Birth of the Living Dead is a conventional but lively documentary that’s admirable for its pointed understanding of the most important element of Night of the Living Dead’s timeless appeal and cultural value: its unimpeachable status as a communal homespun work that evolved, partially by happy accident, into a monumental act of protest pop art. Director Rob Kuhns doesn’t shy away from the racial implications of George A. Romero’s legendary horror film, which positioned a black man as a strong, volatile leader during the height of the tensions of the civil rights movement only to, even more daringly, treat his complexity and authority as the most natural of plot specifics. In other words, Romero regarded his hero as just another man like any other, and he made no show of making no show of a casual act of revolution that would set his film apart from other, theoretically more “serious,” entertainments that portrayed the United States’s various social tensions as being a trite coming of age story away from resolution.
Kuhns covers most of the bases: how Romero was making short films for a TV station in Pittsburgh, and how he initially wanted to break into feature films with a self-consciously highbrow project called The Whine of the Fawn, which the director claims was his attempt to ape Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Having to eventually face the fact that such a project was far above his immediate personal means to realize, Romero was inspired by Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend to attempt a horror story with a subtext of social protest. A bunch of Romero’s friends pitched in, and they all literally begged, borrowed, and (maybe) stole to realize what would eventually be known as one of the greatest of all horror films, which also happens to be one of the greatest of all movies, period.
The problem is that horror fans know most of this already, and so the obvious question is: What does Kuhns bring to the table that’s new? Nothing particularly, as his film is too short and ultimately too imprecise about its subject’s relationship with pop culture at large. But Birth of the Living Dead is charming anyway, primarily because Romero is an old and entertaining pro at fanning the flames of his legend, and a number of other industry notables are also on hand to speak of Night of the Living Dead’s greatness, including director Larry Fessenden, producer Gale Anne Hurd, and film critic Elvis Mitchell. Birth of the Living Dead is unavoidably slight, but there’s a certain pleasure in watching talented people wax passionate about a common source of inspiration.