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Birth of the Living Dead (review)

Review by Dean Galanis

Fascinating, hugely entertaining documentary chronicles the making of the classic George Romero-helmed horror film, Night of the Living Dead, while also tracing its lineage, its colossal influence on (and as the title indicates, creation of) the zombie sub-genre, and analysis of its cultural import.

The film features commentary and remembrances by respected filmmakers and critics, among them Larry Fessenden, Gale Anne Hurd and Elvis Mitchell, but the big fun here is Romero himself. 

Ever the frank (and often hilarious) raconteur, Romero brings warmth, bemusement, pride and a smattering of (justified) bitterness to the mix, as Birth examines the film’s genesis, production and troubled distribution.

There are also trenchant observations about the film’s place in time, as its imagery at times invokes newsreel footage of the Vietnam War, political assassinations, and racial strife in the late 1960s. 

Some of these points have been made many times before – even in another excellent documentary, The American Nightmare – but these reflections, as collected here, still feel fresh and vital, and neither these views – nor Birth as a whole – could be criticized as merely regurgitation.

One of the more interesting surprises herein is Christopher Cruz, a filmmaker/teacher who, as part of his curriculum, teaches a Literacy Through Film program to kids in the Bronx (which is where Romero grew up, incidentally). We’re shown the kids’ reactions to watching NOTLD – Cruz was wary that the kids would laugh at it – and they seem riveted and thrilled. Their reactions afterward prove they not only paid attention but had their imagination stirred, completely justifying Cruz’s surprising choice of film to screen for kids!

At 76 minutes, Birth flies by, not wearing out its welcome while also never feeling rushed or choppy. Part of this success must go to Gary Pullin’s animated sequences, which serve as a fun and clever way of standing in for behind-the-scenes footage. Pullin does a fine job here; these kinds of animated bridges do not always work in documentaries. Just take a look at American: The Bill Hicks Story if you have any doubt. So, kudos to Pullin on his work here.

And kudos as well to director/editor Rob Kuhns. He’s crafted a spot-on, ingratiating, informative film that should be appeal to the died-in-the-wool horror fanatic who’s read and seen everything NOTLD, as well as the interested newbie. This is easily one of my favorites of 2013 so far.

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