In 1968 a young college drop-out named George A. Romero directed “Night of the Living Dead,” a low budget horror film that shocked the world, became an icon of the counterculture, and spawned a zombie industry worth billions of dollars that continues to this day.
“Birth of the Living Dead,” a new documentary, shows how Romero gathered an unlikely team of Pittsburghers — policemen, iron workers, teachers, ad-men, housewives and a roller-rink owner — to shoot, with a revolutionary guerrilla, run-and-gun style, his seminal film. During that process Romero and his team created an entirely new and horribly chilling monster – one that was undead and feasted upon human flesh.
This new documentary also immerses audiences into the singular time in which “Night” was shot. Archival footage of the horrors of Vietnam and racial violence at home combined with iconic music from the 60s invites viewers to experience how Romero’s tumultuous film reflected this period in American history. “Birth of the Living Dead” shows us how this young filmmaker created a world-renowned horror film that was also a profound insight into how our society really works.
“Birth of the Living Dead” was shot in New York City, Toronto and Los Angeles between the end of 2006 and the Summer of 2011. It is directed by Rob Kuhns, who has been editing documentaries in New York since 1987. It is produced by Kuhns and his wife, Esther Cassidy, who also collaborated on the documentary, “Enemies of War,” that told the story of El Salvador’s bloody civil war as seen through the eyes of a U.S. Congressman, a U.S. Ambassador, an American priest, and an FMLN guerilla fighter and his family. “Enemies of War” was broadcast nationally on PBS in 2001, and was selected for the Los Angeles and Chicago Latino Film Festivals, the City of Angels Film Festival, and won awards at the Columbus Film Festival and Chicago International Film Competition.
Kuhns has been a fan of Romero’s work since the early 1980s when he first saw “Night of the Living Dead” at a midnight show. “Night” had been playing regularly in theaters in New York since it first came out in 1968. Before considering making a documentary, Kuhns read about Romero and became fascinated with the story of the making of “Night.” Here was this crew of mostly working class people, not very experienced in filmmaking and with very few resources, coming together to make a seminal and world-shaking film. It was a great story of a “little-movie-that-could.”
After extensive interviews with George A. Romero in Toronto, Kuhns started editing the documentary. Kuhns’ previous experience working as an Editor for “Bill Moyers Journal” and later on “Moyers and Company” gave him the opportunity to explore the powerful archival images of American history in the 1960’s. Kuhns surveyed television news stories of the racial violence exploding across the country and horrific combat footage of the Vietnam War. He also saw the U.S. government responses to both. Kuhns realized that Romero and his collaborators created “Night of the Living Dead,” a film about the world coming to an end, at a historic time of enormous U. S. upheaval. “Night” was revealing itself as a living document of the time in which it was made.
Romero, “There was a good deal of sort of anger. Mostly that the 60s didn’t work. You know, we thought we had changed with world or were part of some sort of a reform that was going to make things better. And all of a sudden it wasn’t any better. It wasn’t any different.”
Once Kuhns illuminated the historical context, his new documentary evolved into something much richer than the “making of” film that he originally envisioned. Michael Winship, head writer for “Bill Moyers Journal,” recommended Mark Harris’ highly-praised book, “Pictures at a Revolution,” which looked at the cultural and political context of the films that were nominated for the Academy Award in 1968, the same year “Night” was released. Harris spoke about how intricately and complexly “Night” is connected to that moment in history and about the many radical choices Romero made which redefined the horror film. Kuhns added Harris’ remarkable take on “Night of the Living Dead” to the documentary.
Filmmaker Larry Fessenden, who has been compared with Romero for his thoughtful horror films, provided another key interview. He also speaks about some of the radical choices Romero made to create such a groundbreaking horror film:
“When you play with the expectations of the classic structure, and then you defy them and the wrong person gets killed. This is what’s upsetting, that’s what haunts, that’s what creates a feeling of dread.”
Critic Elvis Mitchell first saw the film when he was 10 at a Drive-In Theater in Detroit, soon after his city experienced racial violence.
“If there had been more resources devoted to the movie, and more consideration, and if it wasn’t like run and gun filmmaking, It was like hearing Public Enemy for the first time, or for my parent’s generation seeing Elvis Presley for the first time. It’s just that kind of, oh my God, that electricity.”
Chiz Schultz, producer of Harry Belafonte’s TV specials in the late 60s, discusses how revolutionary it was for Romero to cast a black actor, Duane Jones, in the lead but to also never have his race referred to or mentioned in the film. Schultz, who also produced “Ganja and Hess,” a dramatic film also starring Duane Jones, was a first-hand witness to the racism of the 60s. During the rehearsal of one of Belafonte’s shows, singer Petula Clark touched Belafonte’s arm, which caused a sponsor to demand there be no physical contact between them. Race and the casting of Jones is a major theme and is discussed by all of the interviewees.
Sam Pollard, a documentary director, producer of Spike Lee’s documentaries, and a film professor at NYU, analyzes the film’s plot and structure and also offers a historical perspective.
”There was a sense of chaos and sense of tension in the American fabric which means things are going to change. So I think that what Romero was doing with “Night of the Living Dead”
Film Critic and Author of “Shock Value,” Jason Zinoman, explores Romero’s film’s enormous influence and the seminal creation of the zombie, now one of the most popular monsters in horror films.
“All these zombies all go back to Romero. There’s no movie director that’s responsible for the vampire. There’s no movie director that’s responsible for Frankenstein. There’s no movie director that’s responsible for the Werewolf… …What we know of as a zombie, the “it’s alive” moment of it was, 1968, George Romero, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in Pittsburgh.”
Living legend Gale Anne Hurd, Executive Producer of “Walking Dead,” as well as Producer of “The Terminator” and “Aliens” explains how the zombies in “Night”, as well as its mythology, are the basis of her hit show. Hurd got her start with Roger Corman and also speaks about what it’s like to make a film with little experience and no money.
Romero takes us through his efforts to get the film distributed – it did not ignite a bidding war – and the ferocious attacks on “Night” by U.S. critics when first released. Variety, for instance, called it, “an unrelieved orgy of sadism” which “casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers.”
That all changed when the film went to Europe where it received huge box office and lavish praise from prestigious film journals like “Positif” and “Sight and Sound.” “Night of the Living Dead” was eventually invited to become part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In spite of the enormous success of the film worldwide, Romero and his partners got only a small fraction of the profits. The distributor accidentally removed the copyright notice from the negative and “Night” fell into the public domain. The film went viral, with pirated copies playing worldwide. There’s no way to know how much money it has made.
The documentary ends with a tribute to and interview with Bill Hinzman, who played the “graveyard zombie” – the first zombie in the film, and the first one built on Romero’s mythology, which spawned so many imitators. Hinzman is shown at a zombie convention at the Monroeville Mall, PA, not far from where “Night of the Living Dead” was shot. He’s surrounded by adoring fans, many of whom were born decades after the film was made.
When asked how he feels about all of the attention, Hinzman says, “Sometimes, I really do blush I think under the make up because it’s really kind of embarrassing. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of actors are always afraid they’ll get discovered that they don’t have any talent or anything. And sometimes I feel that way. I’m a little embarrassed because every Sunday night I have to take the damn garbage out (laugh), and on the way out I’ll go, “I’m a legend! What the hell am I taking the damn garbage out for?!” (Laugh) Why aren’t I rich? But that’s, that’s life! But it’s so much fun to do these things. My wife kicks me out every once in a while and says, “Go to one of those events. Get your ego built back up again.” I say, ‘Okay.’”