Life is not always kind, and sometimes those who work the hardest to achieve something are not the ones who benefit from their efforts. Released in October 1968, Night of the Living Dead was an uphill struggle in every way, created on a shoestring budget by a crew who were calling in favours and recruiting friends and family to perform, poorly distributed and subjected to dismissive reviews, but like the living dead itself, the film proved unstoppable, and from that inauspicious beginning a terrifying legend grew to international stature.
Celebrated in a new documentary from director Rob Kuhns, Birth of the Living Dead tells the story of how “a twenty seven year old college dropout from the Bronx named George A Romero made a low budget horror movie,” reflecting upon and reinforcing the importance of the film as ground breaking and genre defining. Until that point, horror had strictly adhered to the guidelines of studios who created it, Universal in America superseded by American International Pictures and Hammer in Britain, guardians of morality ensuring standards and decorum were maintained, controlling what could and could not be shown onscreen.
Starting the story with Romero’s earliest work, short films for children’s television (including a segment on a tonsillectomy “which remains one of the scariest films I’ve ever done”) before moving onto his commercials, primarily for beer but also a series of adverts for washing powder based on the ideas of Fantastic Voyage, Romero wanted to break into features but with no willing investors for his first feature script he had to make his second script more commercial.
Aware of stirrings of unrest in his homeland which was engaged in the increasingly futile Vietnam War and with race riots spreading across the country, inspired by the subtext of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend Romero formed a new film company, Image Ten, rented a farmhouse and bought film stock. “We lived in that farmhouse… real guerrilla stuff. That was dedication.” Doubling as director, cinematographer and editor, Romero admits his uncertainty that the project would even be finished, with the rest of the cast and crew doubling in many roles, with investors and even former clients acting as the living dead.
Primarily told in Romero’s own words, he is the only interviewee who was actually involved with the production, and it is unfortunate that despite the insight and knowledge many of the less readily recognisable contributors to the documentary obviously possess Kuhns does little to establish their credentials, a caveat which does not apply to the legendary Hollywood producer Gale Anne Hurd.
With a resume which includes The Terminator, Aliens, The Relic, Dante’s Peak and The Abyss when she comments that “it’s really remarkable that a film which has become a classic came out of an environment where everyone was learning on the job,” her judgement is unquestionable. Now an executive producer on The Walking Dead, hugely successful in its own right, she confirms the influence of Bill Hinzman in the opening scene. “We patterned our zombies in The Walking Dead after that zombie.”
New York Times critic Jeff Zinoman also comments on the film’s contribution to popular culture, observing that while there is no single movie director responsible for vampires or werewolves, the zombie as currently portrayed was created by or is an expansion of George Romero’s vision, as opposed to the “voodoo” zombies of earlier horror cinema; since 1932’s White Zombie starring Béla Lugosi and 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie, that style has almost vanished, a rare exception being Wes Craven’s misunderstood The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1988.
With the documentary produced through Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix, the multitalented man whose work includes producing Stake Land and appearances in You’re Next and Jug Faceis similarly enthusiastic about the achievement of the film, where he feels that “every shot in the first ten minutes is iconic” and significantly points out that by commenting on the genre within itself through the opening graveyard scene’s line “They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” Night of the Living Dead is one of the first post-modern horror movies, and contrary to studio endorsed values “who lives and dies is not based on morality.”
Equally important according to film and television producer Chiz Schultz was that “No one reacts to Duane Jones or the character as a black man,” something mainstream culture never showed at that time, the scene where he slaps Judith O’Dea’s panicked Barbra without repercussion or punishment due to his race a pivotal moment in cinema history, though Romero recalls that the acting teacher and arts promoter, who died suddenly at only fifty one, “was very upset when he had to do anything violent.”
Made in black and white and with no stars for only $114K, considerably less than the average studio budget of the time for a comparable project, around $3.5M, the film was a tough sell. Finally picked up by the Walter Reade Organization and renamed from Night of the Flesh Eaters, Night of the Living Dead played on the grindhouse circuit in New York where Variety called it “an unrequited orgy of sadism.” Playing in matinee screenings where it was seen by children, Roger Ebert stated “I don’t think the younger kids knew what hit them… I felt real terror in that cinema.”
Though better received in Europe, when the failure to copyright the new title came to light, the film falling into public domain because of the oversight, the attempt to sue the Walter Reade Organization failed when they declared bankruptcy, but forty years on from what must have been a devastating blow, Romero is sanguine about the circumstances.
Having few resources during the shoot no behind the scenes footage exists to illustrate the points under discussion, so instead still photographs, short clips of the film and contemporary news broadcasts break the talking heads, though certain key moments are illustrated through brief custom animations created by Rue Morgue Magazine’s art director Gary Pullin, a departure from his usually gloriously coloured posters capturing not only the feel of the film but styled after the comic origins of The Walking Dead.
With the focus only on the background and release of Night of the Living Dead and with only cursory attention given to the legacy that has grown around the film but no attention given to Romero’s own sequels and the remakes, and as entertaining and informative as it is, the documentary feels like little more than DVD special feature, but since a definitive edition of the original is unlikely ever to be created, the role of companion piece is an acceptable one.
Reflecting on the legacy of the work, now rightly regarded as a classic, film historian Mark Harris feels the shock of the piece comes from “the way that it violates your narrative expectation,” and combined with the low key newscasts which ground the film it gives “a great sense of the ineffectuality of any institution which portrays itself to you as trustworthy.” Translated to modern audiences in her own show, Gale Anne Hurd reflects “You don’t feel safe in your home any more… The zombie apocalypse takes inspiration from that fear.”
Birth of the Living Dead is on DVD and streaming on demand from 12th May