Birth of the Living Dead DVD Review: An Entertaining Documentary

The documentary Birth of the Living Dead examines the evolution of the granddaddy of zombie films, Night of the Living Dead.
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The Walking Dead , zombie conventions, Shaun of the Dead, and  innumerable zombie novels all owe their existence to the granddaddy of them all, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

 Birth of the Living Dead,  Rob Kuhns’ documentary about the groundbreaking zombie film, doesn’t deliver any major revelations about the film, but it does include some interesting segments that show how the film has impacted society. In one segment, a literacy teacher in the Bronx shows the film as part of his class, and the kids love it. There’s an extensive interview with Romero weaved throughout the documentary, and includes commentary from Walking Dead producer Gale Ann Hurd and actor/producers Elvis Mitchell and Larry Fessenden.

 Who could have foreseen the tumult that this low-budget film would unleash? Made by filmmakers in Pittsburgh and starring a bunch of clients, locals, and unknown actors, this tale of perpetually feasting zombies became a worldwide cinema landmark. Zombiephiles know most of the tale already, but it’s always a treat to hear George Romero, a feisty 73 at the time of filming, recount the Night odyssey. Romero’s production company worked on beer commercials and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, before renting an abandoned farmhouse and roughing it to make a movie with a ragtag cast and crew.

The interviews and clips from the original film are bridged with ghoulish animation that portrays some of the scenes in the original film. The documentary deals with  four main subjects - the making of the film, its social context, the zombie industry it spawned, and the problems that plagued the film after release, including one of the most egregarious  copyright snafu in film history.

Many critics panned the film upon its release, and the hapless distributor wasn’t sure whether it belonged with the Midnight Movies or kiddy matinee with more innocuous monster movies. Mitchell, who saw the film as a kid in the when it was first released, recalls the utter shock felt by children in the audience. 

For such a bleak film, Romero and his cast and crew come off as a jovial bunch who had no idea what they’d gotten themselves into - or what it would become.  Romero talks about procuring some police vehicles, a news helicopter, and a local newscaster to for the shoot. The rag-tag bunch of Pittsburgh residents played zombies, victims, hunters, did make-up, and improvised some of the film’s most disturbing moments.

Kuhns ties the film and its tragic ambience to what was going on in America in the late ‘60s, like race riots and the Vietnam War. The societal allegories are a stretch. Unlike Dawn of the Dead, the original is more sheer, unrelenting horror, with any subtext up to the individual viewer.  African-American Duane Jones was chosen for the pivotal role of Ben, says Romero, solely due to his acting ability. It wasn’t to make any sort of social statement. Jones’s race wasn’t mentioned in the film, although Romero says, in retrospect, he should have addressed it.  

 An entertaining documentary, Birth of the Living Dead eschews heavy-handed analysis for a fan-friendly approach. The documentary can be appreciated by zombie connoisseurs and newbies alike. Extras include an extended interview with Romero and a video of the world’s biggest Zombie Walk.  

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