New documentary ‘Birth of the Living Dead’ examines the origins of Romero classic (review)

Zombies are big right now, and for almost a decade their influence in popular culture only seems to get stronger year to year. We see them in books and comics, on television, in games and of course, in theaters. As a culture, we can’t seem to get enough of the undead. However the origins of this craze are not recent, and in fact, you wanted to trace the modern zombie back to “patient zero”, you should look no further than a little film called Night of the Living Dead.

The new documentary by Rob Kuhns’¬†Birth of the Living Dead¬†examines the cultural origins of the horror classic, as well as the production and aftermath following Night of the Living Dead’s release. Featuring interviews with George A. Romero himself, along with Gale Ann Hurd (Producer of The Walking Dead), Larry Fessenden (filmmaker and writer/director of Habit) and film critic Elvis Mitchell, just to name a few. These interviews are mixed with photographs, stills from the production, vintage news footage, as well as animated segments of art by Gary Pullin. Using all of these different pieces of culture and art, we explore Romero’s beginnings in Pittsburgh with his company The Latent Image, creating content for Mister Roger’s Neighborhood as well as beer commercials, into the actual production of Night of the Living Dead.

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Romero gives us a firsthand account of his experiences making the movie, while we hear from those who have been inspired by it, discuss their own experiences, theories and thoughts regarding the film. Director Kuhns achieves an incredible balancing act between discussions of the film’s production and its parallels to the social upheaval that was happening at the time. Those unfamiliar with the film will be able to get perspectives on racial tensions, political discord and and the Vietnam War through the eyes of a band of filmmakers who were channeling all of this into a film that would cast a shadow over the horror genre forever.

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My favorite parts of Birth of the Living Dead are those that discuss the casting actor Duane Jones in the role of Ben, the hero of the film. In a time of racial tension, Jones was cast for his acting prowess, not for the color of his skin and yet this aspect of the film resonates loudly. The critics and Romero himself discuss this facet of the film at length, noting that they never changed the script to suit Jones’ ethnicity, and in fact the other characters never bring it up. This handing of the racial issue gives the film a dignity lacking in most mainstream films dealing with race at the time.

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I don’t know if there has ever been a “definitive” documentary about Night of the Living Dead, although “One for the Fire” on the 2008 Weinstein DVD release does a good job of covering the same material, as does Midnight Movies: From the Margins to the Mainstream. However, while both of those films are “must see films for real fans”, Birth of the Living Dead appeals to a wider audience. The film feels slicker with its animations and fresh interviews. The interviews with fans, educators and cinema luminaries give us a hindsight perspective of the film’s lasting appeal alongside Romero’s “I was there” perspective. Although, if I had one complaint, it would be that I wanted to see more interviews from those involved in the production*, but does not ultimately hinder enjoyment of the film. Birth of the Living Dead is a must see documentary for not just horror fans, but those interested in movies and how the art form intersects with culture and history.

Grade: A

*The film ends with a charming interview with famous “Graveyard Zombie” Bill Hinzman at the 2007 Monroeville Mall zombie walk. We sadly lost Hinzman in 2012

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Robert Walker
Robert Walker 152 posts

Rob Walker is a writer and filmmaker in Colorado, and is creator of the comedy web series Victorian Cut-out Theatre. He loves horror films and comic books (American Vampire, Jonah Hex, The Flash, Planetary). Rob has been a Sherlockian since the age of ten, is a Dark Tower junky and believes that Indiana Jones is the greatest cinematic hero ever created. You can follow him on twitter at: @timidwerewolf and see his other writings and videos at robwalkerfilms.com