Diehard fans of George A. Romero, the godfather of zombie cinema, should get a minor kick out of Birth Of The Living Dead, a new documentary about the making of the director’s seminal debut. But those fans won’t learn much from it that they didn’t already know. Peering back in time to 1967, when Romero and a group of likeminded amateurs rented out a Pennsylvania farmhouse to shoot a low-budget horror flick, the film treats the resulting black-and-white shocker, Night Of The Living Dead, as a sacred object. Which is fine, actually: Forty-five years later, the movie still has a stark, apocalyptic power, and it’s impossible to deny its seismic impact on the genre. Yet for all its reverence, Birth has little in the way of fresh insight to offer. What undead devotee doesn’t know that Romero used real intestines for the feasting scene, or that the line, “They’re dead, they’re all messed up” was an ab lib? Theories about the classic film’s cultural subtext seem equally moribund, as though director Rob Kuhns somehow consulted every undergrad essay ever written about Night. (A Google search for “living dead” and “Vietnam” would also have done the trick.)
Aside from some brief animated segments, which function primarily as a substitute for behind-the-scenes footage, Birth relies almost entirely on talking-head testimonials. The big “get” in that department is obviously Romero himself, a warmly conversational interviewee who remains candid about his failures (such as forgetting to add a copyright symbol to the title card, causing Night to fall immediately into the public domain) and genuinely humble about the legacy of his great, timeless film. Other subjects are of wildly varying interest: While crew members dig up ancient, told-to-death anecdotes, modern horror maverick Larry Fessenden (Wendigo) praises the film’s supposed “self-reflexive” qualities and critic Elvis Mitchell cites Samuel Beckett as a possible inspiration for the claustrophobic farmhouse scenes. One of Kuhns’ stranger strategies involves cutting to a literacy class that doubles as a course on zombie lore, in which preteen viewers study Night as a central text. After hearing Ebert’s impressions from an early screening, in which the children in attendance seemed deeply traumatized by what they were seeing, it’s odd to witness a classroom full of contemporary kids roar with pleasure while watching the movie. The times, they have a’changed.
Birth briefly staggers to life when the topic of race comes up—not because that angle on Night hasn’t been covered ad nauseam, too, but simply because it seems to inspire the most provocative discussion. (“We thought we were being hip,” Romero notes of the then-bold decision not to acknowledge that their protagonist was a black man.) Mostly, however, Birth just leans on common knowledge and conventional wisdom. At a brisk 75 minutes, the documentary commits several sins of omission. Where, for example, is Night co-writer John A. Russo, who had a notorious falling-out with Romero? Talk of creative differences between the two filmmakers—as well as Russo’s much-maligned decision to re-release Night in 1998 with new footage—might have injected some drama into what feels more like a mash note than a thorough autopsy of its subject. Also absent is any discussion of Romero’s four Dead sequels, Russo’s parallel Return Of The Living Dead franchise, or Tom Savini’s 1990 remake—probably because, unlike the public-domain original, none of those movies can be excerpted for free. Ultimately, all but the most indiscriminate of Dead heads will shamble out wishing they had been tossed something new to sink their teeth into.