Rob Kuhn’s documentary Birth of the Living Dead is a new look at a movie that has been covered to death (appropriate) in numerous forms including laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray special edition releases which all include George Romero commentary and special documentaries. In addition Romero has been interviewed in books, magazines, and TV specials on the subject. What new information can be given in this documentary that has not been said before? Well it turns out a lot. The clear difference is that this documentary is not a behind the scenes look at the making of Night of the Living Dead but a look at how such a small independent horror film can make such an impact on society that the Library of Congress deemed the film culturally significant selecting it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Kuhn takes an approach of first looking at what was going on in the United States at this time including civil rights, a war in Vietnam, distrust of the Government, a counterculture and shift of popular beliefs. The film questions if Night of the Living Dead could have been successful if made 5 years earlier or 5 years later suggesting that life really does imitate art.
The documentary dissects Romero’s impulses for making such a provocative film. Kuhn inquires about the horrific violence, why did he cast a black actor as the lead and why did Romero finish the story with such a dire ending. There are many questions on how much was planned in the script and how much happened because of the attitude at the time of the filming of movie.
The interviews with Romero are always terrific and insightful and to no surprise, this film has some great recollections from the director on how a group of advertising guys from Image Ten Productions can go from filming commercials and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood to making a full length motion picture that would change the world. The culture has been permanently changed from his films and yet Romero is very humble talking about how it all happened when he started filming back in 1967.
Fans reaction on first seeing the film back in 1968 is absolutely incredible. Apparently when the film was released they played it on double bills for Saturday matinees where children of all ages could attend. Children who watched the film reacted in pure terror. One movie goer claims that he was 12 years old and became sick and one woman said she saw the film as a little girl and was terrified for months after watching with friends one afternoon. Roger Ebert was so upset he remarked in the Chicago Tribune, “I don’t think the younger kids knew what hit them.” It was not until November of 1968 that the MPAA put a film rating system in place.
Birth of the Living Dead is not just a social commentary but a fresh narrative on a subject that has been discussed in detail. Most fans know of the stories behind the scenes but how does something become part of our culture? Will they be talking about George Romero in the history books- I hope so.