Raising the Dead: George Romero on Writing Horror

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The Zombie Auteur Explains HIs Approach to Creating Believable Horror.

George Romero shot to cult stardom in 1968 when he directed NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, from a screenplay he co-wrote with John Russo. The film’s reputation is perhaps based mostly on its documentary style (black-and-white photograph, hand-held camera work), but in truth the script is a very well written, tightly constructed piece of work, with lots of good dialogue and character drama mixed in with the horror. Since then, Romero has continued to write the screenplays for his films, even when they have been based on other source material (as in MONKEY SHINES). His writing has always been marked by an intelligent approach to genre material, in which the traditional legends and superstitions underlying most horror stories are thoroughly deconstructed by an agnostic, contemporary point-of-view (as in his 1978 film MARTIN, in which the title character is a psycho-killer with delusions of being a seductive vampire). Recently, Romero took the time to outline some of his thoughts on his debut film and on the general subject of writing horror stories for the screen.

“When I made my first film, I thought I was hip and cool,” says the writer-director. “I wasn’t. I was just a guy waving his hands around, trying to get attention, even though I knew there was no reason in hell for people to pay me any mind. That’s the human condition I guess. The first stories ever told were horror stories. Our distant ancestors huddled around a campfire listened to those stories and wondered, ‘Who am I? Why am I here? What is fire?’ People were asking those same questions in 1968 when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was released; they’re still asking them today, willing to turn almost anywhere for answers.”

According to Romero, the script for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD grew out of a short story he had written, which was inspired by the Richard Matheson novel I AM LEGEND. The novel, a science-fiction take on the vampire myth, portrays the plight of the last living human being in a world of overrun by a plague of vampires. “That’s Matheson’s jumping off point for what is basically a siege story,” Romero explains. “I ripped off the siege and the central idea, which I thought was so powerful—that this particular plague involved the entire planet. Similar stories, SALEM’S LOT, for example, deal with the populations of small isolated towns that have been infected with a virus, an alien predator, or radiation from the good old days of atomic testing—scientific testing gone awry. Easier to believe—and easier to blame—than any monster.”

For Romero, “Believability and Blame are two evil spirits that haunt any writer of horror fiction, bringing sleepless nights and blank pages. I’m talking about the kind of Blame that a writer wants to—or feels the need to—assign to someone or something within the fiction that he or she has created. The monster is by definition Blameless; it’s just doing what comes naturally and is therefore likely to invoke sympathy. Who doesn’t feel sorry for Frankenstein’s Monster, or King Kong, or Larry Talbot, the Wolfman, who would never hurt a fly—which brings us to THE FLY, which illustrates a target for blame. It can be pinned on the character who caused the problem. David Hedison, Colin Clive as Victor Frankenstein, Richard Attenborough in JURASSIC PARK, or those reliable whipping boys, the scientists, who appear in everything from THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN to GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER.”

This kind of Blame works in horror stories grounded in science fiction, but supernatural tales are not so easy. “Who or what do you blame if you’re writing something like DRACULA or THE EXORCIST?” Romero asks rhetorically. “Blame evil? Pure Evil—the writer’s escape hatch: ‘The devil made me do it?’ Pure Evil is basically Pure Bullshit. It comes closer to chance, that real monster which stalks us all. Is there any such thing as Pure Evil? I doubt it, and so does pretty much everyone else, except for lapsed Catholics—not practicing Catholics, but those who have strayed. They, we, me—stained our jockeys when we first saw THE EXORICST. As far as I’m concerned, that is the only film that dealt with Pure Evil and managed to pull it off.”

Therefore, Romero advocates avoiding “Pure Evil” as an explanation; in fact, he thinks no explanation at all might be preferable. “By and large, when you’re dealing with the absurd, no explanation is better than the one you can trump up,” he states. “As far as I’m concerned, Blame doesn’t need to be assigned. It’s acceptable, even probable, that a protagonist might draw the black marble and be screwed over by circumstances. It’s also acceptable that evil might come from within. It might even be; it might not really be there. It might be a monster from the Id, like in FORBIDDEN PLANET. It might be insanity, as in REPULSION, the most frightening film that I’ve ever seen. My suggestion to writers facing those blank pages is, in short, forget about blame. Fill those pages with whatever gives you the willies. You can assign blame later, or someone else will—the way analysts assigned blame in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to the Republicans.”

As for the other troubling topic, Believability, Romero thinks that any premise, however, impossible, can be made believable if handled with conviction. “The very fact that you thought of it means that, somewhere in your mind, it’s believable to you,” he says. “All you have to do is convince your audience that it’s possible. Here again, you don’t need to get your old science texts to find some backup for your premise. All you need to do is set some rules. Let’s say you dream up a story where a man is stranded, starving on a desert island. All he’s got is a carton of a dozen eggs. In the yolk of one of those eggs, an unborn monster is lurking; cracking the shell will enable it to emerge, eat the island, and eventually eat the man. How do you make this believable? Early in the story, you plant a few seeds: Monsters hang out in egg yolks. Not all egg yolks, but there’s bound to be one in a dozen. If the bad egg is cracked open, the monster will be unleashed. You’re done; that’s all you need to do. People will believe, and each time your character goes to crack open an egg, the audience will howl, ‘No, don’t do it!’”

Romero warns against overselling the concept with unnecessary technical jargon. “If you spend time on exposition, as to why egg yolks are targets for monstrous possession, the audience is going to nod off, and you’re likely to get raked over the coals by the critics—who, while they should appreciate your scientific approach, are just as susceptible as anyone else to boredom. Even in something like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, where there is no explanation, they’ll find their own reasons for the horror, and write about your genius in dreaming it up.”

Romero opines, “That’s why people go to horror flicks, laying out that good money: to be shocked, startled, to experience that buzz in a context that doesn’t threaten us with any real danger. You feel safe in a movie theatre, depending on who’s sitting next to you. You feel safe in your bed, reading a Stephen King novel, depending on who’s sleeping next to you. You can let yourself go, let your guard down. Some people intellectualize and get past all that without having problems. Others can get past all that and surrender—not to say that they should. Some people never experience orgasms or other real highs, for the same reason. Reading a novel or going to a scary movie, people can abandon themselves, because there seem to be no consequences.”

As for the current viability of horror in Hollywood, Romero is guardedly optimistic. “After 9/11 there is no question that the climate has changed, but it’s actually sort of tapering off a little bit,” says the writer-director, who had been trying to shop around his script for LAND OF THE DEAD (then called DEAD RECKONING). “I was first going around with the new zombie script in the beginning of September. Right after 9/11, nobody wanted it. We got a lot of rejections slips. Now it’s sort of coming back. It looks like there’s a lot of interest.”

Nevertheless, Romero is dubious about the present state of the genre. “Where is the genre going? We sure are just sort of rowing around in circles, I think. Unfortunately, the big special effects that we’re able to do in films—producers feel they have to be competitive with that stuff. I certainly don’t think it has helped with innovation in the genre at all. People don’t seem to learn a lesson from things like BLAIR WITCH. You can still make an inexpensive film about things that go bump in the night, and it’s just as scary as if you have $100-million worth of special effects. But people are afraid to take that risk, even on a small film. So I haven’t seen a lot of progress being made in the genre, certainly not a lot of innovation. The cats that are consistently making this stuff good—John Carpenter, Wes Craven—have an affection for it. A lot of people just have no affection not just for the genre but for the medium. People wont’ presume to say, ‘I can do something funny. I’m gonna go make a comedy. I know how to do it.’ But it seems like almost every exec that you run into thinks that he knows how to make a horror film. And it doesn’t work that way! All I can say is I hope they never get too repressive and that we can do the stuff that we want to do. But it’s hard for an independent like me to do what I want to do anyway, because it generally doesn’t click with what most studios are looking for.”

Copyright 2004 Steve Biodrowski

RELATED ARTICLE: George Romero on “Diary of the Dead”

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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