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Review: Shining new light on 'Night of the Living Dead'

An examination of the zombie film that spawned apocalypse cinema — plus a few hit TV shows — is surprisingly lively.

October 17, 2013
  • An illustration of George Romero editing his seminal 1968 film "Night of the Living Dead," as seen in Rob Kuhn's documentary "Birth of the Living Dead."
An illustration of George Romero editing his seminal 1968 film "Night… (First Run Features )

The documentary "Birth of the Living Dead" is a nifty little tribute to that granddaddy of the modern zombie movie, George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead." Writer-director-editor Rob Kuhns (he also produced with wife, Esther Cassidy) enjoyably recounts how, in 1967, Romero and an assortment of Pittsburgh locals shot a micro-budget chiller that would unexpectedly change the face of horror films.

The shocking "Night," which Romero shot, edited, co-wrote and directed, spawned an endless parade of zombie pictures — including numerous made by Romero himself — along with comic books, video games and TV shows such as current hit "The Walking Dead."

Kuhns intriguingly explores how "Night" so aptly mirrored its time period — that tense, chaotic era of racial unrest, anti-Vietnam War sentiment and an increasingly anti-authoritarian vibe. That the subtext-heavy movie's lead hero, although written colorblind, was portrayed by an African American actor (Duane Jones) proved especially groundbreaking.

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Filled with lively, candid interview clips with a jaunty Romero, plus smart chats with film critics, authors, filmmakers and others, "Birth" efficiently tracks "Night's" guerrilla-style production, roller-coaster theatrical release, wildly varied critical response and eventual status as a highly profitable — if accidentally copyright-impaired — cult classic.

Footage of a Bronx, N.Y., schoolteacher showing youngsters "Night" for a Literacy Through Film class is also fun. But talk of Romero's post-"Night" career, as well as new testimony from the film's other original participants (nice postscript with "graveyard zombie" player Bill Hinzman aside), is surprisingly scarce.

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'Birth of the Living Dead'

MPAA Rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes.

Playing: At the Arena Cinema, Hollywood.

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