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Review: ‘Birth Of The Living Dead’

Reanimating Romero’s Cult Classic

Above: Filmmaker Geore A. Romero.

Aired 1/9/14 on KPBS News.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando review the new documentary, "Birth of the Living Dead."

Transcript

George A. Romero didn’t invent zombies, but he defined them for a modern age in 1968 with his low-budget film “Night of the Living Dead.” Now a new documentary, "Birth of the Living Dead" (playing Thursday and Friday night at the Digital Gym Cinema at 10 p.m. with "brain" treats served at 9:30 p.m.) looks at the making of this cult classic.

“Night of the Living Dead” is almost a half-century old but it’s cultural impact can still be felt today in the popularity of “The Walking Dead” and “World War Z.” Romero came up with the shambling zombie that needed to be shot in the head or have its brains destroyed. Romero followed up that indie film with five sequels, the most recent being "Survival of the Dead" in 2009.

The new documentary “Birth of the Living Dead” looks back at the making of that first, seminal film. The documentary provides some familiar behind-the-scenes trivia like this tidbit from Romero.

"One of the investors, Ross Harris, was a meat packer," Romero recalls in an interview. "So he brought all these entrails and it was pretty rough. It was all real stuff. Real intestines, real livers, cow livers. We wanted to push the envelope, let’s see what we can do with this. So they’d just bring out buckets of stuff. I’m telling you, boy, people that come to be zombies are, they’re really dedicated, they’ll dig into that stuff, chew on it. You’ll never get me to do that."

Romero finishes that sentence with a full, booming laugh that typifies the director's good spirits. And now in his 70s, he comes across as your favorite, jovial uncle recounting stories from his past. But what documentary filmmaker Rob Kuhns has the most fun with is uncovering gems from Romero's past as a commercial and industrial filmmaker in Pittsburgh. Romero points out that everyone who worked in film in Pittsburgh, worked at one time for children's show host Fred Rogers. Romero was no exception. He shot a video of Mr. Rogers going to the hospital to get his tonsils removed.

Kuhns shows us a clip and Romero exclaims that "remains one of the scariest movies I’ve ever done."

Kuhns also includes a TV spot Romero's company did for Calgon.

Romero recalls, "We did this thing called 'The Calgon Story.' It was a knock off of 'Fantastic Voyage.' And it was the biggest commercial that we’d ever done."

Romero ended up sacrificing any profit from the spot in order to buy a 35mm camera. This would eventually lead to making "Night of the Living Dead" with a local investor, and just about everyone in town pitching in from the police dogs to the ad executives that were his clients.

Credit: First Run Features

A frame from the animated sequences in the documentary, "Birth of the Living Dead."

Kuhns keeps the documentary light and breezy, but with enough substance to leave fans feeling satisfied. He enlivens the documentary with some animated footage to make up for the lack of real archive material.

In the end, “Birth of the Living Dead” (not rated) celebrates Romero’s ingenuity and perseverance in making a film that demonstrated how zombies were not only good fodder for horror but the perfect blank slate for social commentary.

Companion viewing: "Night of the Living Dead," "Night of the Living Dead Reanimated," "Shaun of the Dead"

Just a reminder, I am one of the main forces behind The Film Geeks at the Digital Gym. The purpose of the group (literally film geeks from a number of local film festivals) is to bring independent genre films from both the U.S. and abroad to San Diego at the Digital Gym's new micro cinema. We are all volunteering our time and often putting out money to insure these films show in San Diego. That's how passionate we are about these movies. My geeky cohorts in this mad adventure are Miguel Rodriguez of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, Phil Lorenzo and Brian Hu of Pac-Arts, Michael McQuiggan of FilmOut, and Victor Laruccia of the San Diego Italian Film Festival.

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