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Film explores iconic Romero movie 'Night of the Living Dead'

| Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
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An animated scene from the documentary 'Birth of the Living Dead' shows an interior shoot during the filming of 'Night of the Living Dead.'
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An animated scene from the documentary 'Birth of the Living Dead' shows the film crew shooting at the Evans City Cemetery.
birthofthelivingdead.com
An animated scene from 'Birth of the Living Dead' shows William Hinzman, often called “Zombie #1” from 'Night of the Living Dead.'
birthofthelivingdead.com
An animated scene from 'Birth of the Living Dead' shows director George Romero editing the 1968 film 'Night of the Living Dead.'

Once the Great Zombie Panic of the 2010s is finished — and we've all gotten used to our roles as eaters or eaten — it won't matter where they came from, who made them or why they thought we'd be tasty.

That day, however, is not yet here. So, it's still worth stating again — the current conception of the lumbering, flesh-eating undead (not the Haitian voodoo or Bela Lugosi-era zombies) could only have come from a certain time and place. That time was the late '60s, and that place was Pittsburgh.

The documentary “Birth of the Living Dead,” which opens Oct. 25 at the Harris Theater, Downtown, tells this story in especially graphic fashion (it's partly animated).

As so often happens, filmmaker Rob Kuhns set out to make one kind of movie, and ended up with something else.

“(‘Night') came at exactly the right time,” Kuhns says. “We based our movie on the making of ‘Night of the Living Dead,' but then we moved it into a story about the times (the '60s).”

Kuhns, a New York City native, has an extensive background in editing documentaries for PBS. This is his first feature film as a director.

“It's such a great story,” Kuhns says, explaining his interest in the subject. “My first experience with the film is 30 years ago, as a film student at (New York University). It had been playing there almost continuously since (its first release in) 1968. It just blew me away, and I became an instant fan of Romero.”

George Romero, a commercial and industrial filmmaker in Pittsburgh, wanted to make a movie, something arty along the lines of Ingmar Bergman's “The Virgin Spring.” Then he decided horror would be easier to start with and to sell. To that point, the scariest thing he had done was a short film called “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy,” which is about exactly what it says.

Kuhns got the elusive Romero to sit down for an interview in 2006, after trying to arrange it for several years. Paul Gagne's book “The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh” provided a rough sketch about where Kuhns hoped to go with the film.

“Romero surprised me as such a great off-the-cuff storyteller,” Kuhns says. “He's one of those people who just have a compulsion to tell stories all the time. He's absolutely hilarious and knows how to spin a tale.”

Some startling black-and-white (with a touch of blood-red) animations give “Birth of the Living Dead” a unique look — one that recalls the graphic novel of “The Walking Dead,” if not the live-action TV show based on it.

Even if Romero was spending most of his waking hours helping turn teachers, ironworkers, advertising men, housewives and roller-rink owners into flesh-eating zombies, he couldn't help but notice the events of 1967 and '68 and the darkening mood of the country.

Romero vividly recalls throwing the newly completed “Night” into the trunk and driving to New York City to sell it. During the trip, he heard about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He realized he had a film brimming with the violent, tumultuous energy of the time, full of imagery that uncannily mirrored the shocking footage from Vietnam and racial uprisings in the streets.

“The film became an icon of the counterculture” Kuhns says. “Hippies loved that movie. The Kerner Report also came out in '68, which was an amazingly clear-eyed report about the causes and effects of the race riots. In the movie, there's this posse going down and gunning down these zombies, which was so similar to the images of the National Guard being deployed during the race rebellions. And the ‘us versus them' mentality — the country was very polarized then — it's a very rich metaphor.”

The undead uprising is never officially explained, and institutional authority (the press, politicians, military) is as in the dark as everyone else.

In Romero's recollections, making “Night” sounds like it was a blast — even though money and expertise were almost comically nonexistent.

Everybody had multiple jobs. Investor/lighting expert/actor Bill Hinzman (who played the first zombie in the movie) and screenwriter/actor John Russo agreed to be set on fire without protective clothing, with the understanding that they'd just roll on the ground if it got too hot.

One investor was a meat packer, who brought fresh (cow) entrails from his job, giving the film its shockingly realistic gore.

In retrospect, the film's amateurishness comes off as raw immediacy, and its “run-and-gun,” guerilla-style filmmaking makes it look like combat camera or found footage.

“It works so beautifully because he had a lot of help,” Kuhns says. “He asked the police force to come out and shoot down zombies, and they said, ‘Sure!' The news people were playing news people — giving it that incredible verisimilitude. It feels so real. The posse seems like a real lynch mob. Because it was such an unusual opportunity to be in a feature film, there was this great esprit de corps.”

The reactions to the film in 1968 are almost as fascinating as the movie itself. At first, no one knew what to do with this ultra-low-budget movie, made by unknown amateurs. It could be considered one of the first truly independent movies, made entirely outside the Hollywood studio system.

“It was genuinely shocking,” Kuhns says. “Horror had become a very comfortable, safe form, relegated to kiddie matinees — these Gothic monsters, Frankenstein, Dracula.”

At 76 minutes, “Birth of the Living Dead” crams a lot of history into a fairly short running time. Aside from Romero, interviews with other filmmakers, historians and critics place “Night” in context. In particular, Detroit-born critic Elvis Mitchell stands out, as he vividly recalls the shock of seeing “Night” as a child.

“Elvis Mitchell, the critic, doesn't have a condescending attitude toward horror,” Kuhns says. “He sees it as an art form. At age 10, he saw the film — shortly after Detroit essentially burned down. It resonated with him so deeply. ... It was also the first movie that he and most people had seen where any main character had been black, but it was not always about their race.”

Duane Jones' brilliant performance — as the most competent of the survivors trapped in a farmhouse surrounded by zombies — wasn't supposed to be a statement. He was simply the best actor available, and the script didn't specify race, so that's who got the role.

Critical reaction was, well, zombie-like in its single-minded savagery, at first.

“It got terrible reviews in the U.S. papers, but people just ignored them,” Kuhns says. “This was a film that people could own for themselves. It wasn't overhyped. They could own the experience of it, and it could be their movie.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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