As a fan of George Romero’s zombie work, it’s hard to view Birth of the Living Dead with any kind of objectivity. After all, without Romero’s Night of the Living Dead —and Birth points this out—there would be no other great zombie movies, including Romero’s own sequel, Dawn of the Dead, but also Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. And the TV series The Walking Dead (which I don’t love). And Brian Yuzna’s bizarre Return of the Living Dead III.
In other words, for readers who aren’t into zombie movies, beware of this review. For viewers who aren’t into zombie movies, skip it entirely.
Now that that’s established: Man, did I love Birth of the Living Dead. Its story, about duh, is told in a straightforward manner, with love and little negative critical assessment (which is not a criticism I’m leveling against it), and we finally learn just how, definitively, Night of the Living Dead ended up in the public domain so soon after its release.
One of the great things Birth of the Living Dead makes clear is that Night of the Living Dead was a different kind of zombie movie for its time, and indeed a different kind of horror movie. Before Night, zombies were brought about by magic or voodoo or some other such nonsense.
Romero made them just happen. There are several explanations in Night for the zombies, including possible radiation poisoning from Venus hitting Earth, but really, the zombies just exist, and they just want to eat. The idea of unstoppable and unexplainable evil was new, and terrifying. Even Psycho explains Norman Bates’ madness.
Romero’s zombies show no mercy, no remorse, nothing. A zombie girl kills her mother. A zombie brother (Russell Streiner) attacks his sister (Judith O’Dea). Horrifying.
Another thing Night of the Living Dead did that wasn’t common at the time was to have a black actor as the lead in a movie with no reference to his race, either by him or the other actors. Duane Jones is Ben, who ends up being the last man standing, in Night of the Living Dead. It’s too bad Jones is long dead; his reminiscences may have been enlightening.
For that matter, some other cast member reminiscences may have been enlightening. For all the talk about the wonderful cast, none of them shows up as a talking head. Some of them are dead (Jones, Bill Hinzman, who played the cemetery zombie), but others, including O’Dea, are not.
Of course, the cast remembrances MAY have been enlightening. But maybe not. Birth of the Living Dead is more interested in the ideas of critics (Elvis Mitchell) and filmmakers (Gale Anne Hurd and Larry Fessenden), because it’s trying to establish the critical and cultural importance of Night of the Living Dead.
And now we’re back into a circular argument. Night of the Living Dead’s cultural and critical importance has long been established.
So what’s left? The many reasons, of course, for its importance, and to see Romero, who’s always a great interview subject, talk about problems with the film lab, problems with the pyrotechnics, and the way he and the crew sort of knew that casting a black lead was a big deal, but they didn’t really know. They were just men and women making a movie in Pittsburgh because they wanted to make a movie.
It’s mildly heartbreaking to think about how much money Romero and his partners could have made if Night of the Living Dead’s distributor hadn’t accidentally removed the copyright notice in the film (reminder: there’s a full explanation in Birth). But if Romero never had to struggle to find funding, would there be a Dawn of the Dead the way it came out? Or a Monkeyshines (not a great movie)? Or Martin? Or Knightriders?
Hard to say. For now, let’s sit back, relax, and enjoy the story of the original zombie classic.
BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD
Directed by Rob Kuhns
With George A Romero, Elvis Mitchell and Gale Anne Hurd