Half a century ago, George A. Romero’s midnight-movie hit Night of the Living Dead invented the zombie genre as we know it and turned American independent filmmaking on its head. Made on an ultralow budget with a small crew, it tells the chilling tale of a ragtag group of strangers forced to hole up in a Pennsylvania farmhouse as a horde of ravenous ghouls beckon from outside. A few years after its 1968 premiere, Romero was asked in an interview about the problems he faced while making the movie. His response: “Primarily, to forget we were making a horror film. I just wanted them to appear as though they were worried about a snowstorm.” It’s a nonchalantly revealing reply, one that gives insight into the late director’s singular approach and how he infused even the most unrealistic situations with lived experience.
It’s also a sentiment that calls to mind the ethos of the latest auteur to pay homage to Romero, Jim Jarmusch, whose new film The Dead Don’t Die puts his signature idiosyncratic spin on the zombie movie. Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, and Chloë Sevigny alongside a gang of past collaborators, such as Iggy Pop, Eszter Balint, Steve Buscemi, Rosie Perez, and Tom Waits, this (un)deadpan comedy centers on a small town whose quiet streets are torn to shreds when the inhabitants of a local cemetery start rising from the grave. Jarmusch treats these creatures with a comic matter-of-factness, and as in Romero’s films, they are more “dead neighbors” than monsters.
Following its opening-night premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last month, The Dead Don’t Die is making its way to theaters nationwide this week. For the occasion, Jarmsuch took some time to talk on the phone with me about the impact of Romero’s work and how Night of the Living Dead served as a “godmother” to his film.
When did you first encounter Romero’s work? He isn’t someone I’ve heard you reference in the past, but clearly he’s had a big impact on this new film?
I saw Night of the Living Dead in the early seventies—not when it came out, but not long after that. Then it became a cult film and I saw it several times, which led me to Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead and eventually to other films by Romero, like Martin and The Crazies. But the most lasting impressions of his zombie movies, for me, are from Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.
I’m a film nerd, but I’m not an aficionado of the horror genre in particular, so until now I haven’t really referenced Romero, either in my own films or when I’m just talking about films. But of course I’m a big fan. Usually I’m talking about other filmmakers, like Melville or Tarkovsky or Sam Fuller, but I love genres because I like to see what people do using them. They’re like picture frames; you can paint your own thing inside.
I’ve done a number of genre films. I did a black-and-white psychedelic western with Dead Man; Ghost Dog is subverting samurai and hit-man genres; I did a very abstract hit-man movie with The Limits of Control; Only Lovers Left Alive is a love story that’s disguised as a vampire movie; and now I’ve done a zombie movie. I don’t know what’s in store, but I don’t want to do a war movie—no matter how much I love Sam Fuller, I don’t think I would do that.
What drew you to the framework of Night of the Living Dead?
I love the layers you can find inside it. Zombies are an incredibly obvious metaphor, which is why our film is on a lot of levels kind of obvious. It’s a satire, it’s exaggerated, and it’s absurd at certain points. Romero certainly used the zombie metaphor, but I think he was probably less aware of the social consciousness woven into Night of the Living Dead than you might think from seeing it, which is also interesting.
Night of the Living Dead is kind of the godmother to our film. The Dead Don’t Die isn’t a remake, but it’s a sort of homage or extension. As a filmmaker, Romero used the constraints of a very low budget as strengths. The film has crude acting, it has cheap special effects, and it has a deliberate awkwardness in its style that becomes an asset because it underscores the awkwardness of the situation within the movie. I like that very much.
In our movie we tried to use some restraints, like shooting day for night because we were filming in the summer, when nights are short. We also had to do what they call “Poor Man’s Process” for all of our car interiors. We couldn’t afford to tow the car and shoot with the actors in a moving car so we were just on a warehouse stage with lighting effects. And we added backgrounds in later.
Have zombies always been an interest of yours?
Zombies are not my favorite—I prefer vampires—but I know the history of zombies on-screen, and the early zombie films, like White Zombie, are more related to a kind of voodoo idea where people who are not necessarily undead are given over to the power of someone else who then zombifies and controls them. Now, Romero . . . he just threw all of that out, which is why I would call him the postmodern zombie master. Zombies are a kind of modern-day mythology thanks to him. I don’t want to sound too academic, but there’s a suspension of rationalism in Night of the Living Dead. The zombies are drifting away from any kind of identity or meaning. They’re not monsters that come from outside the social structure, like Godzilla or Frankenstein; they are the remnants of that broken social structure. They come from within; they are us. In addition to being monsters, they are also victims, because they didn’t ask to be reanimated.
It’s complicated and amazing to me, what Romero did. The way we think of zombies now—as slow-moving and undead—is because of him. In our film we echo, in very obvious ways, the commodity fetishism and the dead end of capitalism’s goal of endless consumption that he portrays so beautifully.
What did Romero teach you about using this metaphor to explore the state of contemporary society?
Like Night of the Living Dead, the movie is reflective of society, though my true feelings are against having any one vision of people in America. My biggest concern of all is the ecological crisis and our denial of it—people even get upset that you use it in a film. For me it’s very scary. I’m for empathy and the survival of beauty and the mystery of life. I’m not trying to make a film that’s divisive, but it is reflective, certainly as Romero’s films were.
We took from Dawn of the Dead this idea of zombies having a vestigial memory where they’re drawn to locations they once inhabited or objects they once utilized. Also, in Dawn of the Dead, it’s interesting how the female protagonist rejects her subordinate role. Even in Day of the Dead he has a female scientist that’s the strongest character in the film. And of course in Night of the Living Dead the black character is the only one capable of reason, and he’s marginalized by the inherent racism in America, the ironic, tragic ending being that he’s killed by authorities who think he’s a ghoul when in fact he’s a survivor.
Apart from the obvious references to Romero in the narrative, are there specific ways that his films influenced The Dead Don’t Die visually or stylistically?
We did reference Romero all over the place, and we even called our overall production entity “Image Eleven,” after Image Ten, the company that Romero was a part of. I was inspired by the way Romero would mix up how much makeup or wardrobe the zombies were wearing. Sometimes I was inspired just by how they move—and they all move differently. It’s not the classic arms-in-front-of-you, moving-toward-you zombies we’ve seen before. Also, the wardrobe for Romero’s zombies is just ordinary clothes that place them in what they were doing when they were living people—so we used that too.
The only ’68 Pontiac LeMans we could find that had a vinyl top, like in Night of the Living Dead, was white. But we bought it, and then our brilliant property master, Jeff Butcher, researched what the original color of the car in Night of the Living Dead had been and painted it that exact color, “Palmetto Green.” Even though Romero’s film was in black and white, Jeff insisted that it had to be the same color. I love that he did that. I started taking black-and-white photos of it and it looked identical.
I recently read an interview with Romero from the early eighties where he was asked if there was anything that scared him. His biggest fears were not of anything supernatural but of the atomic bomb and random acts of violence. So, I’m wondering: what scares you?
Honestly, what scares me is that nature is declining at unprecedented rates in human history and everybody’s just thinking about what shoes to buy. That scares me a lot.