They say that every critic is a wannabe filmmaker. For myself, I actually was all set to be a filmmaker. I had done a number of projects in school and for local cable access stations. And then something weird happened. I realized that while I enjoyed writing and editing, film production left me cold. The daunting tasks of micro-managing every last detail, as independent filmmakers must inevitably do, left me burnt out and uninspired. I still write and edit, sometimes for other people yet mostly for myself. My love for film has not diminished, but I find I enjoy the history, analysis and critique of film infinitely more. That is why I cannot stay away from books and documentaries on the subject of filmmaking.
BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD is in many ways a perfect fit for me. Not only is it a film that analyses both the making and historical significance of a bona fide film classic, it’s also rooted in the horror genre which you may have noticed is my biggest love.
The film takes a look at the making of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. We are treated to stories about how George A. Romero, John Russo and the rest of the crew started as industrial filmmakers and are even treated to a film Romero directed in which Mr. Rogers undergoes a routine surgical procedure (Romero describes it as still the scariest movie he’s ever done.). They got the bug to make a feature-length film and we’re taken through the process of how they came up with the idea for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and all the triumphs and headaches in the film’s production.
People like critic Elvis Mitchell and filmmaker Larry Fessenden (who also produces this film) show up to expound the artistic merits of Romero’s classic film. These admirers make it clear that this film could have never been dismissed as just another monster movie, since the craftsmanship on display is so much greater than much of what was being churned out back then.
They also comment at length about the cultural significance of the film, not just in kick-starting a whole new horror aesthetic but also in its portrayal of the turbulent civil rights movement and the strained relationship between the government and the American people. This analysis provides some of the most insightful commentary to be found in the film. It should be noted, however, that for a long time, Romero would be quoted as saying that the seemingly obvious symbolism of his film was completely unintentional. But he appears to have changed his tune over the years.
It’s to BIRTH’s benefit that Romero and company aren’t your typical talking heads. They are lively and humorous and keep things entertaining. No wonder they were seen as upstarts compared to some of the stuffed shirts that were making bigger films at the time.
My love of the horror genre makes me both the perfect person to watch BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD and the completely wrong choice as well. There really wasn’t a whole lot in this film I didn’t already know, and it was mostly the entertaining way in which people told familiar stories that kept my interest. Joe Kane’s book, Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever, told you practically everything you needed to know and there were only a few nice surprises.
Fortunately, most of BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD’s viewers won’t be horror addicts who devour behind the scenes information. And that’s why this is still a recommended film. It will be a great film for the majority of its viewers and was nearly that for me as well. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Not rated, but the equivalent of a light “R” for language, and violent imagery
– Running time: 1hr 16mins.