Five decades of the living dead
by Carmen Diotaiuti, Cinecittà News

It all happened that night

"Dario Argento is a god my God," blares the endorsement by Giullermo Del Toro on the cover of the latest novel by the scaremeister, Horror, a collection of dark fairy tales that marks Argento’s literary comeback, along with his recent foray into the Dylan Dog universe. And the ‘divine’ Argento himself "the Colossus of horror" was on hand for a talk at IULM on the second day of Noir in Festival, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the film that revolutionized the genre: Night of the Living Dead (1968) by George A. Romero (which had a screening at Noir yesterday). Argento gamely fielded question after question in the packed venue, in a discussion that looked at how zombies changed society - and audiences.

Zombies came to the big screen in three different phases, explained Gioachino Toni as he analyzed the cinematic history of the zombie character. The first was the 1932 release of White Zombie, inspired by the voodoo tradition and culture of Haiti and launching the idea of the depersonalized slave, unable to rebel. The makeover of the icon dates to 1968, in the hands of debut filmmaker Romero, who turned zombies into a metaphor for the strained social relationships and rebel spirit of that decade. The first installment of one of film history’s most famous trilogies would be followed by Dawn of the Dead (1978), which saw the collaboration of Dario Argento and revisited the zombie as a near-living, decomposing being, a creature with no master who acted seemingly irrationally.

Since then, forty years have passed and zombies have become complex icons with different nuances and metaphorical meanings each time around, right up to their latest incarnation in the wildly popular TV series The Walking Dead, based on Robert Kirkman’s comic books. This series belongs to the third phase, inaugurated by 28 Days Later by Danny Boyle, a film that shifts the focus to the infected zombie who spreads its disease and sparks an epidemic. It’s a zombie who moves faster, more voraciously, in keeping with the transformation of society itself.

The truth is, the metaphorical significance of the undead takes myriad forms. The zombie holds up a mirror to others and ourselves; to a humanity become lifeless, or else a humanity looking for something to hold on to; the otherness of those who are different; or the diseased offspring of a society, which will turn against and destroy its maker. Dario Argento himself, Romero’s long-time friend and collaborator, had a hand in creating the above associations, when he worked on the second film in the Living Dead series, Dawn of the Dead, and managed to have its world premiere at Turin in 1978. Argento co-produced the film and handled its distribution in Europe; had a hand in the score (composed by the band Goblin, for the European version); did some of the editing and even had Romero stay with him in Rome, with much of the script being written at Argento’s home. Argento generously responded to all the questions concerning the film that not only became a cult classic of the horror genre, but also tussled with the censors in Italy, many scenes getting cut, while it was released intact in France and America.

Where did the idea come from of setting Dawn of the Dead at the Monroeville Mall? Was this already your exposé of capitalism, as many have interpreted it to be?
That was Romero’s idea; he lived in Pittsburgh, where a friend of his had opened a large shopping center nearby. The friend asked him to make a film to launch the mall, and he jokingly agreed to it. So when we met in New York, Romero duly showed me his outline for the story, set in this spectacular mall, and we decided to make a film about commerce and consumerism, symbolically linked to the image of the supermarket. From the very start, we all knew exactly which message we wanted to convey.

Could you share with us a few anecdotes about the set itself?
We were filming at night, when the mall was closed, roughly between 10 pm and 7 am. We were mostly staying at a hotel nearby, but during the shooting there was a huge storm that stranded us in the mall itself for quite some time. We had to stay there for days on end, and it was interesting, fascinating, really, to film and then go to sleep all together in the same place. George was quite pleased with the situation.

What about the writing of the film?
Romero was in Rome, at my invitation, when he wrote Dawn of the Dead. I actually had a lot to do with the script since I would go visit him every day and we would talk about his progress.

When you’re writing a zombie film that has so many victims, how do you decide who dies next, and when?
That’s something that comes out of the scriptwriting. Sometimes it’s just because a bad character has to die. In the second episode of Dawn of the Dead, there are victims and much else: people fall in love, have attachments, get jealous, and it’s all quite ironic.

Could you tell us something about your own contribution to the editing and the soundtrack, for which there were two different versions, one for the European market and one for the American market?
We didn’t really think about two different audiences for the music; it’s just that there were two different styles, and both versions are being sold in America right now. We talked about this at length, but then Romero himself admitted that my version was lovely. I do think my music was better, and even the editing was interesting because the film was a bit shorter. Romero had no real interest in music; he just used stock pieces for his version, nothing special. What I used, however, was an original score by the band Goblin, which is the only sound you associate with the film today.

After Romero’s films there would be hundreds more zombie pictures…
Romero was irritated by the fact that there were so many of them, some of which were just imitations, while others tried to alter slightly what he had actually done. He was unhappy at being the inventor of the zombies and then everyone else did the exact same thing. In fact, Romero was the founder of the tradition; the films made before 1968 had nothing to do with the image of zombies today.

And would you have liked to make a Dario Argento zombie film?
At one point in my life I toured the French Caribbean islands, which are said to have real undead populations. To try to understand the phenomenon I even spoke with doctors who treated these alleged zombies. Now I couldn’t swear that they were genuine living dead, but they sure looked like it. In the Caribbean I also heard the story about salt, which brings back a zombie’s memory and makes them become very evil. After this long trip I had a lot of ideas on the subject, but I never made a zombie picure to avoid stepping on George’s feet and creating problems for him. Even though my picture would have been closer to the Haitian tradition of White Zombie then to Romero’s films.

What do you think of Lucio Fulci’s film, Zombie 2: The Dead are Among Us?
It’s got this fantastic beginning, with the ship coming into port. I got to know Fulci at a festival near the end of his life. We were going to make a film together. He was in a wheelchair, accompanied by a fan. It seemed absurd to me that he couldn’t move, and I though I’d like to produce a film with him. But the film never got made because Fulci died a few weeks before the filming started, from missing a shot of insulin. His death was practically unnoticed by the press and the film industry. I went to see his body and I was the only one there. Nobody ever came, and no guard was there either. I tell you, it sent chills up my spine.

It all happened that night
It all happened that night
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