DVD Review: Birth of the Living Dead

Starring: George A. Romero, Larry Fassenden
Director: Rob Kuhns
Rating: 7/10

In 1968, having given up on his cherished ambition to make an arty Medieval drama called The Whine of the Faun, a little-known, 27-year-old, Pittsburgh-based director of TV commercials decided to chance his arm at a low-budget horror film instead. The director was George A. Romero, and the film was Night of the Living Dead, a movie that was to reboot the horror genre after a twenty-year slump and make it a powerful commercial and artistic force once more. This feature-length documentary charts the creation of this seminal shocker, with plenty of input from the great man himself.

Paradoxically, for a movie that seems so countercultural, it benefited from an enormous amount of support from the community, with local media and law enforcement chipping in to help, and many of Romero’s clients investing, serving as actors and extras or supplying props. One of the nicest things about Birth of the Living Dead is the way in which it celebrates the contribution of these otherwise obscure individuals, from the meatpacker who supplied entrails for the zombies to munch, to the female zombie who bravely went nude and the investor who agreed to be set on fire.

The story ends happily with the movie being feted as a work of art in Europe, but not before it had endured various mishaps, such as inexplicably being shown in a matinee for kids, reducing its young audience to tears. But that’s only half the tale – much of documentary is given over to an analysis of just why the film has had such a dramatic and lasting impact, and the commentaries by various fans, pundits and industry insiders (including actor/director Larry Fassenden and Gale Anne Hurd, executive producer of The Walking Dead) are hugely enjoyable, energetic and insightful.

Among the topics touched upon are the way in which the movie violates the expectations of conventional horror, unsentimentally killing off good and bad characters alike, its subversiveness at the time (casting black actor Duane Jones in the lead and showing him beating the snot out of white folks, even if they are already dead), and its ability to co-opt imagery from the civil rights turmoil of the ’60s to unsettling effect (the militia who turn their guns on the zombies with the drunken glee of a lynch mob). Even if you’re not already a massive fan of the movie, there’s plenty here to persuade you that perhaps you should be.

The best moment, though, comes when Romero is asked how he sets about getting a good performance from a zombie extra. The director smiles indulgently: “There’s no such thing as a bad zombie.”

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