“The only reason to do a fantasy film or a horror film is to uproot the order, to upset the balance of things.”
The speaker is George A. Romero, specifically explaining why, rather than stick to the received formula in his debut feature The Night of the Living Dead (1968) and close the film with a restoration of order, he instead went for a “tragic and ironic ending.” Yet his words have a much broader resonance given just how much was revolutionary about this low-budget monochrome film: its fully independent status; its opening that cocks a postmodern snook at the hoary conventions of previous horror (“they’re coming to get you, Barbra”); its self-conscious eschewal of then voguish alien invaders, radioactive monsters or castle gothic; its invention, from the ground up, of the modern zombie; its radical (yet casual) casting of an African American as its hero; its realistic, matter-of-fact gore; its allegorical engagement with the intergenerational conflicts, civil rights clashes and Vietnam iconography that characterised the decade in which it was made; its satirical subversion of all traditional authority figures (fathers, scientists, generals); and yes, the uncompromising bleakness of an ending that continues to send shockwaves down the ages.
None of this now seems exactly new – after all, NOTLD came out over four and a half decades ago, and has in the meantime been interpreted and reinterpreted, sequelised, remade and rebooted, many times over. So one might naturally expect Rob Kuhn’s documentary Birth of the Living Dead to be the kind of cultural artefact relegated to the status of video ‘extra’ rather than released in its own right, not least because it follows the tried-and-tested format of intercutting file footage and talking heads, with only the occasional splash of stylised animation to suggest any kind of formal adventurousness.
Still, even if it ultimately feels more like making-of featurette than genuine feature, it certainly earns its place as the very pinnacle of that marginalised genre. For a start, it condenses a great deal of information about the original film’s context, inception, production, scene-by-scene analysis, reception and influence into a coherent and palatable narrative. It is also accompanied by anecdotal details that may at times surprise even the film’s long-term fans. Who knew, for example, that before making NOTLD, Romero had penned and then abandoned a medieval rape-revenge, film inspired (like Wes Craven’s subsequent The Last House on the Left) by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, and improbably entitled Whine of the Fawn?
Best of all, though, the interviewees (including, e.g., independent horror producer Larry Fessenden, film historian Mark Harris, academic Sam Pollard, and The Walking Dead producer Gale Anne Hurd) furnish a genuine range and diversity of perspectives. Centre stage, naturally, is Romero himself, whose contributions are peppered with his usual self-deprecating wit, and who still, nearly half a century after the Sixties ended, charmingly punctuates the end of many a sentence with “man.”
NOTLD upset the balance of horror alright, and the new life that it gave to a then moribund genre can still be felt coursing through the veins of today’s creepshow offerings (even if few films from now can match the political acumen of Romero’s oeuvre). Birth of the Living Dead is not really uprooting the order of behind-the-scenes documentaries – but the great likelihood that it will send viewers right back to Romero’s original with eyes reopened is a mark of its considerable success.