Birth of the Living Dead Review: A Zombie History Lesson
There’s scarcely a corner of the horror world not run amok by the undead. Even a cursory glance at the most shocking and demented of the genre in TV, movies, comics, and video-games may be difficult to cast without finding the decaying hands of director George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” wrapped around its gaze. Zombies have fought long and hard for domination in American pop culture, and even against the age of the vampire, they certainly seem to have the edge.
So suggests director Rob Kuhns in his smart and equally entertaining documentary recounting what fascinating risks and improvisations went into the cheap indie flick that would inspire a genre, all born in a Pennsylvania farmhouse. Can there be even more to unearth from down below its desiccated surface? Kuhn’s tantalizing findings have the appetite to find out. With a stunning amount of archived footage, newscasts, and wonderfully illustrated drawings by cartoonist Gary Pullin, “Birth of the Living Dead” makes its case a candid one, reminding us of just how indestructible and indeed ubiquitous “the flesh-eating zombie” has become. The zombie’s now as familiar the vampire or werewolf, and is perhaps even more useful as a metaphor for such anxieties as much as they are a commentary on our own disease: that of paranoia, terror, and the deathly xenophobic.
From there, Kuhns doesn’t hesitate plunging headfirst into Romero’s grimly woven work. The gore–meatpacker supplied animal guts for human organs– was shocking for its time, and fed the film’s infamy, as did its graphic depictions of fratricide and parricide. More shocking still was its star, Ben (Duane Jones), the sole survivor of a zombie besieged farmhouse. Ben, a black protagonist (though not initially written as such), is shot dead by sheriffs; to 1960s audiences, the stark reflection of civil rights era police abuses was unmistakable. And how refreshing it was that not only was Ben black, but a wholly different hero than the classically well-behaved Sidney Poitier; Ben begot a long line of rebel black heroes, so strikingly felt even as recently as Telltale’s own adaptation of the Robert Kirkman zombie series. Fascinating still is the image director Rob Kuhns paints of the social climate driving Romero’s gruesome narrative, and the subtext he uncovers is eye opening. “This was ghouls eating people up,” Roger Ebert so wrote. “This was little girls killing their mothers.” Here was a film that that introduced viewers to a “new kind of monster,” one that defied explanation or convention, and for which Romero claimed, “there was no room left in hell.”
Its likeminded political insights run deep in its provocative montages of race riots cut with the movie’s hick militia in tandem with Romero’s own persuasive commentary, who recounts the shoot like the enthusiastic 27-year-old he was. It’s these anecdotes and remembrances of Romero–uncompromising and charmingly so–that truly make the film. Stubborn, independent, and maybe just as revolutionary, it was Romero’s B-movie Pittsburgh production that was as much a product of the Vietnam War and its civil unrest as an icebreaker for horror’s more maturer audiences. With their menacing police dogs and lynch-mob mentality, the redneck officers and vigilantes in Romero’s film owed less to the torch-wielding villagers in a “Frankenstein” sequel than to the police enforcers in 1960s’ Birmingham. We hear at length from Romero, who turned to zombies in search of something to prod a complacent genre bend on cartoonish antics. Asked if he ever felt an obligation to comfort rather than to scare audiences, Romero responds that people who need something sweet need only walk to the theater lobby: “There’s always the refreshment stand.”
Romero joins no shortage of distinguished commentators to reanimate just how a scrappy team of filmmakers put together such a piece. “Birth of the Living Dead” enlists several notable faces–including past and present New York Times critics Elvis Mitchell and Jason Zimoan, but sadly none of the actual Pittsburgh crew beyond Romero. Among the shocker’s champions are also author Mark Harris (“Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood”) and producer Gale Anne Hurd (“Aliens”), who claims to have drawn heavily from Romero’s visceral zombie gait for her own work on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” It’s indie horror director and Kuhn’s executive producer Larry Fessenden that so coyly sums up the film’s sardonic zombie terrors, teasing the line “They’re coming to get you Barbara” as one of his opening gags.
The man at the center of it all, Romero himself is nothing but charming. A warm, amicable figure opposite his twisted creations, his behind-the-scenes tales feel genuine and many of them are intriguing, even if not already well known. He recalls his production days with a lovable sense of pride and cynicism and his story of the film’s copyright battle is heartbreaking. At 73, Romero is still a hoot, and while he may have reason to be bitter or frustrated, he certainly doesn’t show it behind his knowing grin. Instead, he comes across as a critical yet happy granddaddy of horror, still suspicious of The Man and still fond of his zombies. He can rest easy knowing that “Night of the Living Dead,” shall never die as today’s Manhattan students watch his work still.
What distinguishes Kuhn’s documentary is hardly technical so much as the fan-boy ardor that fuels its heart both behind and in front of its camera. Each spotlight it sheds displays a genuineness akin to Romero’s own work, capturing what indelible impact its made over its 45+ yrs. of fandom. Though much of its insights won’t be news for longtime scholars and fans of the film, “Birth of the Living Dead” brings with it an unmistakable passion the length of a glorified DVD extra (at 76 min. long) and the endearing manner of an old friend.