Zombies are more popular than ever, which is perhaps why it’s perfect timing for a documentary that looks back on one of the most influential zombie films of all time — George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.”
“Birth of the Living Dead,” directed by Rob Kuhns and produced by Larry Fessenden, opened on Wednesday and currently has a 100 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Featuring interviews with Romero, as well as “Walking Dead” producer Gale Anne Hurd, the documentary chronicles the production of the independent horror classic, why it resonated with audiences and how it changed the world.
Fessenden (right), whom horror fans might recognize from more than a few gruesome on-screen death scenes over the years, including last summer’s home invasion slasher flick “You’re Next” — spoke to TheWrap about zombies, the steady stream of “soulless” horror remakes produced in Hollywood, and why “Night of the Living Dead” will always be better than the most popular scripted drama on television.
What was your first experience with “Night of the Living Dead” and how did it affect you?
I was a kid in the ’70s and what I would do is watch television late at night. The parents would be asleep and I would creep out and watch old Universal horror movies, like “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy” and all the various step children of those kind of films. And then I innocently put on a black and white horror movie and it was so shocking. It was so much more explicit and bleak than any of the old charming horror movies that I was used to. I was really shocked and kind of stupefied.
All of this is so familiar now, but remember this was very unusual and startling imagery at the time. I always cite it as a favorite movie because it really was a moment in my life.
How do you think George Romero’s zombie classic changed the cultural and cinematic landscape in America?
I think he was part of a movement, in which movies were becoming more immediate, more raw. There was a lot of anger about Vietnam. People were seeing war footage on television, and 16mm news shots of their streets on fire, Detroit and race riots. It was just a very tumultuous time. Rock ‘n’ roll had obliterated the goodie two-shoes music of the ’50s, so I think “Night of the Living Dead” was emblematic of that. I’m not saying it was the only movie that did or started the movement, but it was right there in the forefront.
Also, it’s an independent movie. “Birth of the Living Dead” is also the story of some ballsy filmmakers who didn’t go to Hollywood. They stuck in their hometown and got some local friends and they all put in $600 bucks and they just made a movie because they had the equipment and know-how, but they were kind of winging it. So it’s a great story of sticking it to the man and not banging on the door of Hollywood, but just doing it yourself.
That seems to be the approach you’ve taken in your career.
Yeah, I’d love to be out there in Hollywood to make movies, but I can’t wait around for their approval, so I’ve built a community here out of New York of independent filmmakers.
Am I a bad person for liking the 1990 remake of “Night of the Living Dead,” starring Tony Todd, more than the original?
No, because the reality is — and what we’re trying to do with “Birth of the Living Dead” — is kind of remind people where this all began and take interviews of old timers so you get a perspective of that movie at the time.
We all are creatures of our time, and I think it’s important to own that and that’s just normal. I’ve shown it to my son and he couldn’t quite wrap his brain around it. He had already seen “Walking Dead” and he just had a different expectation of what’s scary.
That movie’s kind of cool. I keep meaning to watch it again. As you know, it was made by [Tom] Savini who already worked on “Dawn of the Dead” and the subsequent films with Romero, so it’s kind of an in-house thing. It’s not like some of these remakes that Hollywood churns out really do feel soulless or just in it for the buck.
It seems like they’ll literally remake any horror movie these days.
You’re right. It’s so arbitrary. If there’s a title someone has ever seen in their life, they’d rather remake that than make an original film. It’s really aggravating to see one remake after another just trotted out because there’s some bottom-line equation they figured out where you’re bound to make 20 percent or something, but with an original film it’s much more risky.
Is that what it is? Is there an equation?
I’d love to be corrected, but it’s gotta be that bad. I mean, what’s the deal? It’s literally name recognition will get you XYZ amount of dollars if you put it on enough screens. Nobody cares if they’re bad.
Very rarely does a remake have any resonance. An odd exception is [Zack Snyder’s] “Dawn of the Dead,” speaking of Romero. That’s actually, to me, a remarkable film.
I rail against remakes because it means executives are lazy, not because a filmmaker can’t come in and do something interesting.
My real issue is that you want films to be over their time, and a remake is rarely of its time. That’s the whole point of “Night of the Living Dead.” It was very much 1968. It was expressing a rage — the cracks in the armor of society that were being felt at that time.
Are you a “Walking Dead” fan?
I can only take so much, but I’ve always enjoyed it when I’ve watched it. I think “Walking Dead” has definitely served its purpose. We have Gale Anne Hurd, the producer, in our film and she’s very articulate and she tributes Romero wonderfully.
In the end, I find it a little redundant, but that’s because I drop in every now and again. If I was riveted to the story lines of each character, I’m sure I’d happen to watch it month, after month, after month, after month.
In an odd way, it’s sort of a straight forward soap opera, with a couple of minutes of people shooting each other in the face and some really good special effects.
That’s interesting you say that. I saw Romero said recently that he declined to direct an episode, saying: “Basically, it’s just a soap opera with a zombie occasionally. I always used the zombie as a character for satire or political criticism, and I find that missing in what’s happening right now.”
Good for George! As you see, I’m a kindred spirit, because that would be my critique of the show.
As Romero says, I think he always liked to take it another level. As he did with “Land of the Dead,” it becomes a huge parable of the haves and the have-nots of Dennis Hopper living in a massive tower. That’s what I like about Romero. Even in some of his weaker films, there’s something else going on than just shocks and scares.
Obviously “Walking Dead” isn’t going anywhere, and “World War Z” made hundreds of millions last year, so in your opinion, what keeps attracting audiences to this genre?
I do feel very strongly that we’re in an apocalyptic frame of mind. And maybe we have been since the ’60s. We had the bomb hanging over us for a long time, but a lot of the bomb anxieties were directly addressed by “Godzilla” movies, giant creatures and that sort of thing. But this particular thing of society breaking down and the living dead — an endless parade of mindless creatures that want to eat you — I think that plays into either political point of view; a sense that the world is fraying at the edges and our institutions aren’t delivering for us.
If you believe in global warming you might picture that future. If you believe the lefty socialists are going to ruin the world, you believe you need to take up your arms and shoot all of them. So it really serves the anxiety of the time … And it’s what “Birth of the Living Dead” tries to address, which is how potent horror as a genre is. Zombies right now represent our society collapsing.
One last question. If you ever found yourself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse what’s your strategy?
Just get away! I would want to be in a rural setting. At the very least if you’re being chomped on, I would just want to look up at a tree, rather than feeling more trapped in a fucking building or something.
But unfortunately, you’re stuck in the middle of New York City.
Yeah, but I got my escape route planned, man!