matheson's novel "I Am Legend" where everyone's become a vampire through some contagion and only one man is left on earth.

"I figured it would be nice to do something that would start on the very first night and watch the collapse of society," Romero explained.

His zombies could take over "because people aren't addressing the problem with any intelligence and they're still trying to carry on and keep their own agendas going."

Asked why he's still making zombie films, he pointed out that his first four were done over a period of nearly 40 years ending with "Land," released through Universal Pictures and his biggest hit.

"I had this conceit that they were about different decades. I could talk about different things allegorically. But then I wanted to do something about emerging media, personal journalism and all that."

He realized he'd better move quickly before someone else beat him to it. The result was "Diary."

"We did it so inexpensively that even though it had a limited release, it wound up making a lot of money."

And that's why he went on to write and direct "Survival."

"I'm not used to just saying, 'Hurry up and do another one' purely for the commercial interest of it. But I got the idea that if this film does as well as 'Diary' and there's demand for another one, maybe I could do this little set."

While you'd think Romero already has his zombie franchise, that's not the case.

"The first four films are all owned by different people. So I've never been able to do Steve King's Castle Rock idea and have recurring characters and have a world where the pieces connect."

If "Survival" works, Romero's ready to move forward with two other zombie scripts featuring minor characters from "Diary."

"And then, maybe, I could walk away from this genre once I've sort of painted the whole portrait."

"Survival," from Artfire Films, Romero-Grunwald Prods. and Devonshire Prods., is set on Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware, where two families have been locked for generations in a power struggle that now revolves around killing zombies.

"On the surface, it's about these wars that never die. I'm just using the classic Hatfields and McCoys model -- a feud that's never going to end. If you want to think of it as Ireland or the Middle East or whatever, it's a little bit about that."

Actually, Romero shot "Survival" in Toronto in a quick 25 days on a shoestring budget that could make it profitable enough to keep the zombies alive. He estimates it cost twice as much as "Diary," "so I think it's around $4 million."

It gets confusing when he says "Diary" came in for $2.5 million to $3 million. The answer involves converting to Canadian dollars when $4 million in Canada translated to about $6 million in the States.

It helped that Romero started out with financing in place for "Survival" through Artfire, which had bankrolled "Diary."

"Start-up costs are high in any relationship so it's great to repeat the process with people trust and get along with."

"Survival" was a completely Canadian production and Romero's a big fan of shooting there.

"There are all kinds of good reasons to make movies up there. You wind up suddenly with more money. There are tax incentives. There are rebates for Canadian content."

About the only negative he ran into was unusually bad weather.

"This is my fourth film in the Toronto area. They've all involved shooting in October and I've never had anything like this. We actually had snow. We had a minor typhoon. We had driving rain, unbelievable wind storms."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.