Birth of the Living Dead (First Run Features, NR)


Birthoflivingdead 75For those new to the film, Birth of the Living Dead is a great introduction to Romero lore, although due to numerous spoilers you should probably watch Night of the Living Dead before you watch this film.

BirthofLivingDead 500

When Universal Studios was codifying movie monsters in the 1930s—vampires, mummies, wolfmen, and the like—one of the most popular contemporary monsters was nowhere to be found. I refer, of course, to the shuffling, relentless, next-door-neighbor variety introduced in George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead. Other studios gave us voodoo zombies—those in United Artists’ White Zombie (1932) and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie among them—but they resemble Romero’s creations in name only (in fact, Romero didn’t use the word “zombie” in his film, but that’s what they’ve come to be known as).

Today, of course, zombies rival vampires as the leading monsters of the screen, and Romero’s basic zombie type has been replicated hundreds, if not thousands, of times, from the popular series The Living Dead to the many labor-of-love films that go straight to VOD. But Night of the Living Dead is much more than just a zombie film—among other things, it’s a lesson in how to make a groundbreaking film on practically no money, a strong commentary on contemporary politics, and a tribute to the wisdom of fans over critics (Night of the Living Dead barely drew limited, and largely negative, notice when it was first released, yet has become one of the most emblematic horror films of the second half of the 20th century).

Rob Kuhns’ documentary Birth of the Living Dead is a celebration of the creation of Night of the Living Dead, and has a feel somewhere between a genial chat among friends and a DVD extra. A lot of what’s in this film here will be familiar to Romero fans—from Romero’s background working on local TV programs, including Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to the fact that the central role was given to an African-American because he was the best actor available and not as an overt Civil Rights statement—but it’s still enjoyable to hear them again. For those new to the film, Birth of the Living Dead is a great introduction to Romero lore, although due to numerous spoilers you should probably watch Night of the Living Dead before you watch this film.

Romero, who just celebrated his 74th birthday, is still a charming presence on camera, and many other voices chime in, including Gale Ann Hurd (producer of The Walking Dead, which draws heavily on Romero’s vision), critics Jason Zinoman and Elvis Mitchell, and filmmaker/schoolteacher Christopher Cruz, who uses Night of the Living Dead and other films to teach literacy to his students in the Bronx.

Birth of the Living Dead is distributed on DVD by First Run Features and is available for download from iTunes. Extras on the DVD include a video interview with Romero (33 min.), an audio interview with Romero (10 min.), and footage of the Monroeville Zombie Walk (7 min.). | Sarah Boslaugh

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