When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will go to Heavy Metal! George C. Romero has returned to the family legacy (I’m talking about zombies, of course) to pen a pair of undead-laden tales for the legendary comics magazine. In Cold Dead War with art by German Ponce, inks by Gabriel Rearte, letters by Saida Temofonte, colors by Protobunker Studios and Andrew Dalhouse, and a cover by Diego Yapur and DC Alonso, a battalion of mostly-zombified soldiers must head to South America in order to track down the Nazi officers who have (so far) avoided their comeuppance, while The Rise, with art by Yapur, colors by Alonso, and letters by Temofonte returns to the world of Night of the Living Dead in order to explore the foundations of the hitherto-unexplained rise of the dead!

Cold Dead War is currently available in trade paperback, while The Rise is ongoing, with new installments being released in new issues of Heavy Metal and, thanks to the Heavy Metal: Elements publishing initiative, being collected into their own individual issues (replete with back matter) as well! NeoText got the chance to speak with Romero over the phone to find out more about both zombie comics… but we were careful not to call him sir! He works for a living, after all.

courtesy of Heavy Metal Magazine

AVERY KAPLAN: Both The Rise and Cold Dead War, both feature different artistic teams and very different aesthetics. What was it like seeing your scripts come to life through such distinct artistic perspectives?

GEORGE C. ROMERO: It's almost surreal the first time that you start seeing the sketches come in and you start thinking -- I've been developing this project for what, jeez, it was about eleven years. A little over ten years by the time Matthew Medney and I met, and a little over eleven years by the time I started seeing the first sketches come in from the day I had the original concept. It was humbling, is the best word I can think of. It was unbelievable. I remember I used to just bug Joe Illidge all the time and say, "I'm so excited. I just want to see every stage of it because I want to put these scripts together."

What I would do is I would take my original script page, then I would put the pencil sketch behind it in a script. Then I would put the ink behind it. My early scripts for Cold Dead War and The Rise, I've got these printouts, these printed versions of them at my house, that is literally everything, from the written word all the way through all the stages until the finished comic. Hopefully my son will dig it one day. For me, I was nerding out on it. It was unbelievable. The two different teams and the two different styles, and to just see how these guys take the written word and what it inspires to come out of their pen, humbling is literally the only word I can think of.

KAPLAN: Can you tell us about the origins of The Rise? How did the comic come about, and how did you approach the characters in particular?

ROMERO: It's a long story. I've given elements of the answer throughout the years, but I think it's become more refined into something a little bit easier to go over. The original idea for the rise came after being asked for years to do a zombie film. “Will you do the zombie film?” I used to always just say no, because that was my dad's thing. I was very hell-bent when I was younger on not trying to -- I knew there was going to be enough association as I moved through the career. I didn't want anybody to think that I was just trying to do a zombie movie because I was George's kid when I was young. I always said no.

The Rise; courtesy of Heavy Metal Magazine

Then one day somebody asked me the same question, but they asked it just in a different phrasing. They said, "Look, if you were going to do one, what would you do?" I said, "Let me get back to you." I think I went home that night, and I think over the next 48 hours, I wrote a draft of what became The Rise. I didn't know what to call it. I was calling it “Origins” at the time. I was looking at it, again you have to remember this was years before, Marvel was already doing the Marvel thing, but it was years before Marvel is where Marvel is today.

I was thinking of everything from the standpoint of a true origin story for this creature. That was basically the seed. It became what The Rise is now. It was one of those things that I ultimately eventually did get up the nerve and sent a copy of the screenplay to my dad. He loved it. He sent me back what was probably the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me about anything I ever did. It was this wonderful moment in our father-son relationship. That is basically the origin of how it happened.

KAPLAN: I've read the first three chapters of The Rise. I'm curious if you can give us any hints about what we'll be seeing in the next seven chapters?

ROMERO: I think you're going to see the story come full circle. It's really tough for me to answer that question because we're releasing it in eight-page installments in the Heavy Metal magazine. From the creation standpoint, there's such micro things to look at. There's such micro episodes that it's hard for me to give too much insight without giving it all away. I think what you're going to see in the remaining seven episodes is you're going to see the entire thing come full circle. You're going to see the best and worst of some characters.

Maybe some readers will not be surprised by the actions of some of the characters, but I think at the end of the day we're going to see the whole thing come full circle. Some of the stuff that people have been saying about it has been really, again, humbling is the best word. It's just been amazing to see some of the things people have been saying about it. I'm pretty confident in saying that I'm working my hardest to make sure nobody's let down by the end. I think people are going to see a lot of things that I hope they're really looking forward to seeing.

The Rise; courtesy of Heavy Metal Magazine

KAPLAN: What about Cold Dead War? Can you tell us about the origins of that as well?

ROMERO: Matt called me up and asked me if I would be interested, because we were working on The Rise. He called me up and asked me because it made a lot of sense to him and to the Heavy Metal brand for me to really do a lot of the zombie stuff, at least in the beginning. I of course said I would be honored to do so. That's how the project came about. Then I said, "What are you looking for?" He said, "We're just looking for you to go wild." I said, "That sounds great." I'm sure you can tell from The Rise that I enjoy working in alternate history a lot. I just started going through the history of the world for this period of time. I just went back to him and said, "What do you think about this?" They loved it. That whole arc is out. I think the origin came from wanting to take some zombies in the Heavy Metal universe, and really work in a World War II time frame. That's where the whole going after Nazis and the whole unit-- It's funny because it deals in a World War II time period, but is very inspired by '80s and '90s action movies.

KAPLAN: I find the military aspect of Cold Dead War very interesting. Can you tell us about how you decided to make the veteran relationship run parallel with the undead angle of the story? Did your work with veterans inform the story at all?

ROMERO: It did. I think I've been honored to work with a lot of veterans over the past lot of years in my life with regard to the film industry in general, writing, a lot of writing. When you work with anybody in a one-on-one situation in your writing, or trying to explain how to write, a lot of personal stuff comes out in conversations. Of course that stuff absolutely informed, I think, a lot of the approach that I took. Not to mention one veteran in particular, John McLaren, who we affectionately called Gunny, who actually was my technical consultant. I would call him up at two o'clock in the morning and say, "Hey Gunny, I got a question for you about guns."

We would talk for a while. That was a lot of fun as well. Then with regard to how it all ties in in the story is -- Again, it's tough for me to answer too detailed without violating a few confidentiality things with some folks that I have had the pleasure of working with over the years, but I can tell you there's a lot of veterans that when they come back, there's a lot of feelings that they deal with. A lot of those feelings played directly into the sense of honor, the sense of questioning, finding, maintaining, holding onto humanity once their job is done. It just seemed like a very natural place to put that messaging into the story.

Cold Dead War (variant cover); courtesy of Heavy Metal Magazine

KAPLAN: Another aspect of Cold Dead War that is fascinating is the use of zombies as protagonists. How did you arrive at this creative decision, especially when the undead are so often cast as the antagonists?

ROMERO: When you've got a team of people, they've got to be able to communicate. It really was born out of a little bit more pragmatic of a decision than a lot of people think. When you do anything, especially in a tactical or military world, communication is key with your team. It was interesting to me because the captain obviously evaded being turned, but simply by having him there and not being dead when the shift happened, it essentially created a length of communication between him and these soldiers.

It really just hit me that it made perfect sense. Then what I find a lot when I write is even the craziest ideas, if you embrace them full force and just go headlong into the decision, a lot of times it works out better than sitting there and questioning too hard whether or not the logic behind this decision is going to work, or things like that. For me, it was an easy decision to try, and then it became a clear decision to keep.

KAPLAN: In your appearance on the I Hate Myself Podcast, you mentioned that one of your earliest counterculture escapes were comic bookshops. As a longtime comic book devotee, can you share some of those experiences with us?

Cold Dead War; courtesy of Heavy Metal Magazine

ROMERO: Sure. My parents were divorced when I was young, and so at a very young age my rebellion came out by hopping on a city bus and getting from where I was raised down into the city of Pittsburgh. I was a little kid running around the hard city. You needed a place to go and so you see comic books in the window of a shop, or you see records. You just go in there to get away, and when everything's a little overwhelming. I think the store that really got me was in Pittsburgh, and was called Eide’s.

Just from my first time walking in there, it was a community of people that welcomed me into the shop. I was picking up all the interesting comics of the time, and we all just started talking, listening. It became a place that we go to. I did it, obviously without telling my mother that I was hopping a city bus when I was twelve. It became my go-to rebellion destination, which I think made all of the comics and all of the records and everything in that store speak to me a little bit harder at the time. I think it really helped solidify just the creativity of the comic book space in me, in my DNA at a very young age.

KAPLAN: Also on that podcast, you had mentioned you got into Heavy Metal pretty early?

ROMERO: Oh yes, absolutely. I was born in the '70s: you've got your Dungeons and Dragons stuff, then you've got your Heavy Metal stuff, and then you got your parents saying you can't have this in the house. Then you stash it out in the woods by your place where you go with your friends. Again, Heavy Metal became one of those things that young kids weren't supposed to have, and so it became a kind of street cred. You'd show up with an issue of Heavy Metal and your friends would be like, "Oh man, you got the new Heavy Metal. That's so cool." Then you'd sit and flip through it.

It had all the stuff that our parents didn't want us looking at when we were young. All that did was make us seek it out more. Again, it became part of my creative DNA. It was storytelling the kids had never seen. It was illustrations that even adults back then had never seen. There was all this crazy social nonsense around the brand. Some parents liked it, some parents didn't. It was almost porn, but it wasn't porn. Back then it was this whole cultural thing. I think that Heavy Metal, again, became part of not just mine, I think it became part of the DNA of an entire generation of creative folks and fans.

Cold Dead War; courtesy of Heavy Metal Magazine

KAPLAN: You also mentioned on the podcast that one of your favorite creative avenues outside of writing is cooking. I was curious if you had a favorite recipe or food to cook?

ROMERO: I don't, I love cooking all food. For me it's about the method or techniques. I'm very into smoking foods. I think my favorite thing to do is like open fire cook because I think it involves a level of control and focus, that it's one of those things that, creatively speaking, when you write a comic series or you write a movie, or you make a movie, or any of this stuff, it can be a year or two years to completion. Then what do you do during the time when other people are doing their part and when there's not much you can do to feel like you're creatively moving something along? You've got to fill that creative need. That's, I think, how I developed my passion for cooking.

Then just like anything, you make a meal for people that you love and you put love into it. It's a very creative victory when you get it all right, everything from how you prepare to how you cook it, to the presentation. I think for me open fire cooking is the best for that because it really takes focus. You have to be in the moment, nothing else could bother you, you can't worry about what you're stuck on writing, you can't worry about your cable bill. For twenty minutes, you have to be in touch with the fire, and you have to know how to cook on that open fire. It just takes a little bit more of a process than using a stove, so I think that's my favorite.

KAPLAN: Is there anything else that you would like me to include?

ROMERO: I would love it if you wouldn't mind plugging The Veterans' Compound, which is my nonprofit. We're working very hard to acquire some land, and get a brick and mortar version of this foster ground, so that we can really help as many veterans as we can.

Essentially, it's a program where I'm currently trying to raise money to, like I said, open a brick and mortar facility where we actually help veterans take a lot of the training they've already received and simply transfer it over to the creative arts through things like filming. Anybody who's interested in getting involved can check it out. It's really going to be something special. We're already looking at some farmland here in Kentucky and things like that. It's going to be special.

AVERY KAPLAN is the Features Editor at Comics Beat and the author of several books (plus a whole bunch of comic book articles). She lives in Southern California with her partner and a pile of cats, and her favorite place to visit is the cemetery.