Birth of the Living Dead

The poster

“Hard to believe as it may be,” begins Frank Scheck in the Hollywood Reporter, “there was once a time when zombies were barely a blip on the pop culture radar. That all changed in 1968, when a low-budget, independent film called Night of the Living Dead ignited a sea change in horror history that not only continues unabated but, thanks to such recent touchstones as The Walking Dead and World War Z, is bigger than ever. Rob Kuhns’ aptly titled documentary Birth of the Living Dead chronicles the creation of George A. Romero’s cult classic in highly entertaining if not exactly comprehensive fashion.”

At Slant, Chuck Bowen finds the doc “admirable for its pointed understanding of the most important element of Night of the Living Dead‘s timeless appeal and cultural value: its unimpeachable status as a communal homespun work that evolved, partially by happy accident, into a monumental act of protest pop art. Director Rob Kuhns doesn’t shy away from the racial implications of George A. Romero’s legendary horror film, which positioned a black man as a strong, volatile leader during the height of the tensions of the civil rights movement only to, even more daringly, treat his complexity and authority as the most natural of plot specifics. In other words, Romero regarded his hero as just another man like any other, and he made no show of making no show of a casual act of revolution that would set his film apart from other, theoretically more ‘serious,’ entertainments that portrayed the United States’ various social tensions as being a trite coming of age story away from resolution.”

Ernest Hardy in the Voice: “What distinguishes this doc from much of the tedious critical prose Romero has inspired is the fan-boy and fan-girl ardor that fuels its smarts—both behind and in front of the camera. Interview subjects, from producer Gale Anne Hurd (who says she drew heavily from the film in creating the cable TV hit The Walking Dead) to various film scholars, directors, and critics, all key their commentary into the film’s visceral power and the unpretentious intelligence behind it.”

Joshua Rothkopf for Time Out New York: “Kuhns makes time for political insights, provocative montages of race riots cut with the movie’s hick militia, and the comments of owlish Romero himself, who recounts the shoot like the enthusiastic 27-year-old he was. Wildest is a classroom of Bronx kids learning literacy (and proper stomping) via the film’s power.”

“There are too many predictable talking heads here,” finds Andy Webster in the New York Times, “and, alas, no Pittsburgh participants aside from the director. But Mr. Romero, manifesting a self-effacing demeanor and sensible humanity, is a most agreeable raconteur. He can rest assured knowing that Night of the Living Dead, now in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, shall never die.”

Birth of the Living Dead opens today at the IFC Center in New York. Celebrating Night‘s 40th anniversary in 2008, PopMatters ran an in-depth special feature.

Updates, 11/10: At the Dissolve, Noel Murray notes that “critic Jason Zinoman insists that scholars can’t point to any one movie or book as the origin point for vampires or werewolves, but zombies—at least the ones that have been popping up with increasing regularity in videogames, movies, TV series, and comic books—they were brought into this world by Romero and his team of creative Pittsburgh pals and technicians, back in 1967 and 1968.” And “aside from some old Romero beer commercials and some vintage newspaper ads, there isn’t much new to the actual telling of how Night of the Living Dead came to be. But Birth of the Living Dead excels in Kuhns’ gathering of critics, academics, and filmmakers to analyze how and why the film works so well.”

“At a brisk 75 minutes, the documentary commits several sins of omission,” finds A.A. Dowd at the AV Club. “Where, for example, is Night co-writer John A. Russo, who had a notorious falling-out with Romero? Talk of creative differences between the two filmmakers—as well as Russo’s much-maligned decision to re-release Night in 1998 with new footage—might have injected some drama into what feels more like a mash note than a thorough autopsy of its subject. Also absent is any discussion of Romero’s four Dead sequels, Russo’s parallel Return of the Living Dead franchise, or Tom Savini’s 1990 remake—probably because, unlike the public-domain original, none of those movies can be excerpted for free. Ultimately, all but the most indiscriminate of Dead heads will shamble out wishing they had been tossed something new to sink their teeth into.”

For the LA Weekly, Cory Casciato talks with executive producer Larry Fessenden.

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