Documentary tells how ‘Living Dead’ changed horror movies

It is a quirk of film history that the rise of the zombie picture grew directly out of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Nothing against the wonderful Fred Rogers, that soft-spoken dean of children’s television, but there is a connection.

Back in the 1960s, when Rogers was making his TV series in Pittsburgh, a local filmmaker shot footage for various parts of the show.

One segment was a chronicle of Fred’s visit to the doctor to have his tonsils out. “Which remains the scariest thing I ever made,” recalls George A. Romero, the man who filmed the sequence.

He’d know about that. Romero mentions this bit in “Birth of the Living Dead,” a cheerful documentary about his 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead,” a legendary moment in independent film and the granddaddy of the modern zombie movie.

With Romero’s good-humored participation, director Rob Kuhns presents a swift-moving examination of the story behind the movie. Romero made his film independently, with investors pitching in to portray zombies and a local meat-packer contributing the internal organs needed for a key cannibalism scene.

A very smart man, Romero explains how the cultural stew of the ’60s counterculture and the Vietnam War affected the tone of his movie.

He also describes how he cast a black actor, Duane Jones, as the hero of the movie, because Jones gave the best audition — but then kept the colorblind nature of the screenplay and never mentioned race in the dialogue.

A few other talking heads (that’s a dangerous phrase when speaking of a zombie documentary), including former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, share the shock and exhilaration of seeing a movie with an African-American playing a heroic lead. Jones’ story gets curtailed here, and it’s disappointing that we don’t hear more about this serious actor’s life.

There’s also an interesting tale about the way “Night” fell out of copyright: When the title was changed, somebody forgot to put the copyright notice on the film’s credits, and “Night” went immediately into the public domain.

Anybody who had a print could run off copies and sell them, or show it without paying residuals. Romero lost untold millions — so maybe it’s understandable he doesn’t talk too much about this incident.

Kuhns ranges across the film’s place in midnight-movie culture and its ability to shock even today. One misguided episode depicts a grade-school teacher showing “Night” to his students, the better to encourage class discussion. Dude: Kids should not be watching this film. What are you thinking?

That aside, “Birth of the Living Dead” provides more than enough argument for taking a zombie movie seriously. It’s a nice Halloween extra for fans of the genre.

“Birth of the Living Dead” (2½ stars)

A cheerful documentary about the making of George Romero’s still-galvanizing “Night of the Living Dead,” the granddaddy of zombie movies. Romero is a smart man and tells stories well, and other fans give good evidence for why the movie reflects its era (1968) and should be taken seriously.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for violence, language.

Showing: Grand Illusion.

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