Title: Birth of the Living Dead
Director: Rob Kuhns
With its allegorical connection to both race relations and the Vietnam War, “Night of the Living Dead” changed horror movies forever. Other filmmakers made, and continue to make, memorable entries in niche offshoots of the genre — be they of the vampire, werewolf, slasher or other monster persuasion. George Romero’s shoestring-budgeted 1968 independent film, however, fundamentally redefined the modern zombie movie, altering the very DNA of such films. The new documentary “Birth of the Living Dead,” then, has plenty to chronicle, and merits its existence both from the legitimate perspective of academic-leaning film historians as well as more casual horror fans.
In the fall of ’67, 27-year-old college dropout Romero — who had his own scrappy little commercial production company, Latent Image, and had been cutting his teeth making occasional short films for PBS’ “Mr. Rogers” — scraped together just over $114,000 and called in all sorts of favors to make his first feature, “Night of the Living Dead.” It almost didn’t happen, however: the first script Romero wanted to make was “Whine of the Fawn,” a teenage love story set in the middle ages. When that proved too heavy of a financial lift, he set his sights on something that could be accomplished on a more realistic budget.
Director Rob Kuhns shines a light on a can-do production where the name of the game was multiple hats — investors doubled as production designers, carpenters, actors and more (sometimes all of those). Real entrails were donated by a local butcher, and a chess match bet helped secure a final sound mix. Decades before the unlikely success story of Kevin Smith’s “Clerks,” there was “Night of the Living Dead,” and this movie does a great job of highlighting Romero’s unique blend of guerrilla- and family-style filmmaking.
“Birth of the Living Dead” wouldn’t really matter, of course, if Romero’s film didn’t break so much ground for its time, and hold up still today in unnerving fashion. The low-key realism and utter lack of commentary on the fact that one of its main heroic figures was an African-American helped mark the movie as something new and exciting — of and for a generation not in step with creaky, staid horror productions. In addition to Romero, interviewees like film critic Elvis Mitchell, filmmaker Larry Fessenden, author Mark Harris, “The Walking Dead” producer Gale Anne Hurd and more help situate the film in an important contextual fashion. The final reel, meanwhile, examines its distribution, critical reaction (pans from Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert) and screwed-up copyrights holdings. Throughout, “Birth of the Living Dead” remains engaging, regardless of viewers’ level of familiarity with the source material. A nice post-credits coda with the late Bill Hinzman, who plays the zombie in the opening graveyard sequence, caps things off.
Written by: Brent Simon