“Night of Living Dead’s” Romero live May 15-16 at Movieside horror fest

Horror/sci-fi fans will be thrilled to death May 15-16 to see legendary “Night of the Living Dead” writer/director George Romero when he makes a rare Chicago appearance at the Movieside Film Festival.

New York native Romero represents the evolution of the modern horror film.

He was in his late twenties when he produced the low-budget, black and white “Night of the Living Dead.” He then went on to a brilliant career with some of the most successful horror films of the 20th Century: “The Crazies” (1973); “Martin” (1978); “Dawn of the Dead” (1979); “Creepshow” (1982) “Day of the Dead” (1985); “Monkey Shines” (1988); “Two Evil Eyes” (1990); “The Dark Half” (1993) and “Bruiser” (2001).

ReelChicago had a rare opportunity to talk to the scaremeister from his Pittsburgh home for some of his takes on independent filmmaking back in the ’70s and today.

RC: What’s the background of your 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead?” (Plot: A group of people hide in a farmhouse from bloodthirsty zombies who can only be killed by a blow to the head.)

ROMERO: We got lucky. We were all basically hippies ? a war and rioting going on in the ’60s, and we were going to change the world but were disappointed it didn’t work out.

Duane Jones in “Night of the Living Dead”

I was consciously trying to make the film look real. Duane Jones, the best actor among our friends, was cast in the role of Ben. That had an impact, too, since African Americans weren’t used in many roles [then]. We got distribution resistance because of Duane’s race. Then we got more resistance when at the end of the film he’s shot and distributors wanted to change the ending. The film does have that personality and reflects what we thought at the time. Those elements worked together to make people realize there was something more to it.

RC: Were you surprised by the success of the film?

ROMERO: Yes. That was the era before MPAA ratings, which was another stroke of luck for us. People like Roger Ebert editorialized as to how far filmmakers would go to make a buck and that gave us a lot of word-of-mouth.

RC: What was “Night’s” financial return?

ROMERO: After we paid off debts, the picture was made for $114,000, and it returned $500,000 in the first five months in distribution. We thought, wow, we got into an easy business here. But the film played only in drive-ins and neighborhood theatres, that was it. So we said, let’s go out and make another movie for $100,000. We made three movies that no one has ever seen. They’re now on video. Today, horror is the genre that, every now and then, gets hot again and you can score money with it. The studios settle back for whatever the weekend grosses and the DVD afterlife brings them.

RC: George, were you involved with the recent remake of “Dawn of the Dead”.

ROMERO: Didn’t have anything to do with it. It wasn’t all that bad. But it lost its message, if you will. Using the mall doesn’t have the same meaning it had in the first “Dawn,” which was filmed in one of the first indoor malls ever built. The remake had pretty good script ideas and action scenes.

RC: But something bothered you about it.

ROMERO: Yes, the zombies were moving so fast. And the camera was even undercranked to make them move faster. It’s much scarier for me to have a dead guy or a mummy walking slowly after you in shadows.

RC: Do you feel a filmmaker can make a good picture for a small budget?

ROMERO: I tell young filmmakers to get out there with a video camera and find a rich uncle and shoot something. You can’t talk your way into the business. You have to get your feet wet and get something in the can. I’d love to do it myself, but I’d have to quit the guilds and basically start over.

RC: What’s the most difficult level for financing?

ROMERO: Mid-level films budgeted around $10 million ? they’re hard to raise money for. If you can call in favor from a star, maybe you can get something made that way. In a certain sense, it’s quicker to make a deal on a $100 million film than a $15 million film. A guy like me, I blocked out of that system, sort of under the Hollywood radar. My biggest budget was around $14 million for “The Dark Half.”

RC: Do you miss making small films?

ROMERO: In a way. I wish I could go back to doing things as a “family” again, but that’s hard when you’re a guild member and work with union crews that bump up the budget. I just can’t run out and make a $100,000 movie again. But I’d love to.

RC: Why don’t you?

ROMERO: Because very few distributors can get theatrical releases for independent films. Back then, independent distributors could get screens for your film. I think what killed the independents was the start of the policy of broad studio openings.

RC: Any recent films scare you?

ROMERO: I thought “Signs” was scary, for what it was, and I liked “The Others.”

RC: What do you do with your time now?

ROMERO:I write for hire. I’m involved on development deals that come close but don’t happen. I have a zombie film that’s going to happen. Maybe get it going for this summer. The story’s about a rock band. We’re looking for rock personalities, not necessarily a real band. We’ll use actors for the band.

RC: Anyone you’d like to work with?

ROMERO: Ed Harris is an old friend and I’d like to do something that Ed might be willing to do ? but not in the horror genre. I think the personality of my stuff would work with the Wachowski brothers. ? Jim Vincent

May 15 “Night of the Living Dead” screens at 9 p.m. followed by George Romero Q&A.

May 16, “Night” at 5 p.m., Romero Q&A, 7 p.m.

May 14, special guest Jack Hill. Many features and shorts.

Movieside Film Festival at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln. See www.movieside.com for a complete schedule.