Monday, February 23, 2009

Speaking of the Dead: An Afternoon with George Romero

'American Zombie'“Do zombies ever get full?”

That was the joke question asked of George A. Romero, director of Night of the Living Dead and all of its zombie-themed sequels, by Michael Felsher, the fellow who moderated a two-hour Q&A session with the director I attended yesterday.

A nearby museum of contemporary photography and film (The Light Factory) had arranged a weekend-long tribute to Romero, with a schedule packed with events. There were screenings of half a dozen films (followed by Q&As with Romero), some sort of zombie-themed costume party on Saturday night, a couple of other sideshows, and the two-hour “One-on-One Seminar” on Sunday afternoon.

I was too busy to commit too much time to the sucker and so opted just to go to the seminar on Sunday as well as watch one of the films, Dawn of the Dead, which I’d never seen in a theater.

As any of you who have ever heard Romero speak (say on DVD commentaries or in interviews) already know, he’s not just an intelligent thinker and commentator on film and culture. He’s also a funny, extremely likable guy who has a lot of enthusiasm both for making films -- and talking about making films.

I guess like many impressionable young boys, I found the horror films of my youth fairly compelling. (I suppose that’s a phenomenon common to any generation.) So I became aware of Romero and his oeuvre early on -- films like Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Crazies (1973), Martin (1977), Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow (1982), Day of the Dead (1985), and others.

Of all of those films and directors, though, Romero is one of the few that I continued to follow and admire after becoming an adult. So when I heard he was coming, I thought I’d check him out.

Romero turned 69 earlier this month. He’s now moved to Toronto, having fully rejected the Hollywood system with which he butted heads for so much of his four-plus decade long career, and now has returned to being a fully “independent” filmmaker. He’s also fully committed himself to making more zombie films (all with “of the Dead” in the titles). A new one -- as yet untitled -- is apparently nearly finished.

“It’s my ticket to ride,” he explained of the “Dead” films. “I have this franchise,” he noted, “I can bring the zombies out of the closet.” (That line got a laugh.) But he’s hardly interested in making the same film over and again. “The movies are not about zombies anymore.... In a way, they never have been. I’m not feeling restricted in any way. I’ve been able to make movies about a lot of different things -- they just all have zombies in them.”

'Night of the Living Dead'If you’ve never seen any of the “Dead” films, you might not be aware that what Romero is saying is true -- while all are based on the same premise of having the dead return to life to feast on the living, all are unique, too, and often concentrate on advancing different social commentaries (e.g., Night’s implicit observations about the family, the civil rights struggle, Vietnam; Dawn’s satire on consumer culture).

“I’ll make ten more,” Romero said, to the delight of the crowd. “I’ll die, come back and make another one.” (That got a big laugh, too.)

Since this is a poker blog, I won’t go on too long with all of the interesting points Romero touched on during the session regarding his various films, the commercial aspects of filmmaking, his creative process, among others. Rather, let me pull out a couple of poker-related moments that came up during the afternoon.

One came during the talk when Romero was discussing his latest film, Diary of the Dead (2007), the fifth in the series. That one focuses on a film student trying to document the crisis and the commentary there is focused largely on the media and how it aggressively shapes our ideas of ourselves.

With reference to Diary, Romero was noting how we’ve gotten to the point where the “media is not just taking over… it’s becoming life!” He alluded to virtual reality technology and research being conducted at various places, including Carnegie Mellon University in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Such research, fueled by corporate dollars, is working on creating comprehensive VR environments (virtual apartments, etc.) in which consumers can “live.”

“It’s like this f*cking gigantic Monopoly game!” Romero mused.

That analogy made me think briefly of being one of hundreds of thousands of folks logged into online poker sites playing one another. I suppose we start to resemble zombies, too, after a while.

'Dawn of the Dead'The only other time I thought of poker yesterday was during the screeening of Dawn of the Dead. There’s a point about two-thirds of the way through the film when a couple of characters are shown playing poker. In the film, a group of four people have managed to escape the zombies momentarily to find refuge in an abandoned shopping mall. They are able to secure the mall and for a brief interlude get to enjoy a kind of Shangri-La-type existence before a gang of marauders on motorbikes arrive to screw everything up.

I actually think this is the part of the film that appeals the most to viewers, this idea of creating a self-contained, worry-free existence such as the characters in the film try to do. Of course, as Romero shows, even once you’ve managed to enclose yourself into such a world, it ain’t gonna satisfy. Not really.

Anyhow, two of the guys play poker and are tossing real hundred dollar bills back and forth, the now-worthless cash having been taken from the bank located in the mall. There were a few chuckles in the crowd, actually, at the sight of the money. In the context of the story (the apocalypse had come), the money meant nothing.

I didn’t think too long about poker then. The bikers arrived shortly afterwards, and there was their threat to focus upon. But afterwards I did consider how for most of us the money is what makes poker interesting, but how we’ll never, ever be satisfied no matter how much we get.

I guess we’re sort of like zombies that way, too. We never get full.

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