Race, Revolution, & Zombies come to life in new doc: “Birth of the Living Dead”
Birth of the Living Dead, a new documentary on the cult classic Night of the Living Dead (NOTLD), begins arriving in movie theaters in 20 cities across the country this month, just in time for Halloween. NOTLD, which was directed by George Romero in 1968, remains one of the most influential horror films of all time, famous for the invention of modern-day zombies. Birth of the Living Dead, reminds viewers that NOTLD was also groundbreaking for its social and political undertones. Part making-of movie and part cultural decoder, Birth brings to life for today’s audiences the revolutionary significance of NOTLD, illuminating how this independent, low-budget, horror film became an accidental icon of the counterculture.
“NOTLD is a movie that the hippies and the demonstrators would see to get a sense of sticking it to the man,” Birth’s director, Rob Kuhns explains to me. I catch up with Rob by phone. He’s in a hotel room in Atlanta this morning, on the road with Birth and pretty much in a different city every night for the next two weeks. We talk before he heads off to the next screening in Milledgeville, GA. He tells me, “They schedule you within an inch of your life so we are constantly moving, but it’s a great opportunity to go to all of these places, make direct contact with audiences, and have conversations.”
Let’s start by acknowledging that making a documentary is a huge labor of love. What drove you to want to tell the story of a horror film that was made 45 years ago and why was it important for your documentary to explore the social/political context that influenced NOTLD?
I guess I’ll go back to 1983 when I saw NOTLD for the first time in a midnight show in NY; it just knocked me to my core. In 2005, I read about the making of NOTLD, which is this wonderful underdog story. These people from Pittsburgh who were scraping by making commercials decided they wanted to make a feature film. To call it a long shot is a massive understatement. The whole idea of an independent film was like, what are you talking about? No one had heard of such a thing. Around the time I was reading this, I got hired to work on Moyers and Company, a weekly TV show. Bill Moyers had been the press secretary for Lyndon Johnson so I kind of got steeped in that part of history and had access to all of this archival footage and one thing led to another … Delving into the social/political context of NOTLD became this big, fat, juicy theme. Horror is very much ghettoized; people don’t look at it as a legitimate art form, so I think part of me was motivated to give horror a legitimacy that a lot of people don’t.
What was the first specific “aha” moment when you realized that Birth needed to tell a political/social story as much as a filmmaking one?
The most obvious moment was seeing footage of the National Guard responding to race rebellions in the ‘60s and footage of cops pushing around African Americans. Just seeing that bullying was striking. There was a clear parallel between seeing these cops bullying civilians and the posse in NOTLD shooting people in the face. In the movie they’re killing zombies of course, but it’s really a creepy image to see what looks like a lynch mob shooting grandmothers down. I can’t help but think that Romero and his colleagues were watching this stuff and responding to the imagery through the way they executed their film.
It’s all about setting up context and explaining what it was that people expected to see in 1968 versus what they ended up seeing. NOTLD broke all of these taboos. There’s so much anti-establishment stuff in this movie, it almost systematically tries to attack all of the things that are supposed to keep us safe. The idea of the police and military, the patriarchal structure, the media, young love- in a typical horror movie these things fight off threats like a force that’s bigger than evil. But all of these things were useless against the zombies, which is horrifying. When I interviewed Mark Harris, I asked, “Why do you think audiences were ready for NOTLD?” and he said, “I don’t think audiences were ready for NOTLD and that’s why they responded to it.” It’s this shocking, this exciting experience; so Birth is all about contextualizing everything so you can experience it as it was experienced back then.
Talk about the decision to make race, and the implications of casting Duane Jones as Ben, a central theme in Birth.
Romero says, and I believe him, that Duane Jones was the best actor they knew and the character of Ben was not written as being any particular race. Their decision to cast Duane was a radical choice. This was 1967, if you cast an African American in any part, in any film, race was going to be their primary characteristic. The thing that was remarkable about NOTLD was that race was never mentioned. Additionally, as Mark Harris explains, up until this point, black characters in films were allowed to be smart but not aggressive or tough and Ben was a very tough character. He kills a lot of zombies and he takes control. That was something that would have been considered very threatening behavior.
I’d ask what the experience was like for him. Romero represents Duane in some of his interview saying that Duane confronted him and said, “I can’t do this stuff. I can’t kill a white guy. I can’t slap a white woman; this stuff is going to have consequences.” Duane ended up going through with it because Romero was insistent on not changing the script and not having race as an issue. Romero now questions if he should have done that. I’d be curious to ask Duane, how would you have changed the script? What would the relationships in the film be like if race was addressed as an issue for these people trapped and being pursued by zombies? How do you think that would play out? It would be an unbelievable opportunity to ask that.
Birth ends with the line, “There’s really a fragility to our society, and you realize- I must guard it, I must be vigilant. Then you get into why horror stories can actually have a positive message if you will, a positive effect, which is to say here is a cautionary tale; do not take anything for granted. Because one day a zombie may wander up and you may make fun of the person who is afraid but they could be right and things could go from bad to worse.” Talk about the choice to end your film on this idea.
All of the things that kept us safe were being questioned in 1968 in NOTLD and the movies that came after. I thought that this statement worked as a big idea ending and lent itself to the mission of trying to de-ghettoize horror. Horror can have a positive effect on our society and should be looked at as a legitimate art form that is crucially subversive, making us question things in ways that are healthy and very powerful.
For more information on Birth of the Living Dead, visit http://yearofthelivingdead.com/
All images used with permission of the film’s director.