Film Review: Birth of the Living Dead

Rob Kuhns&#8217; loving look back at George A. Romero&#8217;s <i>Night of the Living Dead</i> is a solid primer on this groundbreaking horror film, but could stand to be more expansive.

Vampire crazes come and go, but ever since 1968, zombies have been the steady, reliable boogeymen of American (and, for that matter, international) horror cinema. That was the year that an upstart 27-year-old, Bronx-born, Pittsburgh-residing filmmaker named George A. Romero unleashed Night of the Living Dead (tweaked from the original title, Night of the Flesh Eaters) upon the world, a black-and-white chiller he shot for an absurdly small amount of money in and around his adopted town about a group of frightened survivors making their last stand against the walking dead in an isolated farmhouse. Not only had audiences never seen zombies like this before—most of their previous depictions had been linked strongly to voodooism—they had never seen a movie like this before: a bleak, apocalyptic story of society being overrun by unrelenting monsters with no fantastical origin stories or magic cures. Romero’s DIY effort became a smash hit and zombies stumbled their way to fame and fortune, setting the stage for the modern era where they serve as the main attraction in big-screen summer spectacles (World War Z) and blockbuster TV shows (AMC’s “The Walking Dead”). 

Seen today, Night of the Living Dead may seem relatively unassuming for such a landmark film, but it remains a landmark all the same. Furthermore, it still plays—chuckle at some of the film’s technical and budgetary limitations if you wish, but good luck not leaning forward in your chair, eyes nervously scanning the frame, hands clasped tightly together as the noose tightens around our not-exactly-heroic heroes. Other directors—including Romero himself—would go on to make formally and narratively superior zombie movies (1978’s Dawn of the Dead, 1985’s Re-Animator and 2002’s 28 Days Later among them), but there’s a primal terror to Night that’s almost impossible to replicate.

All of this is to say that the film absolutely merits the feature-length documentary treatment awarded such other influential cinema classics as Citizen Kane (via 1996’s The Battle over Citizen Kane) and Apocalypse Now (via 1991’s Hearts of Darkness), but Birth of the Living Dead isn’t quite the film to do it. Director Rob Kuhns has an obvious (and understandable) affection for the film and assembles a solid list of talking heads—among them film journalists Mark Harris and Elvis Mitchell, horror director Larry Fessenden, “Walking Dead” producer Gale Anne Hurd and Romero himself—to talk about its production and lasting influence. The bulk of the documentary is given over to making-of material, with various sociological and historical points folded into the discussion to place the movie in context. (By far, the most compelling of these topics is Romero’s casting of a black actor, Duane Jones, in the lead role, a radical decision at the time that the director insists was practical rather than political, as Jones was one of the few professionally trained actors who auditioned for the movie.)

As useful as all this information is—particularly for non-horror film buffs who perhaps needed some extra prodding to seek out this particular classic—much of the same ground could be covered in a DVD commentary track accompanying the feature, a format that would also allow the viewer to watch the movie straight through instead of chopped up into clip form as it (by necessity) is here. It’s in the final half-hour, when Kuhns moves on to the movie’s release and its aftermath, that Birth of the Living Dead starts to distinguish itself as its own movie. As one of the earliest and most successful independent films, Night proved hugely influential from a business as well as a creative standpoint and it’s enlightening to hear Romero open up about some of the triumphs and mistakes (most notably losing his copyright to the film due to a credit change snafu) he made in blazing that particular trail.

Just as enjoyable is listening to Mitchell’s memories of seeing Night of the Living Dead for the first time at a drive-in and how those venues (along with the Times Square grindhouses) proved instrumental to the film’s longevity. This is the kind of broader-view content that Birth of the Living Dead could use more of—material that would make it an incisive nonfiction feature rather than an enhanced DVD featurette. Docs like Hearts of Darkness and The Battle over Citizen Kane expose aspects of the movie classics they are chronicling that make the films themselves all the richer. Birth is too often content to simply complement (and compliment) Night of the Living Dead without digging up fresh information.