Birth of the Living Dead is a documentary that’s got Night of the Living Dead’s grey matter in its sights, chronicling a time when How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse wasn’t daytime talk show yak fodder but boundary-pushing cinema.
Prior to George’s incredible classic, zombies had been relegated to the horror bench while Gothic monsters and radioactive creatures got the on-field start. Sure, there was a soupçon of undead flicks, but those were mostly island fare, Haitian witch doctors and whatnot and definitely not the entrails-munching cannibalistic fiends we’ve come to know and fear today.
For a mere $114,000, the Bronx-born Romero and a bunch of Pittsburgh friends and investors put together a film that upset the apple cart of horror (and movie) convention, not only with an almost existential, almost audience-baiting ending, but showcasing a black protagonist at a time when the only positive black screen presence was the Magical Negro, embodied by Harry Belafonte. Not only that, humankind depended upon a trigger-happy lynch-mob for its very survival while humans feasted on one another’s entrails. Stomach-churning stuff for kids at the time.
After an introduction to horror via Murder by Decree, Night of the Living Dead was this reviewer’s first bona fide horror. The film’s had such an indelible influence on this site, it’s the outro music for the Really Awful Movies Podcast. But even Dead diehards will find something of interest here.
In Birth of the Living, Dead Romero has a great time talking about how Vietnam, the race riots of Detroit and Newark, and the failed promise of the 60s influenced his film. Producer Gale Anne Hurd discusses how “everyone learned on the job,” and director Larry Fessenden (The ABCs of Death 2/Windigo), along with various critics of renown, explore its themes and memorable moments
“They’re dead, they’re all messed up,” was ad-libbed. And that’s in keeping with the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ethos the cast and crew adopted during filming. Romero admits he wasn’t sure the film would ever be finished or that it would even get distribution. We’re so so grateful it succeeded on both counts.
From the 42nd Street Grindhouse scene to the mainstream, Night of the Living Dead has thrilled audiences for decades. Birth of the Living Dead even captures youngsters being introduced to the black and white classic via “Literacy Through Film,” a Bronx film appreciation class for kids. It’s a great way to make sure the dead keep living on.
***1/2 (out of 4)