Randy Nails‘ documentary Dead On: The Life and Cinema of George A. Romero (2008) screened as a ‘work in progress’ at the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival. The documentary charts Romero‘s evolution as a director and how his films are responsible for a 40-year-old ‘zombie economy’ worth over US$2 billion.
Three themes are central to Nails’ documentary: how psychopolitics such as Cold War nuclear fears and Vietnam War social activism influenced Romero’s personal vision, why Romero has fought to retain his independence against Hollywood studios, and how the zombie meme has in turn influenced contemporary ‘indie’ directors, subcultures, and musucians such as Glen Danzig and Rob Zombie.
The documentary begins with a nuclear fear montage: stark black-and-white footage of the Trinity nuclear test on 16th July 1945, ‘duck and cover’ safety drills and simulations of the impact on targeted cities. From this dystopian beginning Nails explores Romero’s early work for the Pittsburgh-based company Latent Image which tapped the market for advertising and industrial films in the ‘go go’ 1960s. Latent Image would be the nucleus for the team that produced the influential zombie film Night of the Living Dead (1968): Romero used handheld cameras to capture the feeling of newsreels on Vietnam War combat and civil rights protests. Latent Image cofounders liken their production approach to jamming in jazz and small teams. However after the follow-up There’s Always Vanilla (1971) the Latent Image team fell apart and Romero continued as an auteur to create films where the Cold War’s Mutually Assured Destruction is the backdrop to dark and apocalyptic forces which threaten to overwhelm individuals.
Latent Image’s DIY ethic was a formative experience for Romero. He cites Martin (1977) as the film that captures best Romero’s work ethic and small team approach, with Diary of the Dead (2007) as a return to this independence. Its cast believe Knightriders (1981) was his most personal film, which Romero explains is about the extremes and limits of personal ideologies, and that he was able to maintain a strong team despite the production difficulties due to his respectful way of dealing with the cast and crew (which Ed Harris and Dennis Hopper also attest to in Romero’s later films for major studios). Romero and special effects wizard Ted Savini worked quickly on the location shoot in a shopping mall for Dawn of the Dead (1978) due to a 3-4 hour time limit: a precursor to the ‘sprints’ in agile software development. Romero’s DIY approach and his ability to combine multiple roles (scriptwriter, cinematographer, director, producer, editor) appeals to John Landis, John Carpenter, John Waters, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez and Danny Boyle, who Nails interviews.
Pigeonholed as a horror director Romero points out why many of his films have a satirical dimension that the Hollywood major studios often choose to ignore or minimise. Jack’s Wife (1972) explored a neo-feminist vision of personal empowerment through Wicca symbolism, although the US distributor retitled the film as Hungry Wives to appeal to the softcore porn market. The Crazies (1973) satirised military contingency planning to prevent a chemical warfare disaster. Martin (1977) uses vampirism as a metaphor for industrial decline of Pittsburgh’s steel industry: Romero surmises people need vampires as a modern mythology to combat the ‘death of magic’ caused by downsizing and hypercompetitive globalisation. Spurred on by giallo director Dario Argento, Romero overcomes his desire not to revisit zombie films by turning Dawn of the Dead (1978) into a satire on consumer lifestyles. Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005) respectively target the Reagan Administration’s revival of Cold War brinkmanship and nuclear fears, and the second Bush Administration’s widening social gap between the haves and have-nots. Romero’s personal vision emerges collectively in this body of work as a concern with personal autonomy and class politics.
Why Romero despises Hollywood studios is illustrated through the many anecdotes about his production battles and mistakes. Night of the Living Dead relied initially on 10 personal investors who lost their money when the film was released with the copyright symbol on its title credits rather than in the correct position, which immediately made NoTLD public domain. Despite a successful lawsuit Latent Image lost money and the followup There’s Always Vanilla broke up several friendships. Knightriders, Land of the Dead and Creepshow all had studio distribution problems. During the preview screenings of Monkey Shines (1988) and The Dark Half (1993) the test audiences demanded the downbeat endings be changed, a Hollywood practice that reviewer Roger Ebert condemns. The film studio Orion was almost bankrupt during The Dark Half and was unable to finance a score for the film’s third act, which led to director-producer tensions. Bruiser (2000) was a straight to video release which Romero was relieved to complete. In a lesson on ‘decision rights’ Romero worked on 8 redrafts over a two-year period for Resident Evil (2002) to ensure the film reflected the first two videogames, before he discovered that the studio executive did not have the decision-making power as he had claimed. Whilst Romero admits to not being very good at business his criticisms of Hollywood are supported by illusionist Penn Jillette and writer Stephen King.
Despite the wealth of archival footage and interviews Nails’ ‘work in progress’ suffers from a nonlinear narrative. I had just as much fun sitting just behind Romero and his daughter Tina in the cinema, watching him deal with zombie fans and autograph hunters. Romero might not have the financial rewards of the ‘zombie economy’ he inadvertently created but Dead On has plenty of lessons on cultivating a personal vision and the mindlessness of the Hollywood zombies known as mid-level studio executives.