George A. Romero Explains Why Fast Zombies Could Never Exist (Hint: Weak Ankles)

Photo: Courtesy of Weinstein Co.

In 1968, George A. Romero unleashed the undead on American audiences with Night of the Living Dead. Since then, the legendary horror director has added four more Dead films to the canon. For Diary of the Dead, his latest in the series, Romero reboots the zombie apocalypse in present-day Pennsylvania with the story of a group of college students who are making a horror film in the woods when the dead start to rise. The movie stars a cast of unknowns, except for its A-list voice-over cast, including Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro, and Simon Pegg. Vulture chatted with Romero about his new movie, zombie logic, and the hilarity of horror.

Diary of the Dead isn’t a sequel to your other films; it goes back to the beginning. What inspired you to hit the reset button?
I like Land of the Dead a lot, and I was very satisfied with the way it turned out. But I also had this overwhelming feeling that it was approaching Thunderdome — and what was I going to do next? I had nightmares about making Mad Max 3. It just kept getting bigger, and more action, and I didn’t really want to go that way. The spirit of making Night of the Living Dead, the whole guerrilla aspect of it, suddenly seemed lost. I wanted to see if I still had the spirit and the stamina to make a little, small movie over which a bunch of friends and I had complete control.

At the same time, while we were making Land of the Dead, I suddenly noticed this whole blogosphere that was emerging out there, and it struck me as being really dangerous. I mean, if Hitler was alive today, he’d throw up a blog, and if he sounded reasonable enough, he’d have millions of followers all over the world. And everyone out there is a reporter — that gave me the idea to use student filmmakers who happened to be out shooting a class project when the dead began to walk.

What do you think about fast zombies — the kind we see in video games and movies like 28 Days Later?
Well, I took a big swipe at them in this film: There’s a running gag in the movie that dead things don’t move fast. Partially, it’s a matter of taste. I remember Christopher Lee’s mummy movies where there was this big old lumbering thing that was just walking towards you and you could blow it full of holes but it would keep coming. And in the original Halloween, Michael Meyers never ran, he just sort of calmly walked across the lawn or across the room. To me, that’s scarier: this inexorable thing coming at you and you can’t figure out how to stop it. Aside from that, I do have rules in my head of what’s logical and what’s not. I don’t think zombies can run. Their ankles would snap! And they haven’t yet taken out memberships to Curves.

What’s with the deaf Amish guy who blows up zombies with dynamite?
[Laughs] You know what, man, I struggled with that. I thought it was too slapstick. I was arguing with my partner, Peter, for days. I kept saying, “We can’t go this far.” And he would argue back and say, “Wait a minute, you had a pie fight in Dawn of the Dead. What’s more slapstick about this?”

How would you define the relationship between comedy and horror?
I’ve been mixing them for 40 years and I think they go hand in hand. The fear response and the laugh response are very, very similar reactions. Hitchcock worked with this. He said you should follow a terrifying scene with a chuckle, because their nerves are already on edge. You’re going to get a bigger chuckle out of it because they’re ready to respond to it. But I’m sure, to some extent, it’s personal. I’ve gone to a couple of horror films with Steve King, and when the gore stuff comes up, we’re probably the only two guys in the theater who are laughing. Everyone else is screaming or barfing. —Tammy Oler