Birth of the Living Dead (2013)
Director: Rob Kuhns
Stars: George A. Romero, Mark Harris, Gale Anne Hurd
Synopsis: A documentary about the making of Night of the Living Dead.
Overall Impression: Entertaining and very informative, particualrly with regard to the film’s context.
I had the pleasure recently of discovering that Netflix was now streaming Birth of the Living Dead, a documentary all about the making of Night of the Living Dead. I had never seen it, so I sat down with it and gave it a watch.
This is a very interesting and informative documentary. There are interviews with cast and crew, insights from luminaries in the horror industry, and of course some words from the man himself, George A. Romero. There are a lot of “fun fact” sort of information tidbits, but it’s not just a trivia reel.
One of the best things about this documentary is getting to hear stories about the production. I’ve always known the basics – it was filmed on a shoestring budget at a small farmhouse with a cast and crew that consisted largely of friends, local volunteers, and investors, had distribution deals, was poorly received but found popularity after word spread, etc. But never before have I felt like I was really hearing the STORY. I could visualize that farm and that field (although strangely, it’s black and white even in my head). I could see the young George Romero driving through Pittsburgh, going from meeting to meeting, struggling to find a distributor for his film. It really does a good job of taking you there.
We’re also given context for the film, particularly regarding the influence that the racial tensions and the Vietnam War had on the film. This is seen, for example, in the way that the scientists, government agencies, and law enforcement seem clueless and ineffective in the face of the disaster. Trust in the government, and authority in general, was very low in the 60’s, due in large part to the war.
I had known that the casting of a black lead actor, and the surprise ending, did not have the racial implications that some have seen in it. The film does not attempt to make a racial statement as some have assumed: the main character was not written as being black, the part was simply offered to Duane Jones. The more important racial statement made by the film was simply that a black man is the main character, and this does not affect the story at all. People were shocked to see a black man as the lead in a film with an all white cast.
Though the documentary is fairly linear, sticking to the story of the film’s development, there is a detour or two. one such secondary story is that of Christopher Cruz, who teaches literacy through film in the Bronx (incidentally, where Romero grew up). We see him teaching his class through Night of the Living Dead. It’s really cool to see how the film still resonates today not only with adults and horror films, but even with children.
Even as a fan of the film, and a horror connoisseur, I learned some new things from this documentary. Such as:
– Romero made several short films for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The show was filmed in Pittsburgh, and lots of people in the film industry did work for “Fred” at some point. Romero calls his film about Mr. Rogers at the dentist “one of the scariest movies I’ve ever done.”
– Romero was inspired to make a horror movie with a splash of social commentary after reading I Am Legend and surmising that it was more about revolution than monsters.
– During the filming, the crew lived in the farmhouse, using a nearby stream for their water (there was no plumbing).
– The famous and funny line “yea, they’re dead, they’re…all messed up” was ad-libbed, as was a lot of the dialogue in the film’s fictional news reports.
– Romero has no official reason for the cause of the zombie outbreak, and doesn’t care. As he puts it, “God changed the rules…no more room in Hell.” Though the experts in the film do posit something to do with radiation from a probe returned from Venus, this is meant more to sound ridiculous than anything else, and show how clueless the “experts” are. Romero says that the cause of the outbreak is not what’s important, and it doesn’t seem he has any intention of ever offering an explanation.
The documentary ends with a brief vignette from the 2007 Zombie Walk at the Monroeville Mall (the set of Dawn of the Dead), where the documentarians interview Bill Hinzman. Hinzman is probably the most famous zombie from the film, and possibly from the entire Romero canon (not counting characters who became zombies later) – the “graveyard zombie” from the opening scene. It is a brief and touching tribute to Hinzman, who passed away in 2012.
To any fan of zombie films, especially those of George Romero, I fully recommend Birth of the Living Dead. It’s fun, informative, and really imparts a better understanding of the film’s production and the social context of its creation and reception. It’s on Netflix, and at 1h 16m, it’s not a huge time sink. Put it on while you’re relaxing this evening, but put your phone down, because there’s really some stuff worth seeing in this thing.