Editor’s Notes: Birth of the Living Dead is now out in limited release.
Whine of the Fawn is the name of the film George A. Romero sought to start his feature directorial career with, a self-described “Virgin Spring kind of movie” whose failure to find funding pushed the then-27 year-old to write instead a horror. It’s fascinating to consider how different things might now be had we got that movie instead of Night of the Living Dead. In the case of Birth of the Living Dead, Rob Kuhns’ documentary chronicling the difficult journey from conception to cult classic stature of Romero’s unendingly influential eventual effort, it’s tough not to also consider an alternate film instead: if only this had been the kind of overarching evaluation the Dead series—now six films strong—demands.
It’s unfair to condemn a film for failing to achieve that which it never sets out to do, yet with a theatrical release to its name, it’s no more unfair to expect Birth of the Living Dead to dig much deeper than it does.
It’s unfair to condemn a film for failing to achieve that which it never sets out to do, yet with a theatrical release to its name, it’s no more unfair to expect Birth of the Living Dead to dig much deeper than it does. Look at Daniel Farrands and Andrew Kasch’s Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, a compelling and comprehensive consideration of its respective horror series that saw only a direct-to-DVD release; that documentary gave a bang-to-buck ratio the like of which Kuhns could only dream. But he has sights for one film only, and to expect his seventy-six minutes to offer the same analytical scope as did Never Sleep Again’s four hours would be to ignore the intentions he sets out himself.
Birth, above all, aims to look at just that, abandoning the eventual series’ considerable cultural caché in favour of the tale of the little film crew that could. Ably contextualising the pervasive ill-ease of the society to which Romero and co sought to speak, Kuhns deploys newsreel footage of black rights and Vietnam protests aplenty, inviting his interviewees—Romero and others involved in the production among them—to expound on the aptness with which this zombie survival narrative addressed the issues of the time. The tone, not undeservedly, is one of admiration; long passages of the picture are given to subjects simply sharing their love for the film, none more so than executive producer Larry Fessenden, whose extended fanboy gushing, however intermittently incisive, plays often like a video commentary track.
Birth of the Living Dead feels like little more than a DVD extra, a perfectly passable, entirely informative, yet utterly ordinary examination of its subject that serves to summate critical thinking rather than to supplement it.
And indeed that’s appropriate for the overall effect of the documentary: not least for its limited length, Birth of the Living Dead feels like little more than a DVD extra, a perfectly passable, entirely informative, yet utterly ordinary examination of its subject that serves to summate critical thinking rather than to supplement it. It’s news to nobody who’s actually seen Romero’s film that its ending is a bleak indictment of social injustice, though you wouldn’t garner that by watching this: each of Kuhns’ subjects conjectures are offered as though they were the first of their kind to ever be formed, as though nobody before had ever considered the malaise to which the movie so prominently speaks.
The documentary, then, is decidedly inessential, if inoffensively and even sometimes engagingly so. It’s appropriate—albeit wildly inappropriate, in its own right—that Kuhns should interview the young students of a teacher who opts to educate by way of Night of the Living Dead. They, none older than twelve, offer opinions not much less developed than those of the more distinguished interviewees, and thereby the doc itself. There’s little to Birth of the Living Dead that couldn’t be gleamed by a kid who’d just moments ago watched its namesake. Much like its visual aspects—punctuating standard talking heads with slightly imaginative animations in the way so many such straightforward documentaries do—the film’s findings, even for the occasional nugget, are as obvious as they come.
[notification type=”star”]60/100 ~ OKAY. Birth of the Living Dead is decidedly inessential, if inoffensively and even sometimes engagingly so.[/notification]