Everyone knows that George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a great zombie movie but few probably realise how important it is not only to horror but in regards to cinema as a whole and what a massive impact it had on its audience as a reflection of the turbulent times on its initial release in 1968.
Now critically praised as one of the best zombie movies ever made and selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as a film deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” today Romero is known as the Godfather of Zombies having rewritten the book on the undead firmly laying down not only the rules but the distinct look and behavior of zombies that would survive way beyond his films.
Birth of the Living Dead takes us back to 1967 when Romero was a kid with a camera and a dream of making movies. Having worked on a variety of adverts and several shorts for American children’s TV star Mr. Rodgers (including one where Mr. Rodgers gets a tonsillectomy) Romero wanted to make a feature and after toying with a historical epic he settled on a more commercial idea of a horror movie inspired in part by Richard Matheson’s I am Legend.
27 at the time Romero had a tiny budget of 114 thousand dollars but big ideas and plenty of friends to help him achieve them and Birth of the Living Dead details the shoot of Night of the Living Dead in all its gory glory illustrating the fascinating interview with Romero on the trials and tribulations the crew faced with clips, pictures and some great animation created by Gary Pullin.
Charming and highly amusing Romero’s reminiscences are thoroughly entertaining and inspirational to all and although centering everything around the auteurs interview director Rob Kuhns also features a terrific set of talking heads including conversations with producers, filmmakers critics and commentators as well as people who saw the film on its first release.
Interestingly Night of the Living Dead’s first run began as anything but a success as the film was derided and disrespected by US critics and only shown alongside exploitation movies at the most run down cinemas in only a handful of cities.
Playing at matinee slots alongside more tame horrors and with no proper ratting system in place surprisingly many parents left their kids alone to watch the apocalyptic undead epic leading to some extremely scarred and emotionally scarred children and noted critic Roger Ebert attacking the film and the uninformed parents in print.
These extreme and unexpected reactions to Night of the Living Dead are the most fascinating element of the documentary which firmly places Romero’s movie alongside the social upheavals of the 1960’s highlighting the political and cultural power the movie had as a commentary not only on the rampant racism felt across America at the time but on the atrocities of the controversial Vietnam war which were terrifyingly televised into everyday folks homes.
With its strong black lead character and blasé banal attitude towards violence and horror Romero’s ghoul ridden slice of self-referential realism with its experimental narrative, unexplained apocalyptic vision, unsettling take on good and evil and nihilistic climax was not only tapping into the cultural zeitgeist but also cinematically way ahead of the times one of the many reasons it still remains so relevant and shocking even today.
Birth of the Living Dead is a deeply informative and wonderfully enjoyable documentary on a film whose importance cannot be underestimated or undervalued and a man who gave us the modern vision of zombies and who could imagine a world without zombies?