1960's films, behind-the-scenes, cinema, Civil Rights Movement, documentaries, documentary, Elvis Mitchell, film criticism, film reviews, film theory, filmmaking, films, George Romero, guerrilla filmmaking, horror, horror film, horror films, independent film, independent films, interviews, Jr., Larry Fessenden, Mark Harris, Martin Luther King, Movies, Mr. Rogers, Night of the Living Dead, Pittsburgh, Prof. Samuel D. Pollard, Rob Kuhns, Robert Kennedy, Russell Streiner, social upheaval, societal changes, talking heads, the 1960s, The Birth of the Living Dead, visual effects pioneer, Whine of the Faun, writer-director-producer-cinematographer
By 1968, the Summer of Love was officially over: the war in Vietnam was in full escalation, racial tensions led to race riots in the inner cities and the disastrous Altamont Free Concert was but a year away, although neither Robert Kennedy nor Martin Luther King, Jr. would survive to know about it. The Zodiac Killer was still killing, the Cold War with the Soviet Union was still decades from thawing and the hippie “revolution” of the early-mid ’60s had failed to bring about the kind of lasting, peaceful change that adherents hoped for. Hope had been replaced by anger: the 1960s had failed to fix anything and the system was just as broken as ever. Into this caustic stew of fear, anger, war and turmoil slipped a humble little film that would go on to revolutionize not only horror films but the world of cinema, in general. When 27-year-old college dropout George Romero first unleashed his seminal horror film, Night of the Living Dead (1968), on an unsuspecting populace, little did he know that the film would permanently change everything that came after it, directly influencing the next 46 years of horror filmmaking.
Rob Kuhns’ exceptional documentary, Birth of the Living Dead (2013), gives an insightful and in-depth look into not only the making of Romero’s classic film but also the societal issues and developments that made the film not only possible but necessary. Night of the Living Dead was a new kind of horror film for a new era of horrors: when the horrors of Vietnam were being beamed into homes on a nightly basis, the same old “haunted house” scares weren’t going to work anymore. Kuhn’s film does an amazing job of showing just how truly groundbreaking NOTLD was, especially concerning its views on race and the family unit. By the end, he actually managed to give me new respect for a film that I’ve idolized for more years than I care to remember: no mean feat and a pretty sure sign that Kuhns is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.
Birth of the Living Dead takes us through the entire process of NOTLD, beginning with Romero’s background making short films for Mr. Rogers (I was surprised, to put it mildly) and beer commercials before taking the filmmaking leap with his first attempt, Whine of the Fawn (what a name!). When his art film tanked, Romero decided to try his hand at horror and the rest, as they say, is history. Romero served as cinematographer, director and editor, while the entire cast pulled double (sometimes triple) duty both in front of and behind the scenes. Some of the most glorious moments in the film come from the fascinating behind-the-scenes insights that Romero shares about the making of the film. Some of my favorites include the special effects experts who constantly smoked cigars while working with explosives and fuses, the actor/producer who built a wooden bridge with his own hands and the fact that the crew only got their sound edit after actor Russell Streiner (who played Johnny in the film) challenged the owner of the sound lab to a chess match: he won and the crew got their sound mix. For anyone interested in filmmaking, particularly ultra-low budget guerrilla filmmaking, the behind-the-scenes stories about NOTLD are absolutely priceless and worth a watch all by themselves.
Far from just being a “making-of,” however, Kuhns film is filled with plenty of insightful “talking head” interviews and commentary on the era that was directly responsible for Romero’s chiller. We get plenty of great stuff from independent filmmaking majordomo Larry Fessenden, whose enthusiasm for Romero’s film is absolutely infectious, along with historians and critics like Elvis Mitchell, Mark Harris and Prof. Samuel D. Pollard. In a truly magical bit, Mitchell talks about seeing NOTLD at a drive-in, when he was 10, and how it absolutely changed his life. There’s also plenty of on-point discussion about the casting of Duane Jones as the lead in a time where a strong, black hero in an all-white film would have been not only eye-opening but revolutionary. This was, after all, the era where one of the biggest black movie stars of all-time, Harry Belafonte, was not allowed to touch Petula Clark (a white singer/actress) in an advertisement. The fact that Ben’s race is never brought up in NOTLD was totally radical: for the first time in popular cinema, a leading black actor was just allowed to be a man, instead of a symbol. There’s real power in the stories about how the black inner city adopted Ben as a true hero, especially when they’re told by commentators who were actually in the theaters at the time of the film’s screening.
As a film, itself, Birth of the Living Dead is a complete success. The structure is well-organized, the footage and interviews are perfectly integrated and everything has a really exciting, kinetic sense of energy. Even better, Kuhns utilizes some really badass “Sin City-esque” red-and-black graphic-novel-type animation for many of the behind-the-scenes bits, making the whole film even more visually appealing. Birth of the Living Dead looks and sounds fantastic, although that just ends up being icing thanks to the fundamentally solid information being shared. If you’re a fan of Night of the Living Dead, Kuhns’ documentary is an absolute must-see, helping to fill in any gaps and offering up a virtual treasure trove of previously unknown insights. If you’re a fan of independent filmmaking, Birth of the Living Dead is a must-see for the ways in which we see Romero and his small band of true-believers literally wrestle this iconic film into being. Basically, if you like movies in any way, shape or form, you owe it to yourself to see Birth of the Living Dead: documentaries about horror films don’t get much better than this.