Silver Screen: Director Rusty Nails Presents... Dead On: The Life and Cinema of George A. Romero
What: Dead On: The Life and Cinema of George A. Romero (film screening and director lecture)
George A. Romero is one of the most important and influential America directors still working today. Although predominantly known for Night of the Living Dead, a work that spawned countless imitations and marked the beginnings of the modern horror film, Romero’s cinema offers more than mere zombies. While many of his works are horror films, they often transcend the trappings of that genre to offer much broader allegorical statements regarding ideological conformity and the dangers of corrupt social structures.
Since 2006, filmmaker Rusty Nails has been at work on a documentary film, Dead On: The Life and Cinema of George A. Romero. The first documentary of its kind, it will examine each of Romero’s sixteen films and feature interviews with those who have known and worked with the director throughout the decades.
On Thursday, April 7 at 7 p.m. in the SIU Museum Auditorium, Nails will bring his film to Carbondale for a special screening at Morris Library Auditorium. Audience members will have the opportunity to see a rough cut of the film and offer their feedback to the director. Being a work-in-progress, Nails requests that no cell phones, computers, or other recording devices be used.
For more information about the film, visit <http://myspace.com/RomeroDoc>.
Nightlife interviewed Nails this week about Dead On, Romero, and the great director’s film legacy. Here’s how it went:
What drew you to want to make a documentary about the work of George Romero?
When I was about ten years old, I used to watch television until like 3 o’clock in the morning, and one night on a late-night TV station, they played Night of the Living Dead around midnight, and that movie just blew my mind. I was terrified. Just laying on the kitchen chairs, put together next to each other, just watching the movie. There was something about that film, you know, just growing up in Alabama, near Birmingham, there was something about that film that was so stark and so real feeling. The film just leapt out at you. I almost felt like it was existing in the space that I was in. The feel and the look of the film just brought me right into that world, the world of Night of the Living Dead, and I would say that absolutely changed my life. Somehow, somewhere, deep inside of my brain [I started] to think that I could maybe do this, make a film.... There’s just something very gripping, real, simple and, in a weird way, tactile about the whole film that just really made me feel a closeness to it.
Ever since then, I felt this sort of kinship to George’s films. I was at a festival and the two of us got along extremely well, and I was just thinking when I met him, I was like “Has anyone made a documentary on George Romero?” and I sort of looked around a little and I’d seen that nobody really had made a documentary on George Romero, and it sort of blew my mind that nobody had made a documentary on him. I proposed the concept and George had said that a lot of people had asked but he hadn’t agreed. When I proposed the idea, I said I didn’t want our documentary to be about a horror filmmaker, and he liked that. I said I wanted it to be about an independent filmmaker.
That’s one of the things that I’ve always been interested in with Romero is the fact that he’s not just intrinsically tied to a genre. I don’t think he should be seen as just a horror filmmaker, and so I think it’s really interesting that your documentary takes that approach. How much attention is given to the other films?
Basically, every one of his films is covered, almost. We don’t include Two Evil Eyes, his film The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.... I like the film a lot, and I think it’s actually one of his most underappreciated works, but we only have so much time to talk about so much. At least in the feature, there’s not enough time to cover that... but when the DVD comes out we may include it with the extras or something like that.
There’s time given to his great feminist, underappreciated work Season of the Witch, as well as Martin, which I think is also one of the greatest films of the seventies. And time is given to The Crazies and The Dark Half. So we cover most all of his work. There isn’t necessarily a focus on the zombie films by any means. A number of people who’ve seen sort of our rough cut to date have seen our section on Knightriders, who never saw Knightriders, and have become really interested in seeing that film.
One thing that we’ve tried to do with the film is that each section has sort of a life and a concept of its own. The Night of the Living Dead section is really about the creation of his early group, Image Ten. The Creepshow section is about paying tribute to your influences, so while George is paying tribute to the E.C. Comics that he used to [read] as a little kid, we pay tribute to Al Feldstein, who is one of the creators of E.C. Comics. And he talks about how Lights Out and The Witching Hour influenced him, listening to the radio plays.
And that also shows how Romero is a filmmaker working within a certain set of traditions. There’s certainly a legacy that he’s continuing there.
The other thing that’s great about his films is that they’re very much of their time. There are quite a few filmmakers that have a style that’s sort of representative throughout their work, and it continues. But even though George has a style of his own, the work tends to sort of be malleable in relation to the time that it’s made in. I mean, certainly, Dawn of the Dead is not the same as Night of the Living Dead, and Day of the Dead becomes this thrashing of the Reagan empire, and Diary of the Dead is rooted more in sort of the digital world of the [aughts]. So it’s really interesting. I can’t think of a lot of other filmmakers to use films [to] change with the times and in a lot of ways are great notations of what’s going on in the era, or the zeitgeists which they’re created in.
Romero has somewhat of a reputation as being a recluse, or at least as being a director who prefers to stay out of the limelight, for the most part. What has it been like working with him?
Well, George is just loved around the world. He’s known for the zombie films, generally, and Creepshow, and the other films to a little bit of a lesser extent. I think the reality is that anytime people seek you out constantly, it becomes very taxing for the person being sought out. Especially if the questions the people are asking you over and over again pertain to the same thing, regardless if it’s plumbing or being a mail person or making zombie films. And I think some of that just becomes overwhelming, and plus everybody wants to live their own personal life.
In relation to our making a documentary with him, I think part of the reason that we were able to make the documentary is because we’re making this movie independently. We don’t have a timeline. We’re doing it on our own timeline.... We were able to work on George’s schedule... when George had time. Basically the trick was to keep it open and available for him, and if he was at a film festival in Maryland and we were able we would go to Maryland and interview him at a film festival in Maryland or wherever.
The list of people you’ve interviewed for this film is pretty amazing-- everyone from Dennis Hopper to Ed Harris to Stephen King. Romero’s definitely been a collaborative artist, and I’m wondering what that was like speaking with those people who worked with him throughout the years.
You know, it’s almost impossible to get anybody to say anything negative about the guy. Even George remarked on that. There’ve been times where we’re like, “Is there anything you don’t like about his work or does he have any negative characteristics?” People are very protective of George, and people just in general really love him, and the people who’ve worked with him tend to in some cases work with him a number of times. His crews from Martin to Day of the Dead have all been the same people. Now that he’s in Toronto, he’s had a number of the same crew people from the film Bruiser Survival. People tend to work with George multiple times and a lot of that is because they love the guy.
But I feel sometimes that his films are misunderstood. I’ve spoken about what I consider fair-weather Romero fans. It’s strange that you say his collaborators love him so much, because I feel sometimes that audiences aren’t always that loving. Critics and fans have been very harsh in particular since Land.
As far as people who appreciate George’s work goes, it would be hard to find a filmmaker who has sixteen movies that everyone likes. There’s nothing wrong with people not liking every one of George’s films. That’s just the nature of one’s personal taste. It would be more alarming if people just liked everything George did because they felt like that was the norm. Differing opinions are great and lead, hopefully, to interesting conversations. It seems like with Diary it was sort of a fifty / fifty kind of a thing, where a number of people really liked it and then a number of people also disliked it. But I’ve seen that Survival [received] a number of unfavorable notices. But I think in any director’s career, somebody with longevity, it’s going to be the case sooner or later. Not everybody’s going to like everything.... Sometimes things are better received at a later point.
Certainly, The Crazies, when it came out, it came out in the theaters to my knowledge for a week. It played in very few theaters. Same thing with Season of the Witch. But even Martin, which I believe critically did very well, did very poorly at the box office even though it garnered a little bit of a midnight-movie status.
And some of that might just have something to do with ad space not being really appropriated toward the film and it might have been that the people who were releasing the films didn’t really know how to market them. And it might have been that people just didn’t know that they existed in some cases. I don’t know. The films maybe just didn’t get out there in a proper way.
But I think, as time has gone on, a lot of people have grown to appreciate The Crazies, and I’m very positive that a lot of people really like Martin a lot. But I mean, George has had a bit of a hard swab with a lot of his films outside of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Creepshow. But you know, perhaps that just strengthens his resolve to remain independent and to do what he wants to do.
It seems very appropriate that you continue that same level of independence in your own documentary about Romero.
Yeah, and that might be something that drives us together a little bit. Or maybe that’s something that made him feel like I was potentially a good person to do the documentary. I plan on doing the documentary at my own pace, in the way that I want to. I think that is yielding a very positive result for us, so maybe George and I are kindred independent beings in that way.
who: Rusty Nails
what: Dead On: The Life and Cinema of George A. Romero (film screening and director lecture)
where: Faner Hall / SIU Museum Auditorium
when: Thursday, April 7