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Zombie king puts us under his spell

Zombie-movie master George Romero is director of
Susan Wloszczyna USA Today

Robert Rodriguez will never forget his first time. Or his second, for that matter.

“I saw ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in high school, and it freaked me out,” the “Sin City” director says of his initial exposure to the stomach-churning nightmare world of zombie auteur George A. Romero.

“Then ‘Dawn of the Dead.’ I remember trying to eat chips and dip while watching it, to see if I could. I couldn’t get five minutes in. I had to put it aside.”

Rodriguez might not have been able to finish his snack, but he did develop a taste for graphic gore – as anyone who has seen his vampire orgy “From Dusk Till Dawn” can attest.

Romero, 65, who reawakened the zombie genre with his still-shocking black-and-white directing debut, 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” is as sneaky as his shambling flesh eaters when it comes to grabbing hold of a viewer’s psyche.

You think you can just shake him off. But before you know it, he creeps up on you and – CHOMP – you’ve been bitten by the zombie bug.

Prepare to be bitten again. Thanks to a zombie revival with such films as “Resident Evil,” “28 Days Later” and last year’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead” – which nearly earned back its $28 million budget during its first weekend – Romero has gotten a chance to add a fourth chapter (for a whopping-for-him $17 million price tag) to his continuing saga of a virulent plague of famished fiends.

After a 20-year lag since his last zombie film, 1985’s “Day of the Dead,” his much-awaited “Land of the Dead” arrives in theaters today.

Rodriguez is just one of the filmmakers who have developed a frightful appetite for Romero’s pulpy brand of horror and feel compelled to make their own exercises in terror. Call them the spawn of the “Dead.”

Long before he won scads of Oscars for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Peter Jackson did a zombie film. In fact, 1992’s “Braindead” has been declared the bloodiest film ever made.

What gave him the sick idea to have his hero attack a house full of waddling corpses with a lawn mower? Blame Romero.

” ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is a landmark,” Jackson says from the New Zealand set of his remake of “King Kong,” due in December. “I saw it four times in one week.”

The list of directors inspired by Romero reads like a who’s who of modern horror masters: Sam Raimi, Tim Burton, Danny Boyle, Quentin Tarantino, Clive Barker, John Carpenter, John Landis, Wes Craven, Guillermo Del Toro.

Beyond the rich and established, a generation of filmmakers in their 20s and 30s also fell under his gruesome spell.

Edgar Wright, 31, the British director and co-writer of last year’s zombie spoof and Romero homage “Shaun of the Dead,” says he first saw “Dawn” as a teenager and the movie left its mark on him.

“There is a back story and a sadness that marks (Romero’s) stuff,” he says. “It contains so many other elements – the political stuff, the satirical stuff, the pathos, the humor – that other horror films don’t have.”

As for Romero’s new film, “This is like ‘Star Wars’ for horror fans,” declares Eli Roth, 33, the director of 2002’s “Cabin Fever,” a Romero-influenced tale about friends on a camping trip beset by a flesh-eating virus.

And just as “Star Wars” lovers will always remember George Lucas’ Star Destroyer that sweeps overhead at the start of the 1977 original, so, too, those who revere “Dawn of the Dead” forever will recall how a spinning helicopter blade neatly lopped off a zombie’s head at the beginning of the movie.

“I now know the helicopter blades were animated into the scene later and (pioneer zombie effects artist) Tom Savini took off the dude’s head by using a fake extension attached to a fishing line and running with it,” says Eric Vespe, 24, who co-wrote the vampire short “Blind,” which made the festival rounds.

“But I don’t believe it. I think they killed that man still to this day.”

Romero, who often speaks to film classes, attends conventions and offers encouragement to his followers, is tickled that he has touched so many young people.

“The amazing thing for me is I’m among the filmmakers whose work young people rent,” he says. “Hey, I made a black-and-white film. Man, that makes me old. But it is tremendously gratifying to have a video afterlife.”

Asked whether a man who lives off the dead might not be considered weird, he says: “Maybe. But I see it as a way to say some things, just indicate what my opinions are. I like the idea of trying to reflect the times a little bit and tell stories about people who are missing the boat.”

“Land of the Dead” is steeped in post-9/11 paranoia and class warfare. Universal Pictures, the first major studio to distribute a “Dead” outing, is so confident that it pushed up the movie’s opening from the haven of Halloween to the competitive summer season.

“There seemed to be an opportunity to sneak into the marketplace with a little sleeper,” studio vice chairman Marc Shmuger says.

To an unwavering maverick like Romero, having a studio involved for once is a necessary evil – one that requires an R rating. (His other “Dead” films are unrated.)

But the true master he answers to are his fans, whose enthusiasm has kept him going through the dry patches. The last film he directed was 2000’s little-seen “Bruiser.”

“George knows his audience, and he knows there are thousands of ravenous fans who want to see this film,” says “Land of the Dead” effects supervisor Greg Nicotero.

When 14 minutes of “Land” previewed at May’s Cannes Film Festival, the reception for the gray-ponytailed Romero was rousing enough to wake the dead.

“It was the longest standing ovation I’ve ever been a part of, and I’ve done good work,” says longtime Romero lover John Leguizamo, who leads a rebellion against the ruling elite in “Land of the Dead.”

“It’s beautiful to see people acknowledging him. He’s like those old artists, like Bob Dylan up there, with his dungarees.”

The female lead in “Land of the Dead,” Asia Argento – daughter of Italian horror master and Romero collaborator Dario Argento – took particular pride in the reception for her director.

“It was like seeing my father up there,” she says. “I have my own theory on why those who run the studios are allowing people like George to make movies now. When they were young, they watched his movies. They understand more than the previous generation.”

Romero says he already has another idea cooking for a fifth “Dead.”

Will he ever tire of his needy creatures? “Oh, no,” he says.

“Guys like George have made amazing films and generated millions of dollars and don’t get the respect they deserve,” says Rob Zombie, the heavy-metal rocker and filmmaker whose ultra-violent “Devil’s Rejects” opens July 22.

“It’s a drag to see things that are pure garbage being handed awards,” Zombie says. “They’re still talking about ‘Dawn of the Dead.’ Is anyone still talking about ‘The English Patient?’ “