The Birth of ‘Birth of the Living Dead’
By Rob Kuhns, director of Birth of the Living Dead: Making this documentary was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I got to not only meet my heroes, but spend real time with them. And I got to see a story—the story of how a tiny horror film reflected one of the most tumultuous times in American history while becoming a worldwide sensation—unfold before my eyes with a richness I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
I first saw Night of the Living Dead at a midnight show in 1983. I was a film student at NYU and Night had been playing continuously, almost without a break, in theaters since its release in 1968. I remember leaving the theater feeling shattered and dazed—a feeling I hadn’t had since 1973 when I watched on my family’s first color TV Charlton Heston come across the crumbled remains of the Statue of Liberty on the beach in Planet of the Apes. Of the thousands of movies I’ve seen in my lifetime only a handful have hit me on that primal, gut level.
My love of George A. Romero‘s films, and particularly of Night, began at that screening in ’83. I watched all of his movies and read all I could about him. In my research I came across the inspiring and frequently hilarious accounts of the making of Night of the Living Dead. Romero, a 27-year-old college dropout from the Bronx, and a crew of mostly very young working class people, not very experienced in filmmaking and with very few resources, came together to make a seminal film. This story of a “little-movie-that-could” could make a wonderful documentary.
My wife, Esther Cassidy, (who produced Birth with me) and I got in touch with Romero in 2006 through friends of a friend. When he opened the door of his apartment to greet us I was reminded of that scene in Spike Lee‘s Malcolm X when Malcolm first met Elijah Muhammad—we were awestruck and speechless. We were soon disarmed by Romero’s graciousness, humility and humor. He shared the most amazing stories about Night and the time in which it was made. Romero is a compulsive, wildly-gifted storyteller with no off-switch. The director of photography couldn’t change the tapes fast enough. Astonishingly, he gave us several days of his time and through his interview alone we immediately knew we had the core of a great documentary.
Soon after shooting the interview I was given another incredible opportunity—to work as an editor with another one of my heroes, Bill Moyers. I would never have expected my work with Moyers to have anything to do with the story of Night of the Living Dead, but once I started this job, I’d have to be blind not to see the connection.
Moyers was Press Secretary for President Lyndon B. Johnson at the time that Night was made and he frequently commented on his show about that moment in history. He did a show about the Kerner Report, an LBJ initiative, which examined the causes of the race rebellions in 1967, the same year that Night was shot. I was stunned by the footage of Newark and Detroit during this time. It looked like the apocalypse. We did another show about LBJ grappling with Vietnam, escalating the war at a time when the country was deeply divided about our involvement.
I experimented in weaving these stories chronologically with the stories of the making of Night and it hit me like a ton of bricks—this tiny, low budget horror film made in Pittsburgh by a bunch of young first-time filmmakers was in fact a living document of its moment in history. The documentary had developed a life of its own. It was just a matter of following the bread crumbs.
Michael Winship, Bill Moyers’ head writer, gave me a copy of Pictures at a Revolution, by Mark Harris, which looked at the cultural and political context of the films that were nominated for the Academy Award in 1968, the same year Night was released.
We interviewed Harris and once again we couldn’t believe our luck. Harris, with almost no direction from me, nailed it with one example after another of how Night reflected that particular moment in history. This was a ferocious, confrontational horror film—very 1968—which questioned all of those things which made us feel safe in traditional Hollywood movies: The media, the family, the police, the military, the government. He said, “I don’t think audiences were ready for Night of the Living Dead, and I think that’s why they responded to it.”
Around this time a friend connected us with Larry Fessenden, a writer/director of thoughtful, uncompromising horror films, very much in the same vein as Romero’s. I had been a fan of Fessenden’s work for many years and jumped at the chance. The gods once again smiled on us. It turned out that Night was Fessenden’s favorite horror film of all time. With irrepressible enthusiasm—he could barely stay in his chair during the interview—he spoke about how horror films, and Night in particular, can portray and confront the anxieties of a nation. After the interview Fessenden got more and more involved with the production, eventually becoming Executive Producer of Birth of the Living Dead.
He connected us with Elvis Mitchell, a former critic of the New York Times whom I’ve always admired. Many critics write with an air of condescension about horror films but not Mitchell. He clearly loves them when they’re good and he saw Night as a real work of art. To my utter astonishment, I discovered through the course of the interview that not only did Mitchell grow up in Detroit during the race rebellions, experiencing them first hand, but also saw Night of the Living Dead at the tender age of 10 at a drive-in theater there. To Mitchell the fact that Romero cast Duane Jones, an African American, as the lead and that the film never once referred to Jones’s character as a black man, “It felt like a brand new day. It truly did.” 1968 was a time when race was THE primary characteristic of any African American cast in a film. Mitchell gave us yet another incredibly rich angle to explore.
Each interview turned up more wonderful surprises which made editing an absolute joy. It’s a great thrill when a project develops a life of its own and takes you in directions you would never have anticipated.
Esther and I have stayed in touch with Romero and his wife Suzanne Desrocher over the years. Today Romero continues to write non-stop, and is involved with the “George A. Romero’s Filmmaking Program” at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen, PA, about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. He was in New York this month supervising the 4K restoration of Night at the Museum of Modern Art. Night first showed at MOMA on June 16th, 1970 when it became part of the museum’s permanent collection. You can hear Romero giving a Q & A from that night as one of the special features on the DVD of Birth of the Living Dead. It’s a wonderful snapshot of the moment when Night was getting international recognition as a work of art (after getting eviscerated by U.S. critics) and Romero, age 28, was poised for a career as a world-renowned filmmaker.
Brooklyn-based Rob Kuhns is the producer, writer, editor and director of Birth of the Living Dead.
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