News Column

Abra cadavera: the invention of the modern-day zombie film

October 18, 2013


Oct. 18--Birth of the Living Dead, documentary, not rated, The Screen, 3.5 chiles

In 1963, George A. Romero began his own production company called The Latent Image. Romero is the man responsible for reinventing the zombie picture and creating a legacy still running strong in cinemas and on television 45 years after his Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968, brought a bleak new vision to the horror genre.

The Latent Image was a small company that produced beer commercials as well as a handful of short films for educator and television host Fred Rogers' program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, including one about the TV show host's tonsillectomy. In the documentary Birth of the Living Dead, which chronicles the efforts of a small group of filmmakers to get Pittsburgh's "first feature film" financed and produced, Romero jokes that the tonsillectomy film is one of the scariest he ever made. Romero later started Image Ten, another production company whose first feature was the black-and-white ghoul picture we've come to know and love. Made by Romero, his friends, and his friends' friends on a minimal budget, the film reflects the director's reliance on the generosity and interest of his beloved city to get the picture, which he wrote, edited, and directed, made at all. As news of the production spread through Pittsburgh, a local TV show host agreed to come out and act as a news reporter in a scene that gives the film two of its most memorable lines. "Yeah, they're dead," a local sheriff tells the newsman. "They're all messed up."

Birth of the Living Dead tells a fascinating, sometimes adventurous tale about the making of the film. That it focuses more on the details of the production rather than the legacy is a help and a hindrance to the film. Further insight into and discussion of the reasons why the living dead continue to dominate the horror genre would be welcome. The facts surrounding the making of the film are often surprising and provide plenty of fodder for horror trivia nuts.

What exactly caused the dead to come back to life and feast on the living is anybody's guess. In Night of the Living Dead, as well as Romero's follow-ups, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead -- the list goes on -- the director leaves the answer ambiguous. In Birth of the Living Dead, he simply says, "God changed the rules. That's the only explanation I need. No more room in hell."

If you're upset that Night of the Living Dead gives viewers no comforts such as a happy ending or heroes that survive to fight again another day, Romero offers one concession: "There's always the refreshment stand."

From the beginning, Romero was fighting an uphill battle. Image Ten had no money for sound mixing, so Russell Streiner, an actor in the film as well as one of its producers, challenged the lab owner to a chess match with the sound mix at stake, and Streiner won.

The film was finished just days before Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Romero had a violent, bloody film with a black man in the lead and depictions of posses that behave like lynch mobs. There were few prospects for release.

In search of a distributor, Romero took the film to New York. He showed it to Columbia, who held on to it for a period of time, making Image Ten hopeful for a national release, but then turned it down. American International Pictures, responsible for a slew of low-budget psychedelic and biker films as well as Roger Corman classics like House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death, agreed to distribute the film only if Romero changed the stark, unsettling ending -- but he refused. After sitting on it for months, Romero finally got the film released in October 1968 with the backing of New Jersey movie-theater mogul Walter Reade. Booked as a grindhouse feature in New York, it played along with other horror and science-fiction films no longer in their first runs and was generally dismissed by critics.

As horror comics and magazines, not to mention films, were popular among children and teenagers, most were marketed to younger audiences. When it came to Night of the Living Dead, Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote, "I don't think the younger kids really knew what hit them." Production was complete before the MPAA ratings system went into effect, and it was common for parents to drop the kids off at the cinema for an afternoon of horror in those days. Ebert reported seeing young children reduced to tears. This was a film in which children eat their parents and brothers kill their sisters. The documentary has interviews with some of those who saw it as kids to gauge their reaction at the time. Of course, they will never forget. In Europe, the film opened in art-house cinemas, and its reputation as more of an art film than horror schlock slowly grew. Eventually, it made its way into the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The film was initially copyrighted under the name Night of the Flesh Eaters, but when Reade changed the title to Night of the Living Dead, he failed to secure the copyright under that name, and so the movie entered the public domain. Image Ten attempted to sue the distributor, but then Reade filed for bankruptcy. Due to film sales and screenings when it was in the public domain as well as international screenings of pirated copies, no one knows for certain how much money the film has made over the years.

Birth of the Living Dead's strength is in director Rob Kuhn's access to Romero and his comrades for first-hand accounts. He even interviews Gale Anne Hurd, executive producer of AMC's The Walking Dead, to discuss Night's influence on the genre today. The Walking Dead's ghouls are modeled on Romero's: the lumbering walk, the blank stare, the creaky shuffle. We have come full circle.


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