Zombie filmmaker sinks teeth into social issues

The godfather of the zombie genre says his films aren’t just about flesh-hungry corpses, they deal with social issues that are often overlooked in mainstream cinema.

Director George A. Romero spoke to a sold-out TIFF audience at the Ryerson Theatre on Sept. 12 for the North American premiere screening of his latest film, Survival of the Dead.

Though he stands at an imposing 6′ 5″, his demeanour was quiet and humble as he fielded questions about his latest film, a zombie-western.

“I liked the juxtaposition,” he said. “Western films are about the individual. Zombie films, or at least mine, are mostly about revolution or failed revolution.”

Romero spawned his living dead franchise 40 years ago with Night of The Living Dead, a film that criticized 1960’s America, war and racism. As a young, first-time filmmaker, he said he was just out to make a film, and his attitude “creeped” into the story.

Ten years later, he consciously tackled consumerism with the follow up Dawn of the Dead, and moved on to even more specific social issues soon after:  The militaristic Reagan-era, class distinction during the Bush administration, and even the effect of social media on our lives. This latest film, he said, is far more general in its message about war and tribalism.

“People can’t forget they’re enemies,” he said. “In this case, even in a huge species eradicating event, they’re still shooting at each other. It’s always been a disappointment.”

Romero’s impact as a filmmaker is obvious both in the number of zombie films being made today, independently and by large studios, and the number of fans who turn out for special events  such as the annual Toronto Zombie Walk.

Earlier in the day, the Toronto Zombie Walk Group participated in a “Special Edition Director’s Cut” version of the annual stroll to celebrate Romero’s new status as a Canadian citizen.

Myles Ogle, whose sister introduced him to Romero’s earlier films after he saw ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (a comedy homage to Romero’s movies) doused himself in fake blood and stage makeup to participate in the walk. For him, the movies are less about the social commentary of past eras, and more about the fear a potential zombie apocalypse invokes.

“It’s their vast numbers,” Ogle said. “It’s this terrifying and unrelenting hunger that just keeps trying to come at you.”

Romero is often surprised, and perhaps a little unnerved, at the dedication horror fans have to his zombie films.

“I make a movie about the human condition,” he said, “and use the dead to tell a story.”

The human condition may change over time, but the same rules always hold true for zombies: Everyone’s out to get you, you can’t trust anyone, and there’s no safe place to hide.