Friday, January 3, 2014

Rob Kuhns' BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD: Everything you wanted to know about the original flesh-eating-zombie movie

Imitations and homages may come and go but there is still only one true and great "modern" zombie movie: Night of the Living Dead, the transgressive -- politically and moviewise -- 1968 chiller/thriller/
horror/gore-fest from George A. Romero. A young filmmaker named Rob Kuhns (shown below) had the fine idea to interview Mr. Romero (about how the movie came to be) along with others (about what the movie means), and the result is a first-rate documentary -- BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD -- that should please zombie fans, cult movie lovers and literally anyone who feels, as does TrustMovies, that Romero's film remains, in its own special way, something seminal and important to the history of motion pictures (and I do not mean only horror movies).

As captured by Kuhns' direction and editing, Mr. Romero, shown below and now 73, turns out to be a charming raconteur: intelligent, relatively humble (as filmmakers go), funny but never glib, with a good memory and a real delight in recalling the old days and how they went down. Mr. Kuhns has rounded up a fine array of talking heads, too -- from horror filmmaker Larry Fessenden (shown further below) to producer Gale Anne Hurd, critics Elvis Mitchell and Jason Zinoman, and film historian Mark Harris, along with some of the actors like Bill Hinzman who doubled and tripled in other jobs on the film set and who are still alive. (Mr. Hinzman gets a lovely post-credit sequences at a mall event celebrating--what else?--zombies.)

Mostly though, it's Romero who guides us through the thicket of the past, how the initial idea came about and grew, how money was raised, first to film that idea and then do the technical work necessary to ready the film for release. In order to find enough funds to finish the sound track (as I recall, it was the sound track), one of the actors/workers bet a fellow who owned a sound studio that he could beat him in a chess match. He did.

Some of the anecdotes we hear along the way are wonderfully funny and surprising. (Who knew that Mr. Rogers had any connection to the world's most famous zombie movie?) And some are simply sad. (Want to make a guess as to how rich everyone connected to this groundbreaking movie became -- along with the reason why not?)

The 76-minute length of the documentary simply flies by, and I can hardly think of anything I'd want to have seen left on the cutting room floor. From this film we get -- as the original movie itself has always given us -- politics, race, taboos and other cultural touchstones.

Via scenes from the film, as well as from some nifty illustrations (shown above), we can relive our initial shock and fear all over again, this time with a smile always flickering around our faces. (That's Mr. Hinzman -- above in illustration and below on film -- as the initial zombie encountered in the graveyard.)

One of the most flat-out enjoyable documentaries of the year, Birth of the Living Dead, from First Run Features, had a short theatrical release a few months back, and will make its DVDebut this coming Tuesday, January 7. As with many FRF releases, I think we can expect it to appear on streaming sources eventually.

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