Documentary tells how ‘Living Dead’ changed horror movies

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, October 17, 2013 7:53am
  • LifeGo-See-Do

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.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Life

Matt Stewart, left, and Janice Ayala, right, spin during country dance lessons at Normanna Lodge on Tuesday, April 9, 2024 in Everett, Washington. Normanna Lodge will be hosting country dance next Tuesday during PBR Stampede. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett Stampede aims to become a Western-themed tradition

The new weeklong event combines a popular Professional Bull Riders event with live music, two-step dancing and more.

Graham Kerr, 90, leans down and kisses his new wife, Nancy, during Senior Expo on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, at Hotel Indigo in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
‘Galloping Gourmet’ celebrity chef Graham Kerr is a Stanwood newlywed

The 90-year-old shared his love of Nancy, God and Costco at the Everett senior expo last month.

Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Edmonds Center for the Arts plays host to comedian Don Friesen on Friday and Grammy-nominated vocal group säje on Sunday.

Jon Kim freestyles during a RTHMZ rehearsal Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Moving with love: Lynnwood’s RTHMZ dances to their own beat

The team brings together dancers from across styles to raise the bar of what’s possible in the local scene.

Stress management, meditation or relaxation to reduce anxiety, control emotion during problem solving or frustration work concept, woman in lotus meditation on chaos mess line with positive energy.
Sharing reflections on 50 years of meditation

Meditation is no quick fix, but if you establish a consistent practice, over time, you’ll appreciate the results.

In the “rickety-chic” Psyrri neighborhood of Athens, you’ll find slick outdoor restaurants next to vibrant street art. (Cameron Hewitt)
No need to scram from an Athens on the rise

Rick Steves used to think of Athens as a big ugly city. But while updating his guidebook one summer, he discovered a many-faceted city that’s getting its act together.

chris elliott.
Why won’t Airbnb cover my hotel expenses? They promised!

When David Tuttle’s Airbnb host moves him to a different rental, Airbnb offers to cover his hotel expenses, but a month has passed since. Where’s the money?

Oumou Sangare, from Senegal, performs at the "Africa Standing Tall Against Poverty" in concert with Live8 in Johannesburg Saturday July 2, 2005. (AP Photo)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Hear Grammy winner Oumou Sangare on Saturday in Edmonds. Also on Saturday: The Everett Film Festival.

Jimmer DeGroot stands along the line of weber grills in his front yard on Sunday, March 31, 2024, in Grotto, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Why are there 24 Weber grills lined up on the highway to Stevens Pass?

Just ask Jimmer De Groot. He expresses his love of grills through his art. And it’s now a bit of an obsession.

2024 Honda Civic Type R (Photo provided by Honda)
2024 Honda Civic Type R

Developed in Japan, and track-tested around the world, the Civic R Type delivers 315 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, making it Honda’s most powerful production vehicle in the U.S.

Suomenlinna
Soul sisters Helsinki and Tallinn are pearls of the Baltic

While they have their own stories to tell, these cities share a common heritage of Swedish and Russian influences.

My trip to Iraq was canceled, so why can’t I get my $7,590 back?

When Diane Gottlieb’s tour of Iraq is canceled, the tour operator offers her a voucher for a future trip. But she wants a refund.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.