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. [cont’d.]