The zombies are pigging out. On Rhodes, who is a bad guy.

So bad, in fact, that it's hard to feel sorry for him even as the zombies tear him limb from juicy limb. They fight over his slippery innards, make off with his spurting legs. "Choke on 'em," he gasps in the ultimate exit line.

"Yeah," says filmmaker George Romero, relishing the horror he has wrought, "but the thing that made me sickest was the smell of the barbecue sauce."

For the turkey. That's what they're really eating -- 500 pounds of turkey legs specially barbecued on the set every morning to look like bloodied human flesh.

"We had people coming from everywhere to be zombies. They want to be severely damaged zombies and they want to eat. A couple actually went for a raw liver."

Something flickers across his wide, whiskered face. Could it be?

For just an instant, even George Romero is grossed out.

He is the maestro of mayhem: "Night of the Living Dead," "Dawn of the Dead" and, now, for July, "Day of the Dead." He has perfected the slapstick of the macabre. Blood is his me'tier. Brains twitch, stomachs disengorge, entrails uncoil. In all-too-living color.

Maybe if he had grown up in the country, making little girls squirm by dismembering frogs, it wouldn't have come to this. "Maybe," he says. But he grew up in the Bronx, where they went to horror movies instead.

He was 14 when he shot his first with his uncle's 8 mm camera, a 40-minute flick called "The Man From the Meteor." "He got zapped with his own ray gun and fell burning from a Parkchester roof," Romero says. "It was a little dummy. We made it. It wasn't life-size. We stuffed it with rags and torched it."

And dropped the sucker from the roof of his parents' apartment house.

"The fuzz didn't understand I was just doing a special effect. I got hauled into the local constabulary. I was scared. I was embarrassed. I said, 'I'm making a movie here, man.' They said, 'You can't make movies here, boy.' "

He used to think movies were made by elves. There is nothing about his adult persona -- he is 46 now, 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds "if you're being nice" -- that discourages this perception. Universally described as a teddy bear, his gentleness belies what actress Lori Cardille calls "his need to terrify."

"Oh, I get that a lot," Romero says. "Most people who work in the genre are the same way. Stephen King is a big teddy bear of a guy. He says we give all our nightmares to you."

The glee is unmistakable. Tell him that his latest gore fest is the most disgusting thing you've ever seen and he'll reply sweetly, "Yeah. It is."

"You should have seen him on the set with his baby sitting in one arm and a zombie head in the other," says actor Joe Pilato, who plays Rhodes. "Somebody gets his face ripped off and George says, 'Boy I love it, it looks great!' "

Horror makes him happy. It's gratifying, he says, because you always get a response.

"They are meant to gross you out," he says. "You can ride them the way you ride a roller coaster. It's a communal thing. I use it to satirize society. The allegory is important to me, but it's not the main thing. The surface is what the movies are about. That's where it lives."

To that end he has created a new generation of walking dead with affectionate stage names like "Pop-Top" and "Splatter Head." You don't want to ask why.

"I've always maintained that you might make the observation that George is getting back at the Catholic church for every day he had to spend in short pants in parochial school," says Richard Rubenstein, producer of Laurel Entertainment, the company he and Romero founded in 1973.

"George sees things from the other end of the telescope," says author Stephen King, his collaborator on "Creepshow" and kindred spirit. "To him there is something really funny in the horror that we don't see . . . It's the same impulse as stepping on a banana peel. It's never funny when it happens to you. That's where horror starts."

George Romero is sitting in his office considering the implications of horror and the impulse to provoke it. The walls are cracked. The ashtrays are green tin, like the ones you find in bowling alleys. Hollywood it ain't. The director's chair squeaks -- he could do wonders with that squeak -- as he swivels to explain.

"It keeps us a little bit in touch with the fear response, even if it's a superficial one like a jump," he says, orchestrating his thoughts with a ruler. "It's an involuntary response. It comes up and takes you by surprise, like a scream or a tear or a laugh. Whenever any of those things happen, it gives you a little, subtle information about yourself. It puts you in touch with your instinctive self."

He has been accused of corrupting the youth of America -- even his wife, Christina, has qualms about letting their 20-month-old daughter see his movies when she grows up. She was fine on the set, he says. It was a shopping mall Santa Claus that scared her.

He has been accused of inspiring the whole slice-and-dice genre.

"I don't think it comes from me," he says. "They are made by people who have no affection for the genre. They're not even horror films. They are slasher-in-the-woods type things and they take the basic concept that there's a threat, a psycho out there, so don't go near the water or the basement. They take that basic fear of what's around the corner and warp it.

"My stuff is pure fantasy. I strongly feel that fantasy violence is not as dangerous as the violence in movies like 'Rambo,' movies that imitate life more closely, that paint a moral character who uses violence as a way of solving life's problems."

"He's used gore in a way no one else has," King says. "He has used explicit gore again and again and again, and used it in the context of a real thematic overview, a real mind at work. It makes them moral. Otherwise, they'd just be blood thrown against the wall. The blood is not the end, but the means to an end."

"It's easier to scare people with the slasher stuff because it's more realistic," says Sam Raimi, a young filmmaker whose "The Evil Dead" is a worshipful descendent of Romero's films. "In Romero's pictures, you are asked to make a leap of faith."

After seeing one, he says, "I feel squeamishly exhilarated as opposed to mildly disgusted and queasy."

Romero's zombies have been psychoanalyzed, criticized, romanticized. When "Night of the Living Dead" was released in 1968, sage souls equated the zombies with the silent majority, remembers Jack Russo, who coauthored the screenplay. "None of us ever talked about it," he says. "They were just dead people come back to life."

"They are a metaphor for the various kinds of deadness that society imposes," says actor Jarlath Conroy, who plays one of three survivors in "Day of the Dead."

"They're us," Romero says.

"I tried to model them after animals, real straight-ahead animal behavior, being driven by instinct."

Does he really think people are such sheep?

"Yeah," he says and laughs.

"On a deeper allegorical level, that's what the three films represent to me -- the inevitable, inexorable force of change, societal change."

Romero doesn't remember being afraid of the movies he saw as a child. He does remember being afraid of air-raid drills and civil defense blackouts. He was 5 when the bomb burst over Hiroshima. "I never heard a plane go by or a siren go off that I didn't think it was all over," he says. His movies are filled with that familiar, understated, apocalyptic dread. "Day of the Dead," his latest, is blatantly antimilitary.

"The real bottom line, the moral of the film, is that people don't communicate," he says. "They don't bother to reach out to each other and discover a common route to salvation or coexistence, or in this case just existence. My indictment of mankind is the lack of communication and the laziness. Man allows evil to bustle."

Actually, the zombies move very slowly.

"They're clumsy," he says. "They're out of shape. They're dead."

And they're everywhere -- a ballerina zombie in a decaying tutu, a football player zombie in a moldy helmet, a post-graduate zombie in a very dusty mortarboard.

"My makeup was based on a story in the National Enquirer about a woman whose poodle ate her face," says zombie Barbara Homziuk, who is also Romero's secretary.

"What makes the 'Dead' films is that they put the abnormal and the terror in a context we all know," King says. "It's an effort to take it out of Transylvania. It happens in Florida. It happens in the suburbs."

The first film, "Night of the Living Dead," produced for $70,000, was shot in a Pennsylvania farmhouse where "you want to see pies steaming on the window sills," Romero says. "Instead it is a trap."

It is the starkest of the series, partly because it was shot in black and white (Romero says black and white blood is real blood) and partly because it relies on an idea, rather than special effects, to frighten: The dead -- gray, ghastly, ghoulish -- come back to life to haunt and hunt the living.

Raimi remembers seeing it when he was 11 and wasn't supposed to be there. "The audience was going out of its mind," he says. "People were throwing popcorn and girls were running to the bathroom. I was begging for it to end, but at the same time I didn't want it to end because I never knew I could be so afraid."

"It's the only scary film I've made," Romero says. "It's really more of a traditional nightmare. Zombies just keep coming. You kill one, and two take its place. There is no way out."

Except the mall. "The Dawn of the Dead," which has grossed more than $55 million since it was released in 1978, was filmed in a Pennsylvania shopping mall recently demolished by tornados. The heroes loot the joint while they wait for the end. The consumption is conspicuous.

As horror movies go, he says, "it's downright silly. It's really a comic book." There is even a pie fight.

"Day of the Dead," the third, was supposed to be the end of the dead. But much to Romero's chagrin, economics and the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system conspired to keep the dead alive. For a while, anyway.

"It's not over," Romero sighs.

In the original screenplay the crisis ended when the few surviving humans finally put aside their bickering and united in an effort to confront the dead. "Because the heroes had found salvation, found the strength to do this and redeemed themselves, the dead stop coming back to life," Romero says.

But the producers estimated it would cost $6 million to $7 million to film Romero's vision of redemption. They offered him a deal: Take out the gore, go for an R rating, and you can have the money. Romero refused. Zombies have integrity, too. He laments the absence of a "dignified" X rating for movies such as his.

"People are undoubtedly grossed out," he says. "I don't expect everyone to enjoy it. I expect comparatively few to enjoy it. But the people who do, I don't want to let them down. Also, I revel in the allegorical part of that -- a society swallowing up itself, in this case literally."

The revised script, completed a month before shooting began last November, is far bleaker than the original, and far less ambitious (the budget was $3.5 million). Romero says he isn't sure whether he'll make another "Dead" movie, but friends and crew members are already suggesting titles like "The Day the Dead Stood Still."

His next project is "Pet Sematary," his second collaboration with Stephen King, which is scheduled to begin shooting next spring. It will be one of his last projects for Laurel Entertainment. As of this month he is no longer under exclusive contract and is free to direct for major studios should the phone ring.

His status as a cult filmmaker is forever assured. The question is: Does he want to go straight? He says he would like to make a war movie, an erotic movie, a western movie. He's written a screenplay about a new superhero named Mongrel, who is programmed by computer to perform acts of superhuman strength. His Achilles' heel? "He can be unplugged," Romero says.

The problem, as always, is money. "You'd think that if you have a certain amount of skill and a reputation for producing on time and on budget, then you ought to be able to get work somewhere within that system," he says. "It doesn't work that way. You've got to be hot and have the right representation and work the company store. Part of working for the company store is being hot and playing the game, and that's the stuff that I can't stand.

"I'm looking for a planet where you can make B movies. I'm looking for a lower-stakes table. Maybe it'll be videocassettes. I have this passionate hope that videocassettes will provide this new B-movie market. You could go out and make a movie for a million and not have to worry about making 100 million. I would do that for the rest of my life. I don't know if that's idealism. You don't get a chance to sketch. John Ford made 230 movies. I've made nine. Most filmmakers are lucky if they make 15 or 20 over the course of a lifetime. There's no way to get it out. No way to practice."

Clearly the symbolism was unintentional. But Romero had to go underground, literally, to film "Day of the Dead." It was shot in an old limestone mine now called the Wampum Industrial Facility, where government records, boats, Winnebagos and prints of old movies like "Peyton Place" and "Gone With the Wind" are stored. It is a veritable repository for pop culture.

"Day of the Dead" takes place almost entirely in the dark of this cave, a make-believe missile silo where the remnants of civilization have retreated before the advance of the zombies, who clearly have gained the upper hand. The military faction, led by the psychopathic Rhodes, bicker with and bully the scientists, led by the ever cool Sarah (Lori Cardille) and the mad doctor Frankenstein, who is still trying to figure out why the dead have come back to life.

"The film doesn't talk as much about violence as it does about the mystical acceptance of the fact that we have to accept that we're never going to figure it out, or figure out why we're here," Romero says.

He doesn't have much patience with behavioral psychology or with Frankenstein's attempt to socialize a zombie named Bub, who smiles in faint recollection when the mad doctor plugs him into a Sony Walkman and plays the "Ode to Joy."

"You see, Sarah, dear," Frankenstein says, "they can be domesticated."

"Yeah," Romero says, "but he's still gonna eat you."

After the zombies gorge their way through most of the cast, after a weak-willed scientist goes bonkers and allows the zombies into the silo, after Rhodes shoots Frankenstein for feeding his soldiers to Bub, after Bub has remembered just enough of his humanity to use the gun Frankenstein gave him on Rhodes, there is one last grisly scene.

It wasn't easy. They strapped Joseph Pilato (Rhodes) chest-deep into a hole in the floor and filled his fake torso with cow guts and lengths of specially made sausage (uncooked because, the art director says, cooked meat doesn't droop enough to look like human intestines). Then they waited to see what the zombies, members of the Massachusetts rock group NRBQ, could do.

The only problem was that the refrigerator on the set had broken the night before. After five hours of shooting, the viscera were ripe.

"When they ripped me open, the smell was horrible," Pilato says. Fantasy converged with reality. "I didn't have to act like I was retching."

The zombies get his legs. The heroes get away. Three survivors on a beautiful beach. But there is trouble in paradise. The zombies are out there . . . somewhere.

"They might have a good time for a while, a few good evenings if they took their Trivial Pursuit game, but that's it," Romero says. "They're safe -- until one of them dies."