By Cleaver Patterson.
Film documentaries are the cinematic equivalent of a written biography. As a result, it follows that those which include input from actual people involved with the subject, will take on something of an autobiographical tone. Such is the case with Birth of the Living Dead, which charts the making and legacy of the groundbreaking shocker Night of the Living Dead (1968). Based around a pivotal interview with the film’s director George A. Romero, Birth of the Living Dead casts light on how this infamous genre classic has come to shape the modern horror film.
You could be forgiven for asking whether there was still be anything interesting left to say about Night of the Living Dead, the watching of which is a rite of passage for anyone claiming to be a horror fan. Obviously, this is a question which director Rob Kuhns and producers Esther Cassidy and Larry Fessenden pondered—whether they prove the need for further discussion could be open to debate. Following the film from its inception by a group of ‘wet behind the ears’ young filmmakers in 1960s Pittsburgh, to the troubles Romero faced promoting the finished work, the most interesting aspects of the documentary are the anecdotes and input from Romero himself. Revelations about why the production was forced to follow certain paths due to restrictions in finance and, quite literally, his team’s inexperience in the art of filmmaking, could only have come from Romero, who was clearly the driving force behind the film. His reminiscences about risks taken by the production team—such as those responsible for the pyrotechnics who willingly set themselves on fire with only their jackets for protection—that would never be allowed today, make for a fascinating and insightful narrative. His later disclosure concerning a naive slip-up involving the copyright of the film and its original title, only goes to prove how cutthroat and hostile the film world was at that time.
Viewing the film however, you can’t help but feel that Birth of the Living Dead would have been stronger had it simply been an interview with Romero, interspersed with footage from the Night of the Living Dead itself. But that is not the typical form of a documentary, and so Romero is inevitably joined by ‘insightful’ industry and genre authorities, such as actor/director Larry Fessenden and film historian Mark Harris. This is where the film slips up.
Those who look at various art forms—be that film, painting or literature—from the outside, frequently read more into the politics and subtext than was ever intended by the creators. Here, the assembled experts dissect Night of the Living Dead, and specifically its inclusion of black actor Duane Jones in the lead role of Ben, in the light of the civil rights demonstrations and racial segregation, which were still rife in America at the time of the film’s production. It’s doubtless that the inclusion of a black actor in a main role still shocked audiences at the time and influenced the critical response and public reaction to the film. However, as is often the case with those actually involved with the work in question, Romero never gives the impression that such things were foremost in his mind. He was simply making a film, and his choice of actor for the role was based on the best person for the part, not on making a political statement.
As a viewer then, one will likely get the most from Birth of the Living Dead if, like Romero, he or she leaves politics to one side, and approaches it with the same spirit of fun which he and his team clearly had towards the making of the original film.
Cleaver Patterson is film critic and writer based in London. His most recent contribution was the accompanying notes for Arrow Films’ remaster of the Vincent Price cult classic Theatre of Blood, released on Blu-ray and Steelbook on 19th May, 2014.
Birth of the Living Dead premiered on DVD in the USA on January 7th, 2014. It was released on DVD in the UK on May 12th, 2014.