George Romero is glad that the fast-moving undead creatures of films like 28 Days Later and I Am Legend have revived interest in the horror genre he all but created back in 1968 with the release of Night of the Living Dead. But zombies as track stars? They're not for him.
"Forget about it," says Romero, 68, who's on the phone from Los Angeles to promote his latest zombie saga, Diary of the Dead. "First of all, it's not scary to me. ... I grew up on Christopher Lee's mummy; he just walked across the room, and you could blow him full of holes, but he kept on coming. Michael Myers, in the Halloween film, he never ran, he just kept walking toward you. To me, that's a lot scarier.
"Aside from that," he adds, "it doesn't make any sense. These guys, they're stiffs, they're dead. They haven't taken out memberships to a gym. It's not the first thing they think about when they stand back up."
Of all the people in the world, Romero may be the only one who can talk with an air of authority about the rules of zombie biology. Night made him a cult hero almost overnight at a time when American horror films seemed threatened with extinction, shunted aside by the gothic creepiness that permeated the movies of Britain's Hammer Films. Since then, he's revived his undead for a handful of sequels, including Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005). Fans still flock to his films, fellow directors still pay homage to his creations, and the dead ... well, they just keep on coming.
For his part, Romero refuses any credit for originality, insisting he was simply building on what had come earlier. The real groundwork was done decades before he came along, by people like producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, whose 1943 collaboration, I Walked with a Zombie, is a classic from what is still regarded as the Golden Age of Hollywood horror. If anything, all he did was bring the horror stateside, Romero insists.
"Zombies, to me, were those guys in the Caribbean, doing Bela Lugosi's grunt work for him," he says. "I guess what I did was make the neighbors dead."
What Romero does take credit for, however, is using zombie films as social and political commentary - cautionary tales about blindly following leaders, warnings about rampant and mindless consumerism (in Dawn of the Dead, the zombies laid siege to a shopping mall), exhortations for people to think for themselves.
In Diary, Romero takes aim at today's video culture and the intellectual laziness he believes it perpetuates. The film follows a group of film students as it tries to make its way home as zombies are taking over. Throughout the film, an aspiring director catches the students' progress on video. For him, reality has become restricted to what he can see through his lens or what he can post on his blogs.
"If Hitler were alive today," Romero says, only half-jokingly, "he wouldn't have to go into the town square. He could just throw up a blog, and he'd have millions of followers. Any lunatic out there, advancing any radical idea - if it sounds halfway reasonable, he's going to get a million followers."
People, he warns, "rather than look into issues, they'd rather look up from their glasses of beer and believe whomever they're listening to. It's easier."
Most of the current crop of films, Romero laments, have no such greater intentions. He enjoyed part of director Zack Snyder's 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, especially some of the comic touches he added. But after the first 15 minutes, he says, the film became nothing more than just another action flick.
"It just didn't feel like it was motivated," he says. "It didn't feel like it existed because of something that anybody wanted to say about society."
That sounds awfully heavy for a guy who's made a career out of dead people who munch on the living. But that's key to Romero's charm and perhaps his lasting appeal. Intent as he is on ascribing an underlying meaning to his films, he refuses to get all ponderous about it.
"I'm having fun, man," he says, and then lets out one of his frequent laughs. "I'm happy as a clam, having just as much fun as ever."