From his beginnings as a Calgon commercial director to the arguable king of the silver screen zombies, George Romero is an original. This doc chronicles his memories in the making of Night of the Living Dead, his iconic, groundbreaking horror film. Distributed by Glass Eye Pix, figurehead/actor/writer/producer Larry Fessenden contributes to the talking heads on display, along with other industry luminaries like Gale Ann Hurd, producer of The Walking Dead TV series.
However, unlike most documentaries featuring a variety of opinions, this reviewer was never bored. Was it because of the lavish, lovingly drawn illustrations animated throughout the doc by Gary Pullin, or the fact that the subject matter was interesting in the first place? The fact is Birth Of The Living Dead is a fun, fresh take on the nearly mythological stories of the humble beginnings of Night of the Living Dead. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the tales being told within are recited with real passion.
One endearing moment in the doc is when we see a group of elementary kids watching Night of the Living Dead while in an inner city Literacy through Film LEAP Program class; it’s both cute and hilarious to see them react to the film as well as to hear them say phrases like “rigor mortis” out loud. How wonderful children are before the world bends them to its will.
This leads to another right note BOLD hits—the proper mix of African Americans and minorities featured who get to voice opinions on this film footnote. Their voices go largely unheard in horror, and so this documentary is remarkable on that account alone. However, this doesn’t mean that they are “token;” their voices here are sincerely portrayed, and what they say matters—particularly in the opinions of NYU professor Sam Pollard and Elvis Mitchell, film critic and host of The Treatment. This is all even more relevant in the context that Night was made during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam; there are plenty of newsreel clips of both to illustrate the point. I’d be remiss if we didn’t touch upon the fact that Night of the Living Dead featured a black lead among an all-white cast, a stark contrast to the benign Sidney Pottier characters of the day; the documentary also points this out.
Romero recounts driving to NY with his film print—within is a black lead among a cast of white unknowns filmed in black and white among a sea of color—to show distributors, Romero heard the news of Martin Luther King’s death on the radio. As things ended up, every distributor turned him down that day, but the scrappy, underdog personality that led him to make Night didn’t let the rejections get in the way.
“The only reason to do a horror or fantasy film is to upset the balance of things,” Romero theorizes.
The doc is funny, too—anecdotes abound. Many famous lines in Night, like “they’re dead, they’re all messed up,” were actually improvised. The news reporter played by Chuck Craig, who was an actual reporter, wrote his own dialogue. (The local news helicopter provided free aerial views.) Additionally, some actors, including John Russo (who was also the co-screenwriter), volunteered to let themselves be lit ON FIRE without any protection, enthusing that they would just roll on the ground if things got bad.
The “ghouls” were Romero’s clients and mostly ad executives. One of the investors was a meatpacker who brought all the animal offal for the shoot—real organs that the ghouls chewed on. Russ Streiner (who played Johnny) challenged the sound mixer to a chess match; the wager was the sound mix. Good thing he won.
While everyone who’s a fan of Night knows about the awful copyright story, the doc rightly included the story. The original title, The Night of the Flesh Eaters, was removed by the distributor and replaced with The Night of the Living Dead, without the attached copyright, and so, cable channels and bootleggers were able to sell and rent Romero’s debut masterpiece without paying him. Because of this mistake, it’s still not possible to know an exact figure of what the film has collected in terms of revenue.
Night cost $114,000 (in late 60s dollars) in comparison to the average Hollywood film’s $3.5 million. AIP, distributor of the popular Corman-Price-Poe adaptations, wanted to release Night but with an enormous caveat—that Romero change the bleak ending. He refused. A bit of time went by, but the film finally found distribution, and on October 2, 1968, it was released and played at grindhouse theaters.
“God changed the rules,” Romero says about the cause of the zombie-ism. “There’s no more room in hell.”
Birth Of The Living Dead, written, produced, and directed by Rob Kuhns, produced by Esther Cassidy, and executive produced by Larry Fessenden, is now available on DVD, as well, available for streaming on Netflix.