It’s not often that one can trace back the origins of an entire genre to one body of work, let alone have that seminal entity still directly influence all its successors in one way or another. We can from time to time point out overt homages to a keystone effort or see themes and imagery blatantly stolen, but in the case of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, we’ve simply seen a genre organically (and sometimes brilliantly) evolve within the confines of the trendsetter’s mould.
Efficiently and entertainingly, Birth of the Living Dead takes us back to the late 1960’s where times were tough, social divides were widening and where one nearly novice auteur dared to craft a horror film unlike anything audiences had seen before, and arguably, haven’t seen since.
In viewing the first entry in Romero’s “Dead” series decades after its first release, not analyzing what it must have meant at the time is an easy feat. For most watching it now, they’ll be struck by how well it holds up, rather than that it featured stark parallels to the climate at that time, both intentionally and otherwise. Race wars at home raged, and so too did the Vietnam War overseas – the symbolism of unstoppable, remorseless monsters laying siege to one’s home rung far too true in some cases. Birth of the Living Dead strips away these layers and provides us with a capsule of time when a movie became more than just a movie.
The film also intriguingly touches on the casting of African American lead Duane Jones, an addition to the crew that was purely based on skill, and who was not accompanied by changes to the script to address his ethnicity. This resulted in (at the time) a black man serving as the leader of a group of white folk who did not engage in slurs or anything of the like and instead played things out as it would between those of the same race, or if those prejudices did not exist at all. It was man versus the undead and man versus man at the same time, but not because of racism.
All of this insight would of course be for nought if Mr. Romero himself were not to wryly chime in on his experiences, thoughts on the actors, the filmmaking process and everything around and in between. At age 73 he’s still as chipper and sarcastic as ever, and frankly is just a blast to watch on screen. Furthermore, his commentary of things he would have changed today and things he wished could have been accomplished then, help to flesh out a man who has spent his life in the industry.
If there was one major complaint I would have against Birth of the Living Dead it would be its slim runtime. While digestible in the best of ways, it could have dug a little deeper into the mythos of the film and the actual filmmaking process. It’s a shame that many of the cast and crew have passed on since filming as their lack of insight into how the process went for them softens the bite of the documentary a tad, but of course I can’t lay blame on something that cannot be altered, and as it stands it still paints a very vivid picture.
While slight in areas, I would certainly label Birth of the Living Dead as essential viewing for fans of zombie films, Night of the Living Dead or of the man behind the magic. It’s overall an immensely enjoyable watch that should leave most fans, save the diehard, with something new to mull over about one of the greatest horror films of all time. If at the very least it makes you want to partake in another viewing of the iconic flick, then that’s good enough in my book.