J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Birth of the Living Dead: The Undead Origin Story

It came from Pittsburgh.  That is where George A. Romero had carved out a business shooting television commercials for local clients.  Of course, he harbored filmmaking ambitions.  Eventually, his upstart debut would revolutionize horror cinema, spawning all kinds of controversy and imitators.  Yet, at the time, Romero was not at all certain he would be able to complete production and post on the now classic The Night of the Living Dead. Rob Kuhns goes straight to the source for his behind the scenes look at the making and legacy of the zombie classic in The Birth of the Living Dead (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

It has been over forty years since the original Living Dead was first released with little fanfare in an old school midtown grindhouse theater. Despite uniformly negative reviews (from the few critics who even bothered to cover it), Romero’s classic took on a life of its own.  In fact, the entire city of Pittsburgh had already sort of rallied behind it, perhaps inspired by local late night creature feature TV host Bill Cardille’s weekly drumbeat of publicity (you can spot him late in the film as the newsman interviewing the sheriff).  During production, the police department provided helicopters free of charge and many of Romero’s customers appeared as zombies.

One of the cool things about Birth is the way Romero vividly remembers each and every extra.  Those who have seen the film countless times will be fascinated to learn how many cast members also performed crucial functions off-screen.  Romero’s co-producer Russell Streiner (instantly recognizable as Barbara’s ill-fated brother) emerges as a particularly resourceful figure.  Kuhns also includes an endearing stinger-tribute to the late Bill Hinzman, the first zombie who chases her into the farmhouse.

Visually, Birth is also fan-friendly, featuring Gary Pullin’s distinctive comic art to illustrate various stages of the production.  It will further reassure diehards to know the doc comes via Glass Eye Pix, with Larry Fessenden on board as both a talking head and executive producer.

In a bizarre turn, Birth periodically visits a Bronx middle school, where a teacher uses Night of the Living Dead as part of his “Literacy through Film” course.  Yes, this is a classic film with considerable subtext, but showing graphic depictions of cannibalism in the classroom is wholly inappropriate. Evidently, “de-sensitize them early” is the Board of Ed’s motto.  Only in New York.

Kuhns is on stronger footing examining the wider cultural significance of Night.  According to Romero, Ben the central POV character was not originally written as an African American, but Duane Jones just nailed the audition.  Nonetheless, the added implications of the final scene would have been hard to miss, especially since Romero was consciously incorporating images of the 1960’s civil strife.

If you are a mature adult, at least old enough to vote, you really ought to be familiar with Night of the Living Dead.  While Birth offers some shallow general political analysis of the late 1960’s, it specifically contextualizes the Romero’s film quite adroitly.  Recommended for zombie aficionados who want to deepen their Living Dead viewing experience, Birth of the Living Dead opens this Wednesday (11/6) at the IFC Center.

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