Birth of the Living Dead: Film Review

Although highly entertaining, this loving tribute to Romero's cult classic could have used a little more meat on its zombie bones

Rob Kuhns' documentary chronicles the creation of George A. Romero's horror film classic "Night of the Living Dead"

Hard to believe as it may be, there once was a time when zombies were barely a blip on the pop culture radar. That all changed in 1968, when a low-budget, independent film called Night of the Living Dead ignited a sea change in horror history that not only continues unabated but, thanks to such recent touchstones as The Walking Dead and World War Z, is bigger than ever. Rob Kuhns’ aptly titled documentary Birth of the Living Dead chronicles the creation of George A. Romero’s cult classic in highly entertaining if not exactly comprehensive fashion.

“Who knew that we were ever going to finish this thing,” muses a jovial Romero in one of many interview segments. He and some partners each kicked in a mere $600 to get the production rolling in Pittsburgh, renting an abandoned farmhouse and shooting guerrilla-style with the help of numerous friends.

Romero, only 27 years old at the time, had cut his teeth working for such local television shows as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood -- no small irony there -- and making local television commercials. He recalls that he was inspired by Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, as well as the revolutionary fervor sweeping the country in the era of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War.

Director Kuhns takes pains to examine Romero’s film in the social and political context of the era, spending much screen time on the radical casting of African-American actor Duane Jones in the heroic lead role. The character’s race was unspecified in the script, and the fact that it’s never once brought up in the film itself was particularly striking at a time when Sidney Poitier was a major box office star, with such racially charged films as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night.

But it’s the more mundane aspects of the film’s production that provides the documentary with its most entertaining aspects, such as the fact that one of the investors, who also happened to be a meat packer, provided real entrails for its more gory moments. An actual local television news broadcaster played one in the film; most of the cast members did double duties, including designing the grotesque makeup; and local residents were recruited to fill the ranks of the zombie hordes.

When the film was completed, Romero shopped it around to various distributors, including American International Pictures, which wanted the downbeat ending changed. When it was eventually released, it played such theaters as 42nd Street’s New Amsterdam Theater, then a rundown grind house, and was given a largely negative, critical reception, including a three-line dismissive review in The New York Times. A copywriting technicality resulted in Romero losing the rights, and the film’s vast profits have never been accurately tallied.

Besides the engaging Romero -- “I don’t know if there’s any such thing as a bad zombie…I love 'em all!” he gushes at one point -- there are also insightful interviews with horror filmmaker Larry Fessenden (who also executive produced), Walking Dead producer Gale Anne Hurd, and such cultural commentators as Mark Harris, Elvis Mitchell and Jason Zinoman.

Still, for all its juicy anecdotes, the documentary seems skimpy, failing, for instance, to even mention Romero’s later career, which included numerous sequels and zombie-related films. Instead, an inordinate amount of screen time is devoted to a Bronx elementary school classroom where the teacher, for some reason, has decided that teaching his young students how to act like the zombies in Romero’s film is ideal curriculum material.

Opens Nov. 6 (First Run Features)

Production: Glass Eye Pix, Predestinate Productions

Director/screenwriter/editor: Rob Kuhns

Producers: Rob Kuhns, Esther Cassidy

Executive producer: Larry Fessenden

Directors of photography: Suprotim Bose, Michael Grippo

Composers: Gary Pozner, Brian Gross

Not rated, 76 min.