Yolande’s Yard: ‘Birth of the Living Dead’

duane-jones-660By Yolande Brener

For a documentary about a zombie movie, Birth of the Living Dead is full of life. Packed with archival footage from the 60’s, interviews with writers, filmmakers and producers, and clips from Night of the Living Dead, the surprises keep coming right until the end.

When George Romero started working on Night of the Living Dead in 1967, the 27-year-old director didn’t even know if his film would get finished.  He made the film for $114,000 when most films of the time cost upwards of $3 million. In the documentary, Romero shares production trivia like how he made a clay hand filled with blood (“it looks like s@#t”), and how local meatpackers gave the zombies real entrails to eat.

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Documentary director, Rob Kuhns, felt impelled to tell the story of “the little movie that could,” made by a mainly working class crew in Kuhns’ hometown, Pittsburgh. “I wanted people to be able to experience Night of the Living Dead by contextualizing it as close as possible to how it was experienced when it first came out, to have that same kind of impact,” he said.

Forty-five years later, Night of the Living Dead is still popular. The flesh-eating zombie, created in the film, spawned a billion-dollar industry including movies, videogames and comics. Gale Ann Hurd, Executive Producer of AMC series, The Walking Dead, says the zombies in that series are patterned on those in Night of the Living Dead.

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Birth of the Living Dead explores how the film mirrored the times. Not only did the film metaphorically address people’s disillusionment with the 60s and the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, it also cast a black hero at a time when rampant race riots were occurring in America. The script contained no reference to the character’s race, and Romero didn’t change this after he cast Duane Jones as hero, Ben.

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Mark Harris, author of Pictures of a Revolution says, “In 1968, strange as it seems, this was something the audience would have noticed. It would have registered to them as different.”

A diverse crew of Pittsburghers came out to help with the film, including a local television personality, a newscaster and the Pittsburgh police with their dogs.

Kuhns sees horror as a “crucially subversive art form that can address social and political issues.

“Night of the Living Dead is a flagship for that kind of movie,” he said.

“God changed the rules,” says Romero in the documentary. “There’s no more room in hell… In my mythology this is probably some kind of permanent condition until we redeem ourselves somehow.”

Birth of the Living Dead shows how the can-do spirit of a few dedicated artists changed horror and created a new type of monster.

The documentary showed at Harlem’s Schomburg Center in October, and opened at the IFC on November 6.

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