Does the world really need another documentary
about George A. Romero’s watershed 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead? After
having watched a new documentary directed by Rob Kuhns called Birth of the Living Dead, the answer is
a resounding “Yes!” Horror films have
arguably never been more popular than they are now. The Internet and compact
digital devices such as iPads and cell phones have permitted people who
normally would not be able to afford the type of equipment necessary to make a
film the ability to do so. Consequently,
“found footage” films and zombie epics like 28
Days Later (2002) prosper. Digital
video and the explosion of computers and digital editing capability have become
a filmmaker's best friend. This is a far cry from the conditions under which
Mr. Romero and company made Night.
What Birth of the Living Dead does so well is pinpoint that exact moment
in history, in this case October 1968, when Mr. Romero’s seminal film was
unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Prior to this, Mr. Romero, who was born
in the Bronx prior to moving to Pittsburgh, cut his teeth five years earlier by
creating a company called the Latent Image and produced hundreds, if not
thousands, of commercials. Sir Ridley
Scott similarly produced some 3000 commercials prior to his film debut, 1977’s The
Duelists. Mr. Romero comically
mentions having shot footage for Mister
Rogers’ Neighborhood and maintains even that wound up being frightening!
There are many ways in which film can
be ruined and when shooting on celluloid, invariably footage can end up over or
under exposed. In the case of some of
the commercials that Mr. Romero worked on, a lot of blood, sweat and tears went
into shooting footage that would end up plagued by mistakes made in the lab.
This is simply a fact of life and similar problems of shooting digitally are
rife with issues that plague filmmakers even today. USB devices get lost, hard
drives crash, digital videotape is accidentally erased, etc. Mr. Romero has seen it all.
The average filmgoer probably believes
that Night was Mr. Romero’s very
first film. While this is true in terms of having a film released, he actually
attempted to make an Ingmar Bergman-like drama prior to it. With money obtained
and saved through making commercials, he purchased a 35mm Arriflex film camera
and began work on a film entitled Whine
of the Fawn, sort of a variation on Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (which, ironically enough, influenced Wes Craven’s
notorious Last House on the Left in
1972). The film proved to be difficult to make and seemed pretentious and was
mercifully abandoned. While reading the novel I Am Legend by famed author Richard Matheson, Mr. Romero wrote his
own story and screenplay about a zombie outbreak. It went before the cameras
under the title of Night of the Flesh
Eaters. This was 1967, the era of
Vietnam, racism, civil rights movements, anger, and rioting. The country was
exploding as a result of class differences and racial injustice. Mr. Romero’s film was seminal
in that there was a new revolution at hand: the dead were coming back to life en masse. Rechristening the Latent Image as Image Ten, Night of the Flesh Eaters became Night of the Living Dead - without a
copyright trademark which was left off due to an oversight, resulting in
unknown amounts of money lost as the film became public domain. Mr. Romero shot and edited the film himself. The budget was so small that the cast and crew of Night pulled double duty behind and in front of the camera. This
film is really the very definition of a team effort and at this time
independent cinema was fairly new. In New York Martin Scorsese was just starting out; in Toronto,
David Cronenberg was shooting his short films Transfer and From the Drain;
John Carpenter was in film school at the University of Southern California; Wes
Craven was teaching and trying to get his film career off the ground; Dario
Argento was writing film criticism for a newspaper in Rome and preparing to shoot
his first movie. It was an exciting era.
It is hard for contemporary audiences
to imagine what it must have been like to see a film like Night in 1968. Birth gives us a graphic insight to
those troubled times. Mr. Romero admits
in Birth that most people on the crew
didn’t even believe that the film would get finished. Birth offers the opinions of a whole host of people in the industry
about their experiences having seen Night.
One of them is Gale Anne Hurd, the
producer of The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss, and who is now an executive producer on AMC’s extremely
popular and successful series The Walking
Dead. It is amazing to see that 45
years after the release of Night, it
is obvious that Mr. Romero is responsible for the zombie genre.
Birth also very carefully examines the
casting of the late African American actor Duane Jones as Ben, the hero of the
film. Most people thought that Mr.
Romero was making a statement about white and black relations by casting Mr.
Jones. The truth is, he was the best person to audition for the role. Just
as simple as that. There is no mention in Night
nor is there any sort of reference to Ben’s color. It's basically a non-issue.
It is also interesting to point out
that film criticism at the time wholeheartedly embraced Night. Many well-regarded
publications such as Positif analyzed
the film under a microscope and interpreted it from the standpoint of serious
film theory. This gave the movie an air of prestige never imagined.
Overall, this is an excellent and
insightful look at the effect that this low-budget American film had on the motion picture industry. Even if you are not a fan
of horror or of Night, I would
recommend that you see it to appreciate and be familiar with Night’s cultural significance. An excellent companion piece to this film is
Ben Harvey’s BFI Film Classics book on Night
which can be purchased here from Amazon.com.
of the Living Dead
begins its theatrical engagement at New York’s Independent Film Center (IFC) at
323 Sixth Avenue at West Third Street on November 6, 2013. Fitting, as the IFC is the former Waverly
Theater where Night premiered in 1968.