In 1968, one of the most important horror films of all time was released, the first modern horror film: George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. It took horror out of a Gothic setting, away from Roger Corman’s series of films based on the work of Edgar Allen Poe, and into a modern time and place; the horrific events were happening to real, everyday people, and in normal places, not in the grand, old castles to Dukes and Dames. This film is a little, low-budget movie which gave birth to what is now one of (if not the) most popular horror movie monster: the zombie. Yes, there were zombie movies before 1968, “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943) for example, or the Hammer Horror “The Plague of the Zombies” (1966), but these often took place in the Caribbean (or in the case of “Plague”, Cornwall, the Caribbean of England) and had everything to do with mysterious Vodou rituals bringing back the dead to serve the whims of a master as a zombie. “Night of the Living Dead” did away with all of that and brought forth what modern audiences recognize as the zombie: the dead risen (for whatever reason) and mindlessly feasting on the flesh of the living.
There have been many pages written on “Night of the Living Dead” and there have been many documentaries made about the importance of the film, and the rise of the zombie as a monster, so it was a little surprising when “Birth of the Living Dead” (2013) came out into the film festival circuit. Is it just another documentary about “Night”, or is this something special?
Director Rob Kuhns tackles his subject matter in a straight forward manner: “Birth of the Living Dead” addresses how George A. Romero got the film made and how it became a cult favorite. Featuring interviews with Romero himself, as well as Gale Anne Hurd (the producer of AMC’s “The Walking Dead”), film critic Elvis Mitchell and indie filmmaker Larry Fessenden (among several others), the film becomes something of a series of talking heads, inter-cut with footage from “Night of the Living Dead” itself. While this is not uncommon in the documentary genre, and indeed, can be very effective when used to relay insights into the subject matter, “Birth of the Living Dead” tends to get drug down by a fascination with just relaying facts, turning the documentary into an amalgamation of information fans of the film would already know, or have already seen elsewhere with no new insights.
“Birth of the Living Dead” shines at its’ best when it is covering Romero’s early career, and working to get “Night” made. While fans would already know most (if not all) of the information, it sets up the documentary nicely as an exploration of the making of the “Night of the Living Dead”, particularly in giving a cultural grounding for the story. It is after this where the documentary becomes less clear: discussions about how the film was distributed, combined with a largely ineffective section attempting to deal with the racial aspects of “Night of the Living Dead” weigh the second half of the film down to where it stops having the focus it did at the beginning and delves into a series of opinions on what was important in the film as opposed to presenting a clear, insightful stance.
Perhaps more time could have been taken to truly go in depth, but it would be hard when Romero himself does not particularly endorse that he was suggesting anything political in “Night of the Living Dead”. For example, on having Duane Jones (an African American) as his lead, Romero is often quoted as saying that Jones was the lead because he was “the best actor they had”, but many documentaries (this one included) spend a lot of time trying to infuse this with a great deal more importance than it seems the filmmaker intended. That is not to say that it was not ground-breaking and important that Jones was the lead in a film in 1968 (this is pre-blaxplotation after all, African American heroes were few and far between in the film of the time), but when a documentary about the “Night of the Living Dead” attempts to over-emphasize detail that was unintended (or not thought of) by George A. Romero as vital, it becomes tedious as the details and opinions remain largely the same patchwork of guessing and supposition that every “Night” documentary has.
The question still remains, should you watch “Birth of the Living Dead”? Well, there is nothing new that comes out of this documentary for the long time fan of “Night of the Living Dead”. You have seen and heard most everything here, and the film has a tendency to drag itself down under its’ own weight. If, however, you have not over-indulged on DVD extras and documentaries on “Night of the Living Dead” already, this is worth a watch, however, know that it degrades into something of a geeky discussion one might find at a college coffee shop amongst film majors who are trying really, really hard to impress each other. If you are a fan of “Night of the Living Dead”, or new to the film, and have not seen or read much on the making of, do watch “Birth of the Living Dead” as it amply covers the details and story behind the scenes. If you are not a fan of “Night of the Living Dead” at all, thank you for reading so much of this review, and go watch something you love.
If after all that you are interested in checking out “Birth of the Living Dead”, you can find it on Netflix right now.
- Night of the Living Dead: Unpolished and derivative piece of halloween fun