Monday, October 28, 2013

Movie Review: Birth of the Living Dead

Birth of the Living Dead
Directed by: Rob Kuhns.
DVD special features have made making of documentaries common place. Every movies – from masterpieces to crap – now have their entire making of documented and put out there for all to see. The new documentary, Birth of the Living Dead, plays like one of those special features on a DVD – but an uncommonly good one. It doesn’t rival the best documentaries of the genre – like Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (about Apocalypse Now) or Burden of Dreams (about Fitzcaraldo), but it’s still worth seeing for fans of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, even if perhaps the only reason it’s not just a special feature on a DVD of the film is because a screw-up has made the film be in the public domain pretty much since its release back in 1968.

If you were going to make a list of the best Do-It-Yourself movies, than Night of the Living Dead would have to be on that list. It is a film that George A. Romero directed for almost no money, with a cast of unknowns, and a crew who, like him, had never made a movie before. If you were going to make a list of the most influential horror films of all time, than Night of the Living Dead would have to be on that list as well – the entire zombie genre as we now know it was pretty much invented by Romero with this film. Either of those two factors would be enough to make a documentary about Night of the Living Dead relevant – both of them practically make it necessary.

Directed by Rob Kuhns, Birth of the Living Dead is a standard issue documentary – filled with talking heads, and clips of the movie under discussion. Kuhns does not reinvent the wheel when directing the film, in part because he didn’t really need to. He has good talking heads, and the movie in question is fascinating enough to warrant such discussion.

The film details how Romero and his funders and crew made Night of the Living Dead on the fly back in 1967, and then released the film in 1968. Romero didn’t have much money – he didn’t know if he would ever finish the film – but he wanted to make a movie, and found enough like-minded people who wanted to do so as well. At first he wanted to make something more artistic – he talks about writing a screenplay inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, but when no one cared, he decided to do something more horrific and commercial – and came up with Night of the Living Dead.

As the movie makes clear, Night of the Living Dead was a product of its time. Not only is it a horror film, it’s a nihilistic one at that – one in which reflects the era in which it was made. It’s clear that the film has something to say on many social issues of the time – the ongoing war in Vietnam, racism and destruction of the nuclear family. In short, nowhere and no one is safe in Night of the Living Dead – the dead can get you anywhere, and anyone can turn against you. Yet Romero never overindulges in the political or social messages of the film – he has made a straight ahead horror movie first and foremost, but one that captures much of the cynicism of its time. It’s fascinating to note for instance that the lead character, played by Duane Jones, was black was merely a coincidence – Romero didn’t write the role for a black man, and when they cast one, he didn’t change the screenplay at all, even if it somewhat feels like he did.

Romero himself is the best interview subject – although film critic Elvis Mitchell is good as well. Romero is quick witted and funny – and easygoing, giving full credit to all his collaborators, and joking about the whole process. Romero has, of course, continued to make zombies films throughout his now 45 year directing career – he has said he wanted to make, and he’s now up to 6. He better get cracking on the next four – especially since Survival of the Dead (2009), his latest, is also his weakest.

Birth of the Living Dead is not a great documentary – but it is a good one. If you want to see the roots of the modern zombie film, or are interested in Romero at all, than you should see it. For people who are not zombie fans, there’s nothing here to see – but then, why would you be interested in the film anyway?

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