SYFY's Day of the Dead Showrunners on Capturing the Spirit of George A. Romero for New Series

Few zombie stories are as beloved as George A. Romero's entries in the subgenre, with many fans considering his 1985 film Day of the Dead to be his crowning achievement. With SYFY's new Day of the Dead, the narrative makes a major shift from its predecessor with its overall story, instead using the title to serve a little more literally, while also attempting to honor the independent spirit of the Romero films, as well as his use of social commentary within the group of the new series' survivors, as detailed by showrunners Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas. Day of the Dead premieres on SYFY on October 15th.

SYFY's Day of the Dead is the intense story of six strangers trying to survive the first 24 hours of an undead invasion. This ode to George A. Romero's famous flesh-eaters reminds us that sometimes all it takes to bring people together is a horde of hungry zombies trying to rip them apart. caught up with Elinoff and Thomas to talk about the new series, their approach to adapting beloved work, and what a Season 2 could explore.  

(Photo: SYFY) Starting with Jed, what was your own personal connection to George Romero's work and specifically Day of the Dead before this series?

Jed Elinoff: It's a funny thing, because anybody who watches zombie movies, naturally, it's unavoidable, right? It all stems from one place, and it's George Romero. So that's the wellspring from which it all comes. For me, I think honestly, even more than Day of the Dead ... That was the opportunity that came along to do a zombie series, and then diving into it, I think for me, it was actually ... One that maybe even resonates for me a little bit more is the Dan O'Bannon one. 

Scott Thomas: Return of the Living Dead?

Elinoff: Return of the Living Dead, tonally for me, actually, I think maybe resonates personally a little bit more. I think that's maybe why you see a little bit, like hints of that in Day of the Dead, in its tone a little bit. So that one, for me, hits a little bit more. But the truth is, when we were given the opportunity to develop this and to bring it together, I mean, how could you say no? What an incredible playground to get to mess around in.

Scott, what about you? What's your personal connection?

Thomas: Horror has always been my favorite genre, and I grew up watching all these movies probably way too young. I think Night of the Living Dead was really the first one that I saw and it was just mind-blowing how gory and in your face it was. But, at the same time, it was really about something. Even at a young age, I think I knew that Romero was doing something really special, with not only transforming the zombie genre from what it was before him, with older movies, like White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie and things like that, but also adding social commentary.

Even in Night of the Living Dead, he didn't entirely intend to add, but by just through casting, it changed the entire scope of the movie. Race became a huge part of it and it really became about civil rights and the Vietnam War and everything that was going on around that time. I think Dawn of the Dead, really as a child of the '70s and '80s, Dawn of the Dead really spoke to me, with the mall setting, and seeing zombies invade my world was pretty fantastic.

When we got this, when we heard from SYFY that they were going to do a Day of the Dead series and they asked us if we wanted to pitch on it, we just jumped at the chance. Even beyond his zombie movies, with Martin and The Crazies, everything Romero did was so special and so original.

SYFY is also delivering a Chucky series from Child's Play creator Don Mancini and it directly connects to the mythology he created. With your series, you have the title, you have zombies, but it's a different interpretation. Could you talk about the genesis of the project and how, while there are a lot of narrative differences, this series honors the original film?

Thomas: Well, we knew that this was going to be a series and that it was going to be eight or 10 episodes, ended up being 10. We knew that we really couldn't set the entire 10 episodes in a bunker. It would get a little old. We also, we really didn't want to make it seem like we were trying to redo Romero or do Romero in a better way, because you can't. So we thought, "If we're going to do this, then how do we take Day of the Dead and spin it into something different, something that feels like a new interpretation of that story, but also pays homage to Romero and hopefully really stays true to the spirit of all of his zombie movies?"

In doing that, we really took "Day of the Dead" literally. We made the entire series take place in one day, and we started going, "Okay, the zombies have their day, obviously in Day of the Dead, but who else is having their day that day? What else is going on?" We came up with this storyline of there's an election for mayor in the town, in this little small town. There's a couple that's going to have their wedding. It's senior skip day for the high school kids that day. Everybody's having their day, and then zombies come in and completely disrupt their plans. 

Elinoff: I think the way that it really, for us, we wanted to tie it into what Romero was doing was to keep the social commentary alive, make sure that it was about something that was more than just a zombie movie, right? Like, how do we elevate it in that way? That was top of mind for us when we were doing it, when we were writing it.

It's been a little bit like ... Getting it to air, it's taken a little longer. So the truth is, we started just as the pandemic was happening. The election cycle in the U.S. was just ramping up. Things were really real and continue to be really contentious. So the idea was, how can we use this movie to show people on both sides of any issue coming together in the face of something larger? I think in that way, we went, "What would Romero do now?" and this felt like a great way to do that and stay really true to what he established.

Thomas: That really was the spirit of Romero that we, that we clung to was that idea of ... I think everything he did was about a group of people who maybe didn't completely get along, who maybe didn't know each other that well, but come together as a team to fight a common enemy. And the assholes get killed off as they should, but the heroes, they band together. And that's really what we did with this season, this series.

Elinoff: And the beauty of doing a series is that people who start out as assholes get to become heroes, which we can do that, because we've got 10 hours to do it, as opposed to just two.

Thomas: Unless you're Rhodes. He's an asshole.

When it comes to zombies in general and zombie movies and social commentary, there's the flagship of George Romero. Currently on TV, there is a 10-year-long zombie TV show that is expanding. If you told any of us 15 years ago, "By the way, the biggest thing on television is going to be a zombie, gruesome, George Nicotero TV show," we would not believe you. What challenges do you feel like there were, knowing The Walking Dead is out there? How do you make your show unique and different and its own thing?

Thomas: Well, I think that was one of the reasons that we decided to inject some humor. The Walking Dead really, obviously, is very much influenced by Romero, and Greg was even in Day of the Dead. But those shows, they're very, very serious, they're very dramatic and can be very difficult to watch sometimes. They're so heavy and they do an incredible job of carrying on that legacy of Romero's zombies. But we really wanted to go, "How do we stand out from the crowd?"

One of the choices we made was, let's inject some humor into it. I think that's where some of the influence of Return of the Living Dead, both Return of the Living Dead One and Two, Evil Dead, Dead Alive, those movies really were inspirations to us to go, "How can we make a zombie series that is really fun to watch?" Because, like Jed said, we were in the middle of a pandemic. We still are. We were in the middle of this really contentious presidential election in the US. We wanted to give everyone a show that is gory and dramatic, but is really fun to watch. 

Elinoff: And hope, would be the other thing I would say. I think that we really liked the idea of, if The Walking Dead is fear of the living, then we want it to go, "No, fear the dead. They're the ones who are after you." The rest of us, we can overcome our problems as long as we don't get eaten. I think that was really important to us, to make a hopeful show. I'm not going to say it's the Ted Lasso of zombie shows, but it's hopeful.

I know it's early, but if there was going to be a Season 2, have there been talks about whether you'd follow a different group of survivors in the same period? Could a new season continue the adventures of the characters from this first season?

Elinoff: We're wide open. We joked on set that we could just keep doing the next day and the next day and the next day while we were doing it. But the truth is, you could do the next day, you could do the same characters a later day. I mean, it all depends. We left it a little bit open on purpose. We think there's some other forces at work that are important that just get revealed towards the end of the season. So I think that there's a lot of places for it to go and we were very excited to tackle the second season. 

You could team up with Roland Emmerich and make The Day After Tomorrow of the Dead.

Thomas: That's right.

Elinoff: There you go. There's a lot of options.

Day of the Dead premieres on SYFY on October 15th.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.