Without the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, Calgon detergent and Fred Rogers’ tonsils, Night of the Living Dead would not exist. And without Night of the Living Dead, there would be no The Walking Dead, no World War Z, no entire cottage industry centered around those “all messed-up” ghouls who crave and dine upon human flesh — utensils optional.
Whether in movies, television series, books, comics, video games or whatever, the image our minds instantly conjure when we think of “zombies” all goes back to George A. Romero’s 1968 classic.
Its cultural influence has been the subject of many a study, but only one — Birth of the Living Dead — accompanies the original Night, playing Thursday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. For those of us old enough to worry about caloric intake around bags of candy, there’s no better way to spend your Halloween than this double feature. (And because it’s Halloween, OKCMOA is offering free admission to anyone wearing a costume, zombie or otherwise.)
Directed by Rob Kuhns, Birth explores the turbulent times that inspired and allowed a group of enterprising TV advertising men in Pittsburgh to make a movie. The era’s social revolution, Romero says, prompted them to shoot a film “as ballsy” as they could. Rallying their clients, local celebs and buckets of bovine entrails, Romero and his fellow crew members ended up breaking ground and changing history. They certainly didn’t mean to.
Kuhns’ documentary is not so interested in how Night was made than the resonance it has enjoyed across four decades and counting. A few choice on-set stories are shared, such as how the low-budget project’s sound mix was won over a chess game, but Birth’s bulk is academic, rather than retrospective.
Of most interest is the discussion of race. Famously, critics’ long-held interpretations of Night as
a racial allegory are all for naught, as Duane Jones’ role of Ben was
not written for an African-American. Still, the documentary notes how
unusual it was for audiences to see a black man in the lead — especially
one more aggressive than Sidney Poitier ever was allowed — at a time
when on the tube, the Southern-set Andy Griffith Show was as white as a marshmallow whip on a snowy day.
Birth of the Living Dead boasts no shortage of insight, but oddly, Romero is the only Night participant
among its talking heads. While the old master is genial and gracious,
bearing a smile of teeth badly stained with nicotine, additional
viewpoints of others who were there would be welcome and more credible.
In their absence, we get the likes of Gale Anne Hurd, executive producer of The Walking Dead; Jason Zinoman, author of Shock Value, a terrific book on modern horror’s history; and critic Elvis Mitchell, who compares Night of the Living Dead to Samuel Beckett.