Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Horrorella's 31 Days of Halloween: Birth of the Living Dead

I have a particular soft spot for film docs. It’s fascinating to delve into a documentary based on a movie that I love and devour every aspect of it. Interviews with the cast and crew, retrospectives, examinations of the film and the impact that it made...it’s like crack for me.

So when I heard about Birth of the Living Dead, I couldn’t wait to sit down and watch it.  This new documentary from director Rob Kuhns is a fascinating look at the history and legacy of George Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead.

This film isn’t heavy on the behind-the-scenes stuff, so be prepared for that going in. There is a lot of interview footage with Romero himself, but that’s about it in terms of the original cast and crew. This isn’t as much a retrospective on the production of the film (though, some of those stories do make it in there) as it is an examination of the film’s cultural impact and legacy. Which is fascinating. How the film fit into the American political climate of the late ‘60’s  - particularly in terms of the racial culture at the time and changes that were coming about as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, how it played against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, how it was received as a low-budget horror film.

Particularly interesting was the time spent discussing the racial implications of the film, and how the film itself was affected by the racially-charged climate at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Romero and company hired African-American actor Duane Jones for the lead role of Ben, which impacted both how the film was received (in 1968, having a black man in the lead role of a film wasn’t terribly common), as well as how the story played. Given the racial tension that existed in the country at that time, certain traits and actions of the character stood the risk of taking on a different meaning or being read differently by audiences with a black man in the role.

This element of the film (along with many others), led Night of the Living Dead to be far ahead of its time, and to be a very impactful film. It broke ground in ways that Hollywood productions hadn’t yet, placing it far ahead of its contemporaries in many respects. The interviews include Romero, Gale Anne Hurd, filmmaker Larry Fessenden as well as film and history scholars, and they all lend interesting viewpoints to the topics at hand.

I always love hearing behind-the-scenes stories on film that I love, but I also love delving into them in an academic light and examining just how they worked and played against the time period that they came from. Birth of the Living Dead offers just such an opportunity. Night of the Living Dead came about at a particularly restless and volatile period of American history, making its own history and development all the more rich.

If you are a fan of Night of the Living Dead (and you probably are), or an all-around film buff with an interesting in film history, I highly recommend this one. It’s a fascinating examination of both the film and the time period.

Birth of the Living Dead is now playing in theaters and on VOD.

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