Birth of the Living Dead
Runs Fri., Oct. 18–Thurs., Oct. 24 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 76 minutes.
George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie classic Night of the Living Dead—also being screened at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday—is a one-off, DIY indie phenomenon with dozens of more profitable heirs. Without it there would be no 28 Days Later, no Walking Dead, no cheerful zombie walks or costume parties. Rob Kuhns’ affectionate new tribute documentary makes all those points and then some, prominently featuring Romero and praising his Pittsburgh collaborators, though it’s weaker on legacy than on the grainy origin story.
Romero came out of commercials and industrial films, and I’d like to see more of the cheeky TV spots shown here. Only 27 when he gathered local investors—many of them doubling as crew and cast—to shoot the film, he was both an entrepreneur and a product of charged political times. One of the inspirations for his script turns out to have been Richard Matheson’s dystopic sci-fi novel I Am Legend, which totally makes sense. “There was a good deal of anger,” he says today. “Mostly that the ’60s didn’t work. We thought we had changed the world. And all of a sudden, it wasn’t any better.”
Work on the film began in 1967, and Romero could never have predicted that its October ’68 release would so closely follow the Tet Offensive and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Truly it seemed the world was going to hell, which made Night of the Living Dead a movie for its times. Kuhns is a veteran editor, and he expertly stitches together TV and newsreel footage from the era, Romero’s recollections, clips and stills from NLD, and plaudits from today’s zombie masters (including Walking Dead producer Gale Anne Hurd). However, these encomiums pile up like cordwood, and Kuhns gets sidetracked by a visit to a Bronx middle school where the teacher uses NLD as a teaching aid to . . . well, maybe he didn’t have a lesson plan that day, but the kids love it.
Former New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell here compares NLD’s mood to Beckett, and I think that’s apt. Helplessness and despair were not the qualities one usually associated with midnight movies. NLD’s terror is self-aware (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara . . . ”), but the squirming and laughter eventually give way to blank horror and an ending Mitchell correctly calls “honest.” I wish Birth of the Living Dead delved more into Hollywood’s new zombie economics (like how Romero lost the copyright with a retitling of NLD), but this is a film that all Romero’s fans will want to see.