In 1986, George A. Romero–one of my heroes–released the third film in his original “Living Dead” trilogy, Day of the Dead (following Night and Dawn). The previous two films were both classics, and popular successes. They were also about as different from each other as two films could be. So I, like every other horror fan, was eager to see what he had in mind next.
We didn’t see it coming.
Day of the Dead embodies its decade as surely as the others did their own. As such, it took a little distance for people to appreciate it both for what it was, and what it had to say about its time. It’s neither as ground-breaking as Night, nor as rollicking as Dawn. Instead it’s grim, hellishly claustrophobic, and a scathing indictment of human nature in a crisis. It’s also a pinnacle of practical zombie effects, features a unique calypso-tinged score, stars one of the best female heroes in any genre, and has the most suspenseful climax of any of the series.
Lee Karr’s upcoming book The Making of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead goes into exquisite detail about the film’s creation, and he was kind enough to answer some questions about it.
First, the basics: why an entire book on the making of Day of the Dead, which conventional wisdom considers the least successful, artistically and commercially, of Romero’s original trilogy? How long did it take you to put it together?
Well, Day of the Dead holds a special place in my heart. It was the “gateway drug”, if you will, which led to my addiction to George Romero’s films. I discuss this in the book’s preface, but I discovered Day of the Dead when I was 13 years old watching Late Night with David Letterman one evening and Tom Savini was on the show plugging the film and the effects in it. That viewing would change it all for me: before that I despised anything with blood and gore in it; after that I was a zombie fan boy!
As for why I decided to write a book about the film, it’s simple: no one ever had. For years I’d always hoped that someone would put together a making of book about the film similar to Paul Sammon’s Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner. In fact my original title was Compromised Vision: The Making of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead, but the publisher dropped the first part. I wanted something in-depth and thorough, something that would quench my thirst for information about this movie. So, in 2010 I decided that if I was to ever see such a book I would have to do it myself. I had friendships and relationships with a lot of people who worked on the film already: Greg Nicotero, Lori Cardille, George Romero, Terry Alexander, Michael Gornick, etc… Greg provided me with stacks of paperwork and notes he had kept from the filming and a lot of the key cast & crew let me interview them and were candid and open because they knew me and trusted me. I interviewed over 110 people from the production, everyone from Romero himself to Salah Hassanein to the actors to the makeup effects crew to background zombie extras. There were only a few people who turned me down for interviews. But most of the people who did agree were happy to talk about the experience and genuinely seemed to have fond memories of it.
So, technically the book began in early 2010. But really the seeds were sown the night I saw Savini on Letterman in 1985.
Having read Romero’s original script, I’ve always been a bit glad he had to do a rewrite and bring the scale down to something closer to the other two prior films. How do you feel about it, and how do the people you spoke to for the book feel about it?
Honestly, I would have preferred the original storyline. That’s where Romero saw the story going in his mind and therefore it should have finished up that way. But that’s not to say I don’t love the film we got, because obviously I do! I think part of the allure of this film for me is realizing what George really wanted to do and how epic that vision was. The finished film is a compromised work so that fact alone generates interest and fascination. At least for me it does.
And as for the cast and crew’s thoughts: Lori Cardille and I discuss this in the book and as far she is concerned she’s glad it worked out the way it did because it allowed for more characterization. But some of the makeup effects guys really preferred the original script, especially Greg Nicotero.
The character of Sarah on screen is pretty much what Romero put in the script. Again, this is something that is touched on in the book. Lori had a big desire to play the character differently, but she was an inexperienced film actress at that time and just did what was asked of her by George. However, there was one moment that she went to George with and expressed a desire to add something to and it was the scene right after she cuts off Tim DiLeo’s arm. In the script after the soldiers leave she exchanges a short line with Terry Alexander’s character, John, and then it moves into them taking care of Miguel in the trailer. Lori wanted to add some emotion and humanity to her character because she was always so strong and so tough throughout the film. So that little moment of her breaking down and crying as John hugs her was because of Lori Cardille’s desire to add to her character. And it was a great choice, by the way. But this sort of thing happened with other actors during the filming as well, most notably Howard Sherman. George fostered this sort of atmosphere with his actors.
What was the most interesting thing you learned about the film that isn’t generally known?
This is an easy one and there are two that immediately come to mind. One was the relationship between George Romero and [co-producer] David Ball. I won’t give away anything here, but the dynamic between these guys was amazing to me. Hearing Ball’s remarks about George was shocking (a lot of Ball’s quotes were removed by the publisher because they were afraid of being sued). And second was the strained relationship between Romero and Gornick, which was just sad to hear as a fan, frankly.
Lee Karr is a devoted fan of the films of George A. Romero, in particular Day of the Dead, and has formed close friendships with many of the films cast and crew. Over the years he has contributed photos and liner notes for DVD and Blu-Ray releases in both the U.S. and Japan for Day of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead. He has written for magazines including Horrorhound and Famous Monsters of Filmland, and previously interviewed George A. Romero for homepageofthedead.com. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is his first book.
The Making of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead will be released on August 19. 2014.