‘Birth of the Living Dead’: a fresh look at a horror classic

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livingdead1Released simultaneously in theaters and on most of the major download services, “Birth of the Living Dead” manages to revive a seemingly worn-out piece of movie history — the shocking success and long-lasting cultural impact of George Romero’s ultra-low budget 1968 horror film “Night of the Living Dead.”

The making of the Pittsburgh-based zombie flick and its huge influence on the horror genre has been covered in lots of books and documentaries, but director Rob Kuhns digs deeper and has rounded up some of the smartest contemporary film writers to talk about the movie.

“Night of the Living Dead” was a side project for Romero who was a very successful TV commercial director in Western Pennsylvania — he also worked on the Pittsburgh-based PBS children’s show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” — when he and a bunch of friends decided to shoot a movie.

Romero’s first idea was an Ingmar Bergman-style psychodrama, but he shifted over to a more practical notion — a horror flick that might stand a real chance of getting distribution.

Drive-ins were still popular in the 1960s and most major cities had huge downtown grindhouses that were always looking for cheap product (in New York, all of 42nd St. between Broadway and Eighth Ave. was filled with crumbling theaters — below — that showed horror, soft core porn and second run double-features of recent Hollywood action hits).

Romero knew there were companies such as American-International that specialized in supplying B-movies to low rent theaters, so he moved forward with “Living Dead” on a shoestring budget of just over $100,000. Shot in black-and-white and with virtually no special effects, the film’s bleak look and the fact that the zombies looked like ordinary people back from the dead (above) gave the film a true shock value that no one could have guessed before the film was released.livingdead

Romero’s decision to cast a black actor (Duane Jones) in the lead, and then not to use his race as a plot point, gave the movie an extra jolt of drama, especially when the zombie hunters shot him dead in the final moments (mistaking him for a flesh-eating ghoul). Having a group of armed white rednecks kill a black hero gave “Living Dead” an added layer of horror as U.S. cities went up in flames during race riots.

Romero finished the film in early 1968 and shopped it around in New York City where he got serious nibbles from Columbia Pictures and American-International. Columbia eventually passed and A-I ended negotiations when Romero refused to change the ending.

Finally, the New York theater operator and independent distributor Walter Reade (which had handled the blockbuster indie drama “David and Lisa” a few years earlier) picked up the film, and started making good money on it right away.

Most critics were appalled by the violence — including Roger Ebert who would retract his pan a few years later — but the novelty and the power of the film made it a sizeable first-run hit and then an enormous success as one of the first major midnight movies of the early 1970s.

Romero gives a witty but straightforward account of the making of the film, including the financial disaster that resulted from Walter Reade failing to register a copyright on the movie which allowed it to become one of the first big public domain titles of the videocassette era.

What separates “Birth of the Living Dead” from most behind-the-scenes docs is the smart commentary by Mark Harris (longtime staffer at Entertainment Weekly) and Jason Zinoman (of The New York Times).

Harris wrote about the moviemaking transition period of the late 1960s in “Pictures at a Revolution” and Zinoman is the author of “Shock Value,” an excellent combination of reporting and analysis that covers trends in the modern horror film.

Harris and Zinoman bolster the Romero interview and the archival footage with sharp analysis of the revolutionary horror movie shift represented by “Living Dead,” and they also place it in the political context of the Civil Rights and Vietnam war era.

Would that other documentarians follow in Rob Kuhns’ footsteps, in terms of applying such rigorous reporting and fresh analysis to the making of a key movie.

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Joe Meyers

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