Film Review: Birth of the Living Dead (2014)

“An infectious movie that will compel you to spread it from person to person until the whole world is consumed by it.”

BIRTH-OF-THE-LIVING-DEADIt is completely unarguable that writer/director George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead is one of the greatest and most important horror films ever made. So revered is it that every legendary and possibly overinflated tale of its production, meaning and legacy must’ve already been utterly disseminated by the horror community. Mustn’t it?

Yes, okay, that’s a fairly meaningless question as it’s entirely dependent on how deep you’ve waded into the swamp of cinematic horror. And in a way it’s entirely irrelevant, because its director Rob Kuhns knows that there’s been more than enough dissection, examination, debate and cross-examination of the genre defining film. At least in text anyway. Importantly he’s astutely recognised that in the modern age of the information superhighway, the appropriately zombie-like followers of Night of the Living Deadwill have devoured much of the information out there in many small pieces, so no matter how far the documentary can dig into the lore of Night of the Living Dead, a large section of it won’t be new. What he’s also recognised is that a lot of this information hasn’t all been gathered together under one roof, certainly not in the cinematic form anyway. In this somewhat contrived equation it’s also important to take note of the fact that those who seek out this film, and it will need to be sought, will indeed be those same, diehard Night of the Living Dead fans.

So we’ve got an abundance of knowledge, presented in an admittedly new way, in a film that will mostly be seen and advocated by people who know most of the knowledge within. How do we make relevant that deliverer of content? The answer is love, style, and George A. Romero himself.

Kuhns correctly puts what is the film’s most charming and successful stylistic choice front and centre. The film is interspersed, at times a little too sparingly, with some lovely black, white and grey stylized cartoons depicting snapshots of life on the Night of the Living Dead set. While a larger budget may have stretched to fully animated sequences, it’s good that they didn’t. The cartoons are minutely moving in a the manner of motion comics and as such are utterly charming. Perhaps it’s the way they’re clearly low-budget and lovingly done themselves, but they wonderfully illustrate key moments in the Night of the Living Dead production.

What Kuhns also correctly puts front and centre is the consistent and candid cooperation of horror’s own Ozzy Osbourne, George A. Romero. And that’s something joyous in itself; given the rapid deterioration of the Dead franchise after Day of the Dead it’s very easy to write latter day Romero off as a sad old man trying to be down with the kids. That’s easy because it’s a fair assessment to make after Survival of the Dead. However this isn’t a film about appraising the entire output of a franchise or its director. This is where the love part of the above answer comes in, and it’s the strongest element of said solution.

One is happy to use the analogy of Romero being the Osbourne of horror as it’s an idea inspired by Birth of the Living Dead. Perhaps because this is a film that will find its audience, primarily well-versed and over familiar with its subject, needing to be reminded of one of the basic truths obscured by the fog obviousness. It politely but sternly commands its audience to step back and truly recognise Romero’s importance. That he and his cohorts are singlehandedly responsible for an entire genre of filmmaking, and in one single effort completely affected our opinion on horror and the way it’s made, whether we or the makers like it or not. It’s a powerful point that’s beautifully illustrated in Birth of the Living Dead.

Romero himself is, like Osbourne again, instantly loveable, disarming and yet thoughtful and poignant. As the old expression goes, “it’s the way he tells ‘em”. He has an absolutely wonderful way of telling stories, one that the documentary quickly and wisely latches on to. There’s a genuine interplay between the film and the legendary filmmaker that makes things feel absolutely captivating and personal. It’s best characterised when Romero is telling the story of the unreliability of post-film services, who would often ruin shot stock and reply to Romero (which he emulates in a strong Pittsburgh accent), “You know what? We fucked it up!” It takes a certain confidence for a documentary to stray outside of its own limitations and allow the sound of a crew member’s laughter to follow “We fucked it up!”, and it’s absolutely lovely. This drawing outside the lines actually beckons the viewer into the warmth of this fond memory of a documentary and makes it all the richer.

The film is not without its serious points however. The basics are very well covered by the talking heads, discussing Night of the Living Dead’s well known relevancies and reflections of the race riots and Vietnam war of the time. More interestingly though is a thorough and thoughtful look at how the film and its star Duane Jones made leaps and bounds for the representation of black people in cinema compared to Sidney Poitier’s much heralded performances around the same period. Indeed it’s a fascinating comparison to draw and an absolutely valid one, as it effectively demonstrates how restrained cinema still was at the time, and how boisterously and belligerently Romero was ready to treat it.

Mostly however Birth of the Living Dead is a love in lock in, and all the better for it. It’s an infectious movie that will compel you to spread it from person to person until the whole world is consumed by it. It is, in the best way, all consuming.

RJ BAYLEY

Director: Robert Kuhns
Starring: George A Romero, Larry Fessenden, Mark Harris, Gale Anne Hurd
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 76 minutes
DVD Release Date: 12 May 2014

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