Studio: Gravitas Ventures
Director: Rob Kuhns
Writer: Rob Kuhns
Producer: Rob Kuhns, Esther Cassidy
Stars: George A. Romero, Larry Fessenden, Mark Harris, Gale Anne Hurd, Elvis Mitchell, Sam Pollard, Chris Schultz, Jason Zinoman
Various academics and personalities discuss the making of George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” and its cultural impact.
What makes “Birth of the Living Dead” such a terrific documentary is what it chooses not to do and not to include in addition to what it actually delivers. “Birth of the Living Dead” is not a nostalgia fueled traipse down Memory Lane populated by celebrity interviewees giddily indulging in their inner fanboys. Nor is it a behind the curtain peek serving as a daily diary of the film’s construction. “Birth of the Living Dead” is a thoughtful and fascinating retrospective on “Night of the Living Dead” as a vital piece of Americana, not just its influence as a seminal horror film.
With more than 45 years separating the production of “Night of the Living Dead” from the production of this documentary, it would be forgivable to expect the original film’s now seventy something creator to have a heavily fogged or possibly even rose-colored perspective on those bygone days from the 1960’s. Not so. George A. Romero’s memories from that Pennsylvania farmhouse in 1967 are razor sharp, right down to the way he can recollect the previous profession of every single crewperson and zombie extra who appeared in his film. On display is Romero’s typically congenial personality relating anecdotes in such a frank manner that documentary crewmembers can be heard laughing offscreen. He does not come across as having tired of revisiting this chapter from the past and it never feels as if he is struggling to remember. It is as though Romero is articulating directly from a bright image in his mind’s eye.
Just as refreshing as his candor is the fact that the trivia tidbits are actually original stories that have not been retold ad nauseam in previous filmed tributes or on convention panels. Whether it is a story about Russ Streiner winning a chess match for a free post-production sound mix to pointing out which notable zombies were relatives or former commercial clients, even the most knowledgeable Living Dead fans are likely to shamble upon a few new revelations.
Familiar faces like Romero’s usual cohorts Tom Savini or Greg Nicotero are nowhere to be found. In their stead, “Birth of the Living Dead” places notable film critics, historians, and various academics in the onscreen personality roles. George A. Romero is one of the very few people actually involved with the production of “Night of the Living Dead” to even appear in the documentary. Behind-the-scenes background is included, but the core focus is on the 1968 film’s cultural resonance and thematic impacts. Until a misplaced scene near the end where a duo of regular folk recalls seeing the film in a theater for the first time, none of the interviewees are interested in promoting sentimentality. They remain affectionate, but they offer erudite insights that provide a surprisingly fresh perspective on a film once regarded as drive-in exploitation.
“Birth of the Living Dead” cruises speedily through its brief runtime on the strength of what its talking heads have to say, although a few bumps knock the wheels out of alignment temporarily in moments lacking direction. Presumably intending to illustrate the contemporary influence of Romero’s classic, a confusing sequence shows elementary school teacher Christopher Cruz screening the film for a classroom of questionable age appropriateness. When his follow-up discussion moves to teaching his prepubescent students how to walk like zombies, the mind cannot help but wonder if there is verifiable merit to what is taking place at P.S. 279 in The Bronx.
Awkward jump cuts edited to tighten sound bites create very brief jarring moments, while the film fares much better on other technical fronts. “Birth of the Living Dead” craftily skirts around the lack of behind-the-scenes resources from 1967-1968 by recreating the past through partially animated 2D drawings courtesy of “Ghoulish” Gary Pullin. Such creative bridges like these are very well placed.
Documentarian Rob Kuhns concludes things on a strange note by appearing to grab in the dark for a sensible wrap-up. The film closes in a partially unsatisfying manner with some generously stretched logic connecting perceived themes in “Night of the Living Dead” with hallmark films of subsequent eras. Instead of leaving a bad taste, however, there is instead a hunger pang for even more content thanks to a smartly produced narrative. It may not be the definitive look at Romero’s legendary movie, but “Birth of the Living” is a documentary that knows the difference between artful reflection and pointless nostalgia.
NOTE: There is a post-credits segment featuring “Graveyard Zombie” Bill Hinzman. "Birth of the Living Dead" was previously known by the title “Year of the Living Dead.”
Review Score: 85