The story of Night of the Living Dead is an unusual one, made by a man more accustomed to beer commercials than horror films, and employing many of his associates in what would be multiple roles, on- and off-screen, the film was a real risk in its time, being far more gory and politically charged than many of its contemporaries.
The documentary Birth of the Living Dead charts the whole process of the film making process from inception through to copyright issues through to modern day impact, whilst never over exaggerating the quality of the film, the abilities of the cast and crew or the production itself.
In this sense, it’s a rather low key recollection of a film that, even today, holds up well within its genre and is, many would possibly argue, one of the most important zombie films, let along horror films, of the 20th century, taking into account contributions from the key players as well as modern figures, such as Gale Hurd (Walking Dead), critics and writers.
The analysis of the film is broken down into segments and remains easy to follow throughout. The viewer doesn’t have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the film or film in general, just the ability to follow a well constructed documentary.
Romero’s story – college drop out turned success filmmaker – is the type of tale anyone who was interested in filmmaking would find captivating, as are the struggles with funding, making and distributing the film. It’s close to heartbreaking watching Romero discuss the lack of copyright notice that lead to legitimate copying across the planet, robbing him of the money he would have no doubt made.
The cultural impact of the film – a black man in a lead role during racially tense times, the start of the “modern” zombie film, lynchings and distrust – are all covered in great depth. Hearing how Romero was completely oblivious to these factors is interesting and makes you realise that this wasn’t a big racial statement, but just a story of a man protecting those around him.
The strangest moment, from a UK point of view, is a junior school teacher showing the film to his class and teaching them the intricacies of zombie films. They’re shocked and surprised… and so was I! It becomes even stranger when Roger Ebert is talking about attending a matinee with children to watch the film, having been deposited there by their parents who went about their daily business of an afternoon, safe in the knowledge that their offspring would be entertained.
Naturally, with the topic being a film from the 1960s, many of the stories about the film have been told before, however it’s still refreshing to hear them from the mouths of those involved. It is an engaging documentary with the only downside being a run time of 76 minutes. Every minute is interesting and, hopefully, there’s more to come revolving around Romero’s other films.
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