Romero on why he wanted ‘Empire of the Dead’ to be a comic

(CBR) In the past decade, the real-life zombie invasion of pop culture has been just about as pervasive as any fictional one. With this past Sunday’s season four premiere of “The Walking Dead” once again breaking ratings records, it’s apparent that fascination with the undead continues to spread throughout the population.

Marvel Comics already explored zombies in a big way with its string of successful “Marvel Zombies” miniseries, but their next release genre comes from a true authority on the subject: Pioneering horror director and writer George A. Romero, the man behind nearly 50 years of genre-shaping films including “Night of the Living Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead,” “Day of the Dead” and more.

The book is “Empire of the Dead,” a 15-issue series written by Romero and illustrated by acclaimed “Daredevil” and “Scarlet” artist Alex Maleev, with covers from go-to zombie illustrator Arthur Suydam. Announced earlier this month and first discussed by Romero a year ago, the book doesn’t involve any existing Marvel characters, but rather a story in the director’s tradition of social commentary told through zombie mayhem. As revealed during Marvel’s “Cup O’ Joe” panel this past weekend at New York Comic Con, this one comes with a twist: Along with zombies and humans, a third party — vampires — are also involved.

“It’s a zombie story, of course, but there are other characters in it that are living dead — but they are not zombies,” Romero said during the panel. “[There are] two kinds of living dead, zombies and vampires, trying to survive.”

CBR News spoke with Romero about the series, the decision to base the story in his hometown of New York City and his own background as a lifelong comic book fan.

CBR News: George, before we get into “Empire of the Dead” specifically, I was wondering: Since this is one of your first and definitely your longest comic book series, what’s your personal history with the medium? Did you grow up a fan? And do you see them as influencing your career?

George A. Romero: I did grow up reading comic books, and I loved them. I’ve always loved them. My film, “Creepshow,” was inspired by my early years with those stories. I think it was the same for [Stephen] King, who wrote the script.

Comic books didn’t really make me want to be a filmmaker. They made me want to learn how to be a storyteller.

What made comic books the right format for this story? Along with practical elements like not having to worry about a shooting budget, what can you do with a comic book you can’t do with your movie?

“Empire” was thought of as a comic book from the beginning. It’s not a movie or TV series that I decided to convert to a different format. I wanted to do something different, something on a broader scale, and comic books allow you to stretch things as far as your imagination can go.

What made Marvel the right comic book publisher to tell this story?

[Marvel editor-in-chief] Axel Alonso approached my partner, Peter Grunwald, and me about doing something, right at the time we were talking about a project just like this one. So the timing was perfect. Axel knows all about the living dead. It’s a little scary, actually. He wanted to do what we wanted to do: Take my zombies into a different setting and a different medium and change things up, so “Empire” is a bit of departure.

Let’s talk a bit more about the story. The USA Today article earlier this month suggested that the zombies in this story might be a little more evolved than fans are used to seeing. Is that a fair assessment?

Yes, it is. You know, humans, living humans, aren’t all the same as each other, so why should zombies be? They’re not so different from you and me, except for being dead, of course. They have their own personalities, their own strengths and weaknesses, their own memories of the kind of people they used to be. So what if those memories started to reawaken? The living dead would become even more individualistic. And formidable.

The series is set in New York City — since you’ve never set a movie there, how much are you enjoying telling a story taking place in NYC?

New York is my hometown. It’s a lot of fun to revisit it, in real life and in fiction. The setting was important for this story. I wanted a place that would be familiar to everyone, but that I could portray in a different way. The city doesn’t look apocalyptic. Actually, I think that word is sometimes used too much to describe my work. In “Empire,” New York is New York. It’s just adapted itself to the times in some unexpected ways.