MONTREAL—What scares George A. Romero, the director credited with creating the modern zombie horror genre with his landmark “Night of the Living Dead”?
“Rob Ford,” he says, bursting into laughter.
The New York-born Romero, who moved to Toronto about a decade ago after marrying a Canadian, didn’t elaborate on why the controversial mayor gives him the shivers, but he’s pretty clear that current horror movies aren’t rattling him.
There are “very few horror films that I think are worth their salt,” says Romero, who has directed several other “Dead” movies as well as “Creepshow” and the Stephen King-inspired “Monkey Shines,” among others.
“Oddly, I’m not a big horror fan,” he says. His favourite movie is, in fact, 1951’s fantasy opera “The Tales of Hoffmann.”
“I like the oldies,” Romero says. “I find that the craftsmanship … the amount of time that they had to shoot them, it just makes me drool.”
Romero points out he’s never done a horror movie just for the sake of being horrifying.
“The horror films that I’ve made have been satirical in one way or another or political and I really think that’s the purpose of horror. I don’t see that happening very often.”
Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” was shot for $114,000 in black and white in 1968. Considered the father of the modern zombie flick, its tale of people besieged by shambling, grunting reanimated corpses is considered a landmark film now and has been endlessly examined for its social and political messages.
It is even in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art where it was screened in May with the warning, “Attendees are reminded: NO BITING IN THE AUDIENCE.”
Romero will be a guest of honour at this weekend’s Montreal Comiccon, kicking off his appearance with a screening of “Night of the Living Dead” on Friday.
Fans won’t just be saluting his cinematic legacy, however. He’s also in the midst of writing “Empire of the Dead,” a 15-issue comic book series for Marvel.
Romero doesn’t mind not making zombie movies for a while.
“It seems like everybody’s doing it. I’m happy to be taking a little break from it and doing this.”
The 74-year-old says comic book creation has a different rhythm than making a film. For example, you’re working with an artist and there are often adjustments that have to be made before the book goes to press.
“It’s a surprisingly slow process,” he says. “Writing it is really just the start.”
Romero, who says he was always interested in horror going back to when he was a kid devouring the lurid EC Comics and watching the old “Flash Gordon” sci-fi serials, made “Night of the Living Dead” when he was living in Pittsburgh.
It was there he got his start in movies, while working for local TV station WQED on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He laughs that a short film on tonsillectomies he made for the children’s show launched his horror movie career.
“I often joke about it and say that was the scariest movie I ever made.”
He describes Rogers, who he says gave him his first job as a filmmaker, as “a wonderful guy. Just a great guy.”
But while the soft-spoken children’s show icon was always keen to give people a break, he had his limits when it came to one idea for “Night of the Living Dead.”
“I originally wanted a local actress named Betty Aberlin, who was Lady Aberlin on ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,”‘ Romero says. “He wouldn’t allow that. I originally wanted to use her in the role of Barbra and Fred put his foot down and said no.”
Barbra is the female lead who gradually descends into insanity as the zombies attack the farmhouse where she’s cowering.
That casting decision was where Rogers’ opposition ended, however.
“He loved the film,” Romero says. “He came and loved it. He was always a huge supporter over the years.”
The filmmaker, who points out he never called his monsters zombies in “Night of the Living Dead,” laments the trend to big-budget special effects-driven movies about the undead.
Romero is not a fan of such flicks as “ World War Z,” which depicts a more nimble version of the creatures, although he acknowledges friend Max Brooks’ book is so wide-ranging it would take several movies to do it justice.
Romero also declined a chance to direct an episode of the popular TV drama “The Walking Dead,” calling it a “soap opera” although he says he liked the first few seasons and the graphic novel it’s based on.
He warns that big budgets are no guarantee of success, saying “way too much money” was spent on his “Land of the Dead,” which got overshadowed at the box office by “Batman Begins” in 2005.
Romero says he believes “Night of the Living Dead” has endured because it has a solid story, but even he is surprised by its longevity.
“There’s a story there and it’s not about the zombies,” he explains, pointing out he had considered making the danger in the film a hurricane or the aftermath of an atomic bomb. “The zombies could be anything. They could be any disaster.”
He says he enjoys living in Canada and praises Canadian crews he has worked with because he says they really care about the end product.
“The work ethic is just sensational up here.”