Diary of the Dead is a Return to Low-Budget Zombie Roots

Few filmmakers have changed the face of a genre as decisively as George A. Romero did with the release of Night of the Living Dead – a socially conscious, but pessimistic, horror movie that had a creative impact to match its long commercial life. Romero kept himself busy during the 1970s with well-regarded one-offs like The Crazies, Knightriders and his personal favorite, the quasi-vampire movie Martin, but he remains best known for Night and its two sequels, Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). After a long hiatus from the zombies, Romero returned to their stories in 2005 with Land of the Dead, at a reported $15 million his most generously budgeted feature to date.

But instead of capitalizing on that move forward to bigger projects, Romero decided to return to low-budget, run-and-gun filmmaking with Diary of the Dead, a handheld yarn shot on a 20-day schedule with Panasonic HDX900 and HVX200 camcorders. “I did Land of the Dead, and I liked it well enough, but it seemed like it had lost touch with its roots,” Romero told journalists at a roundtable interview session promoting the new film. “All of a sudden it was approaching Thunderdome [referring to the third, most lavish, Mad Max film] or something. And I said, ‘Man, this isn’t where I started.’ I saw it having to get bigger, and I didn’t want to do that.”

This time around, Romero’s commentary is aimed at the YouTube generation: it’s about a bunch of college film students on the run who plan to share their verità© footage of the zombie apocalypse with the world by uploading it to the Internet. “It is about people becoming reporters,” Romero noted at the roundtable. “I guess there’s a collective subconscious. You’ve got Redacted, you’ve got Cloverfield, you’ve got Vantage Point. Everybody seems to be aware of this camera that’s on us. It’s like, ‘I am a camera.’ Everybody’s a camera these days.”

Film & Video sat down with Romero last week to talk about his first video shoot, staying on time and budget, and the perils of the director’s cut.

FILM & VIDEO: At the roundtable interview, you claimed that making your first movie in video was really all in a day’s work, and that it didn’t bother you to give up film.

GEORGE A. ROMERO: It doesn’t. I love the look of film, but it’s hardly even detectable these days. And certainly the general audience, I think, doesn’t have any sense of that, you know – can’t tell the difference between live television and a movie on television. So I don’t think it’s damaging. It’s all storytelling, anyway.

The real object when you’re on the set is to get off the set as quickly as possible. And these technologies should enable you to do that.

So you were never frustrated looking at the image, thinking, “Ah, I wish I had gotten that on film”?

Never. Never. You can shoot it flat. You don’t see it ‘ that’s the one thing. When you’re on the monitors looking at your dailies it looks, ugh, it looks flat. But you can go in and sculpt it. You can play with it, put shadows on it, do whatever you want to do. And that’s great. It enables you to work that much more quickly, and that’s the important thing.

You had done a DI before, for Land of the Dead, so you knew what that was like.


But did you run any tests with footage using the handheld

cameras just to make sure you were comfortable? To make sure you felt, “Yes, absolutely, we can get everything with these.”

Yeah, we did. [Laughs.] For a lot of reasons. The DP was testing lights, testing how much strobing he would get with certain movement. How seasick were we going to make people? We were worried about that, so we ran a few tests. But that was it. We were committed to the technique. We knew we were going to do some form of it. The question was how much movement. How far should we go with it?

We sort of stabilized it as we went along. The opening scenes, are the most herky-jerky. So we sort of seduce you with that, and then we got a little more stable and hopefully [the difference] is not too noticeable.

And you brought in a second camera.

And we brought in a second camera.

So you could have edits. And you had one of your characters compose music [for the finished, presumably uploaded film]. Was that something that developed over time? Were you originally going to do pure first-person [shooting]?

We thought about it, but then almost right away we said, “It’s just not going to play.” But these are film students. They could use a music library, they could download music off the net. They could do anything they want to do. And Debra [the film’s main character] would finish this, and try to make it as “professional” as possible. So we relied on that all through the shoot. Really all we wanted to do was shoot the principal action, and do all that finishing work later.

We were screwing around with voice tracks. We played with Debra’s narration and all the newscaster tracks. It was just us doing the voices – me, my partner Peter [Grunwald] and the editor [Michael Doherty]. My girlfriend did some of the female voices. We were playing with that right down to the end. And then all of a sudden we had a soundtrack that was just us. All our voices. So that’s when we started to call people and see if they wanted to do it – Steve and Quentin. [Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, Simon Pegg, and Guillermo del Toro are among the film’s voice cameos.]

Working with the digital cameras, what else did that affect besides the speed of being able to know that you could get certain lighting effects in post? As far as performance, I know some directors like to have the camera run as people go through a scene multiple times.

Well, we couldn’t do that. I mean, we were shooting these long takes with a lot of choreography, and there was no way. When you’re shooting a conversation, sure, you could do that. Tell an actor, just do it a dozen times so that you’re comfortable with it. But you can’t do it when you’re shooting these incredibly long, choreographed shots. So we had to just – we would rehearse it, the actors would rehearse it, and there was more rehearsal for camera and lighting than there was for the cast. Because you know, you had to miss that light, and miss this, move the light, swing this way, and then the stuntman ducks down, you know? We were moving things under the lens ….

It was more complicated in terms of the space you had to envision. With films you’re usually composing single shots inside a frame, but with this it was more of a three-dimensional, almost theatrical space.

Yeah, and it was a game. You know, “OK, stand here with this light. When the camera moves this way, duck, and come over here.” It was all kinds of little tricks like that.

The long tracking shot through Debra’s house, into her garage and back out – how many takes did it take to get that?

I think we maybe shot six or seven. I don’t really remember, but it was in that neighborhood.

Not an insane number.

No, not at all. And we never blew it because of the actors. It was always us that blew it somehow. “Saw that light.” “Saw the mic.”

There’s one of the shots with a zombie attacking one of the kids, and you’ve got a cut from one camera to a reverse shot from the other camera, and the kids holding the cameras are in both shots, just sort of standing there with blank expressions while this violence takes place. So you’re kind of playing with that idea of what you might see in a shot.

A little bit, sure. And that’s thematic in it. They’re just watching. Down to the end, Jason [the student filmmaker who carries the first camera] was just shooting, you know. Just shooting. And it winds up costing his life.

Can you talk more about staying on budget? Any tips for money-challenged filmmakers?

There are no tips, man. There are no tips. You just have to be responsible. First of all you have to know what things cost. You have to know the time-money equation, you have to know how to figure that out, and you really need to be on top of it all if you want to stay on budget. Most young filmmakers are not in Spielberg’s situation, where he can call up and say, “The shark didn’t work.” No young filmmakers are going to have that kind of luxury. I know a lot of people who get started with all good intentions and theoretically have enough money to finish a project but then blow it here and there and everywhere else just by not paying enough attention. And then the project doesn’t get finished, or you have to rush through it or you have to cut too much out.

You always – I’ve rarely been in situations where I haven’t wound up having to say, “OK, we don’t have time to shoot that. Let’s cut it out. Screw it.” Land of the Dead was nothing but that. Almost every day we had to cut something out that I wanted to shoot. The main thing is to be in a position to make your own decisions about that. Even if you don’t have final cut, what I try to insist on is being able to determine what gets cut if something needs to be cut. Half the time, if you leave that up to somebody else, they’ll cut stuff that you really think is at the heart of it. And that’s always the worst, when somebody else makes the decisions of what to cut.

On this one, was there a lot of stuff you had to cut?


Was that partly because, working on the script, you just knew what the scope was going to be?

No, we just were very deliberate about it. We knew exactly where we were going. Everybody who worked on the film knew exactly what the parameters were, and everybody just pulled it off. Nobody dropped the ball. There wasn’t a scene that we didn’t shoot, not a single thing that we had to cut while we were in production. And very little was cut out – really just trims. There was no scene that we wound up cutting out of this movie.

It’s got to be the closest you’ve gotten on a project to actually getting everything on screen.

Pretty much, yes.

[Producer] PETER GRUNWALD: [Pipes up unexpectedly.] Except for the nude love scene in the pool.

GR: Oh, heh heh heh. Oh, that!

F&V: I’ve got to say, the introduction of the mute Amish farmer [in Diary of the Dead] is an early candidate for scene of the year.

PG: [To Romero] You almost cut that!

F&V: Really?

GR: I wanted to cut that scene. I went back and forth on it right up until the last minute.

F&V: Have you seen it with an audience?

GR: Yeah, I have.

F&V: And what did you think of the crowd reaction?

GR: Now I want it in! [Grins, laughs.]