George A Romero started his journey into the realm of the undead in 1968 with the ground-breaking Night of the Living Dead. Now the accidental master of the metaphor is back with his fourth dead movie - and the parallels with global politics are just as compelling. He talks to Donald Clarke about the lessons zombies can teach us
Politics follow George A Romero around. When the director's first film, Night of the Living Dead, was released in 1968, many critics observed the African-American lead's furious attempts to fight back pale assailants and deduced that the picture was a comment on the civil war then brewing between the races. As it transpired, Duane Jones, who played the desperate zombie slayer, was simply the best actor that Romero knew and the part was written with no particular race in mind.
Events then forced the film-makers to consider the political implications of their work.
"We had finished the film, put it in the car and were driving from Pittsburgh to New York," Romero explains. "My partner and I were in the car and that very night we heard the news that Martin Luther King had been shot. There were race riots everywhere."
Thirty-three years later, having established his reputation as the most socially aware of horror film directors, Romero was ready to start production on the fourth film in the Dead cycle. Following on from 1978's Dawn of the Dead (zombies go shopping) and 1985's Day of the Dead (zombies get experimented upon), Land of the Dead would show a recovering human society being shaken out of its complacency by a new, surprising assault from the undead. This was 2001.
"We sent the script out a week after 9/11 and everyone said: 'We do not want this. We want soft, fuzzy women's pictures.' So I just put it away." The film finally arrives in Irish cinemas today. It is a fine piece of work - funny, revolting, surprising - but one can easily see what alarmed the studios. Land of the Dead offers us a decadent society perilously uninterested in the disaffected masses outside its sphere of control. But how much of what we are looking at was in that original script? There seem to be nods towards Bush's war against terror - the Abu Ghraib scandal in particular - throughout the picture.
"I have added a few very specific references," Romero concedes. "At one stage Dennis Hopper says: 'We don't negotiate with terrorists.' But a lot of the parallels were already in there. We had a city protected by water being attacked. We had this scene where an armoured car goes into a village and kills all the inhabitants and then they wonder why they are upset about it. But, yes, I did decide that the building under attack would be a tower. That was conscious."
A week after Romero and I have our conversation in Edinburgh events conspire to grant the film yet another political dimension. Watching the mass of zombies in rags - with whom we are increasingly urged to identify - ploughing through the water towards the tower where fortunate humans still live in luxury, one cannot help but think of the social inequities revealed during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
George Romero, an old-school radical who has never lost his idealism, would surely welcome the analogy. Hugely tall and gaunt in large, horn-rimmed spectacles, the director, now 65, still peppers his conversation with references to "cats" and "bread". Raised in New York City, the son of a commercial artist, he began his career making industrial films with his own Pittsburgh-based production company, The Latent Image. Though he enjoyed all the great Universal horror films, his first idol was the English romantic Michael Powell, director of The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman. So how come he and his buddies didn't make a gently lyrical film about dance or classical music? "Where would we have got the money for that?" he wheezes. "But you look at a film like the Tales of Hoffman and it really is a horror film. There is no better Dracula than Robert Helpmann in that film."
Romero and nine of his friends initially chipped in $600 each to buy some film stock and to rent the farmhouse in which most of Night of the Living Dead was to be shot. Having put together some raw footage, they began gathering $10,000 donations from local businessmen and professionals. Though Romero denies that he and his crew were seeking to make a political film, he concedes that the radical ideas of the time were everywhere about on set.
"We were all '60s guys," he says. "We actually lived in that farmhouse. We bathed in the river and talked bullshit every night. What we talked about mostly was revolution. In my mind that is what all the Dead films are about. There is this seachange in the world and none of the human characters seem to recognise it. We would talk about the disintegration of family values. All that stuff."
It is not hyperbole to suggest that Night of the Living Dead is one of the most influential of all horror films. Rejecting Transylvanian antiquity, the picture allowed its beasts to move about the modern world. Unusually for a genre which tended to operate at an oblique angle to reality, Romero's dark fantasy dragged in many of the anxieties of its age. And, of course, it gave the horror world a new monster: a being that rises from the grave to feast on human flesh. They came to be known as zombies, but these tattered, slouched fiends are very different from the cold somnambulists in, say, Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie (1943).
"That's right. They were very Caribbean and it was all to do with voodoo," he says. "Actually I never called ours zombies. That description appeared in an article in Cahiers du Cinema. 'They're zombies,' it said. Oh really. We originally thought of them as ghouls. There were a few Universal films about ghouls and that was what was in our minds. We thought up very few rules or powers for them. The idea was they are your neighbours in a different state. One of the few early ideas we did have was that you have to shoot them in the head to kill them."
Initially the recipient of snootily indifferent reviews from the mainstream press, Night of the Living Dead gradually began to gather a following among stoned college kids and (rather more surprisingly) French intellectuals. It was an article in Les Cahiers du Cinema, the bible of Gallic cineastes, that established the picture's respectability.
"That all really surprised me," Romero says. "I thought we just had this little horror film that could push the envelope a bit. The MPAA [US body regulating decency in cinema] was off our backs and we were going to be that bit more explicit: not cut away when the creature eats the flesh. Then the critic Rex Reed quoted some stuff from Cahiers and I realised we had something here people actually like."
Sadly, Romero's career has stuttered erratically in the years since that early success. In the 1970s he made some remarkable independent films - Martin, his 1977 story of a boy who thinks he's a vampire, was particularly fine - but, though he praises the freedom Universal gave him on Land of the Dead, he has never formed a satisfactory relationship with any of the studios. Films such as Monkey Shines (1988) and The Dark Half (1993) have their moments, but seem a little half-formed when set beside what has now become the Dead tetralogy.
Romero was encouraged to make 1978's Dawn of the Dead, in which the undead take over a shopping mall, by his old friend, the Italian horror director Dario Argento. Rather neatly, Dario's daughter Asia Argento has a supporting role in Land of the Dead. "He phoned me up and took me to lunch in Rome and said: 'You must do another zombie film.' I said: 'Well, you know it's funny, but I have just had this idea.' This was before kids began wearing all these labels and becoming walking billboards. This mall had just opened outside Pittsburgh and it just seemed like a temple to consumerism. We were among the first people to notice that."
Romero is tolerant of the recent remake of Dawn of the Dead - "A good start, then it sort of lost its reason for being" - but positively effusive about the British comedy Shaun of the Dead. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, the writers of Shaun, both have zombie cameos in Land of the Dead. "I loved it immediately. What's not to like? It's so reverent and so carefully done and so funny."
This buzz of interest in Romero's work, should, in theory, have propelled Land of the Dead to a great commercial success. It didn't work out that way. Despite receiving extraordinarily positive reviews, the film performed very poorly at the US box office. As a result George A Romero, now carrying the wrinkles that befit a prophet in the wilderness, still remains just outside the mainstream. He has recently embarked on an adaptation of Stephen King's From a Buick 8, but knows that his fans will be most eager to hear what is to happen next to the undead.
Throughout the cycle, the creatures have been evolving. In Day of the Dead a zombie began showing vague signs of sentience. In Land of the Dead the shuffling masses, reviled by a recovering human population, start taking on the character of a society. It appears that Romero is urging us to see ourselves in the zombies. Does this also mean - remembering the analogy with 9/11 - that he is asking audiences to identify with those who attacked America?
"Gosh, I don't know," he says cautiously. "No. It's a very subtle thing. Part of me thinks: what really is the difference between Osama bin Laden and Pancho Villa? It's tribalism that gets in the way. Now, I don't want to get kicked out of Britain what with these new anti-hate laws. I am not advocating terrorism and I hate terrorism as much as I hate ..." He pauses to browse through his catalogue of demons. "... as much as I hate priests. But if there is a basic right in the world it is the right to existence. I am just saying we all have a right to exist."
So will the quick ever reach an understanding with the dead? "I have wrestled with the concept of how I am going to end this," he sighs. "I don't know how much longer I am going to live, after all. The only way it can end is if we stop shooting them and they stop eating us. I sort of wink at détente at the end of this picture. And if I die tomorrow I think that is the message I would like to go out on."