Documentary Film Review: BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD (directed by Rob Kuhns)

by Jason Rohrer on October 23, 2013

in Film

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DEATH OF AN ERA, BIRTH OF A GENRE

Rob Kuhns’ Birth of the Living Dead is in part a making-of documentary, and a good one, about the revolutionary 1968 zombie picture Night of the Living Dead.  It’s also a sharp essay celebrating the original George Romero film in historical political context.  It only plays through Thursday at the Arena Cinema, so if you want to see it on a big screen, you’ve got to move.  We had as good a time as I’ve had at a movie lately, the other two people and I.  It’s a crime more people aren’t coming to enjoy this as a shared event rather than a lonely VOD vigil.

An illustration of George Romero editing his seminal 1968 film NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, as seen in Rob Kuhns' documentary BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD.With humor and pathos, Birth places its subject squarely in the gathering horror of the society that spawned it, an America disillusioned and angry at the grim end of the sixties.  Night came out the year Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were shot, the year of race riots in many cities frustrated by the promises of civil rights, after a decade that hadn’t resulted in the peace and love a lot of people expected.  It was the year of the Tet Offensive and the Chicago Democratic Convention.  And come January, Richard Nixon would be president.

George Romero, director of the seminal 1968 film NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, as seen in Rob Kuhns' documentary BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD.Into this, a movie composed of groundbreaking elements including an epidemic of unexplained, unstoppable violence; a black protagonist (Duane Jones) whose race is never referred to, though he is  the only black character; and “good guys” who looked as if they had walked out of a TV news segment about a cross-burning.  Critics hated it; Vincent Canby was snide, and Roger Ebert was scandalized (Ebert later recanted his pan).  But it became a huge hit, first on the grindhouse circuit and, after discovery by (who else) the French, in Europe.  It played to standing-room only crowds at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  And it spawned arguably the most popular horror genre of the second half of the twentieth century, and for sheer number of titles at least tying vampire movies for championship of the first thirteen years of the twenty-first.

Police shoot down zombies in a scene from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as seen in Rob Kuhns' documentary BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD.Night was made by a first-feature team led by George A. Romero, who had been shooting and editing commercials in Pittsburgh and had to buy a 35 mm camera for a prestigious gig.  Thinking of producing a feature, he wrote the screenplay for a Bergmanesque medieval romance called Whine of the Fawn before deciding to go for something more commercial.  One shudders at the what if.  The story of these guerrilla filmmakers and the impact they’ve had on their medium is told by articulate, invested filmmakers such as Larry Fessenden (Wendigo), Gale Ann Hurd (The Terminator, The Walking Dead) and Mr. Romero himself, as well as critics, historians, teachers, and students.  All of them serve Mr. Kuhns’ persuasive argument that the joys of films about films need not be limited to homage and recaps and stand-offish neutrality; that nonfiction films can investigate and prove artistic theses.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD - Poster

photos courtesy First Run Features
illustration by Gary Pullin

Birth of the Living Dead
First Run Features, Predestinate Productions
rating: none
running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes
Arena Cinema, 1625 N. Las Palmas, Hollywood
screening through October 24, 2013

also in limited release
for information, visit www.yearofthelivingdead.com/

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