Birth of the Living Dead

DVD_BirthOfTheLivingDeadThe tumultuous late-60s birth of the living dead

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is one of the most influential, independently-produced films of all time. Not only did it create a new horror genre that’s lurched resolutely forward for more than fifty years, its transformation of low-budget constraints into story-telling assets is a template that’s been reused throughout the world of filmmaking. Romero’s semi-professional and amateur cast and crew, improvised effects and black & white film stock all contributed to an unrehearsed, reportorial feel that gave the film’s overt horror an even deeper psychological edge. And if that was all there was to the film, it would still stand tall in the horror canon; but there was much more to be found beneath the shockingly gory surface.

Night of the Living Dead was both a product and reflection of its times: the social upheavals amid which it was made, the city that rallied behind its hometown production, and the world into which the film was released. First Run Features’ 78-minute documentary explores the film’s production and the commercial and social milieus in which it was created. Threaded throughout are clips from a 2006 interview with Romero and commentary from a number of filmmakers and critics. An additional 33-minutes of interview footage is included as a bonus feature, augmented by an extraordinary 10-minute audience Q&A from a 1970 showing of the film at the New York Museum of Modern Art. The bonuses are rounded out with a short report on a world-record-breaking zombie walk at the same Monroeville mall at which Romero made Dawn of the Dead. The latter includes a short conversation with Zombie #1, Bill Hinzman.

The documentary starts with Romero’s early career producing shorts for television’s Mr. Rogers (sadly, “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsilectomy,” is not excerpted), and ads for beer and soap. His production company, The Latent Image, built their way up to the 35mm equipment that was used to make NOTLD, his first full-length film. Romero initially tried to peddle a script for a Bergmanesque art film, but failing to find investors he turned to the more commercial genre of horror. Inspired equally by Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (which had been turned into the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth) and the angry discontent brewing at home and in Vietnam, the 27-year-old Romero and his partner John Russo crafted a bleak picture of a country literally devouring itself in gustatory revolution.

Amid the inspirations of the times, one might think Duane Jones’ casting as the film’s lead (and the story’s most capable and steady character) was some sort of counterculture reaction to or comment on the racial tensions of the times. But it turns out that Jones was selected solely for his classically-trained acting skill, and featured as a character whose race was never an element of the plot. Though his placement was quite revolutionary, the script was written before his casting, and the lack off issue with his skin color turned out to be a lens through which the film was viewed, rather than a purposeful statement by the filmmakers. As in several other respects, the film gained context from its era without necessarily drawing from it directly.

Filming in and around Pittsburgh, Romero assembled a cadre of semi-professional and amateur actors and technicians. A new production company, Image 10, was formed to finance the film, and several of the investors (and Latent Image’s advertising clients) appeared in the film or served in technical roles. Romero drew upon the Pittsburgh community for help, pulling in local acting talent, police (and their dogs) and even a news station’s helicopter. Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, the host of Chiller Theater appeared as a newsman in the film, and one of the film’s investors, who had a day job as a meatpacker, provided the animal parts used in the gore sequences. The documentary reveals that many of the actors played multiple roles and served in technical capacities; Marilyn Eastman, for example, played the mother Helen Cooper, a bug-eating ghoul, and served as the film’s make-up artist.

An hour into the documentary, the analysis turns to the film’s release and public reception. Wrapping in late 1967, it wasn’t until Spring 1968 that Romero went shopping for distributors. Carrying “an angry 60s film with a black lead,” shot by an unknown, Pittsburgh-based production company, in black and white, on a budget of only $100,000, in a film genre whose box office had been slipping, Romero had no luck with Columbia, AIP or other major distributors. The film was eventually picked up by the Walter Reade Organization (who re-titled the film from “Night of the Flesh Eaters” and inadvertently lost its copyright) and released to theaters, drive-ins and grindhouses. Critics, including Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert, failed to understand the film and trashed it in their reviews. Still, the film did well enough to be selected “Exploitation Picture of the Month” by the National Association of Theater Owners.

The film got a more public boost when a 1969 re-release resulted in an interview with George Romero in Andy Warhol’s Inter/view, and praise in France’s Positif. The film was shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in June 1970, and a 10 minute audio Q&A with the audience finds Romero giddy with the acceptance his film had finally found. Romero is a lively and interesting interview subject, and though the additional commentary from assorted filmmakers, screenwriters and critics is interesting, it would have been even more interesting to hear from other surviving members of the film’s cast and crew. The film’s Pittsburgh birth and improbably huge (and long-lasting) impact are great stories, but grounding NOTLD’s ethos in the anger, radical politics and violence of the late ’60s is this documentary’s most surprising revelation. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Birth of the Living Dead’s Home Page

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.