Going Guerrilla with Zombies

Holly Million November 23, 2010

Just like a hungry zombie, a filmmaker’s need for cash never seems to die. To gain some insights into both money and zombies, I interviewed fright-film director George A. Romero, one of the nicest human beings and a true Pittsburgher, at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Here’s what he had to share about his own personal history with indie film fundraising.

SF360: Night of the Living Dead had a $40,000 budget. How did you go about getting the money together?

George Romero: Actually, it was $70,000 cash, although the total budget was $114,000. We ended up a little short. It costs less these days to make films than it did back then. That’s the irony. That’s because it was all film back then. We were paying for everything, from dailies, workprints, everything. Now, with all the technology, it’s much easier. But back then, it was easier to get your film shown, because there were all those great independent theaters, like the Warner, in Pittsburgh, which when they weren’t showing Ben Hur 100 nights in a row might show your film. In those days, you could make a business out of taking those slots.

SF360: So at the end, you ran over budget on Night of the Living Dead. How did you cover your costs? With credit cards?

Romero: None of us had any credit cards! We just signed chits and called in favors from all the people we knew. We were very lucky. People just loaned us things and said, 'If you ever make any money, you can pay us back.' The film returned $600K to $700K in its first release, and we paid every nickel back. Of course, we had 28 total investors, so when you spread the profit out over 28 investors, there’s not much of a return.

SF360: Land of the Dead, which you released in 2005, had a much bigger budget. What was that process like?

Romero: The process was easier because I didn’t have to convince some dentist on Smithfield Street to give me money. In fact, it came down to two companies dueling for it. In the end, we had a $19 million budget, but we weren’t rich. By comparison, somebody made a remake of my Dawn of the Dead that had a budget of $34 million. We were still doing it guerrilla style, fighting the elements, freezing. We got great reviews for the film, but some of my fans were worried, wondering where we were going. We had Dennis Hopper in the film, after all. And I started to wonder, too. We began in a farmhouse, then went to a mall, which was a little bigger, and now we were going Thunderdome.

SF360: From a creative perspective, what would you rather work with—a big budget or a low budget?

Romero: I would rather work with no money at all! Universal was great to work with and gave us creative control, but we were forced to go in a certain direction due to sales mandates. This experience gave me an idea about merging media in a film, because I was seeing how people are getting sucked in by media. Everybody has a camera now. That’s what turned into Diary of the Dead. On that film, we had such limited time and the budget was so low, we said, 'If we just shoot all the principal footage and then worry later about inserting other material, we will have been successful.'

SF360: In Diary of the Dead, you chose to use real video footage of such things as Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and other actual events to represent the outer world’s descent into chaos. By doing that, you really blur reality and fantasy.

Romero: That was the goal. We were still messing around inserting things one week before answer print. In the hospital scene, we use real police band stuff from September 11.

SF360: Many people have praised Night of the Living Dead for its realism, saying this contributed to its shock value. How much of that realism was your conscious aim and how much was a result of your limited funds?

Romero: Night of the Living Dead was a complete accident. We cast an African American in the lead role because he was the best actor we found. Chilly Billy Cardill, the local journalist who hosted Chiller Theater, heard about our shooting the film and offered to help. He was so supportive and eventually was in the film. Without his help, we never would have had a helicopter. But we consciously chose to make the last 15 minutes of the film look like newsreel and create the sense of the world just crashing in.

SF360: What advice do you have for up-and-coming filmmakers for how to succeed with their fundraising process? What’s most important to know?

Romero: Just make the movie. Don’t worry about the money. You can’t tell people you know how, you have to go out and show them. The money will come later. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you have a rich uncle. But make sure you show some sensitivity, some affection for the medium. Now I go to these horror conventions, and I get handed 100 student films and 95 of them are zombie pictures. And I say, 'Oh, my God! What have I done?!'

SF360: You’ve created a monster.

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