Review: Birth of The Living Dead and The Definitive Document of The Dead

Written by guest contributor Brian Roe

“It was no big thing man. Who knew that we were ever even going to finish this movie? It was just like a bunch of people getting together and we were going to try to make a movie.” ~ George A. Romero

Birth of The Living Dead and Document of The Dead are on the surface both simply documentary love letters to the work of George Romero. But they also show various sides of Romero not only as a hard working, visionary filmmaker but also as a really decent man who wanted his work environment to match his own blue color ideal of society. It’s these collected views of Romero that come together to create a really complete vision of this man, his collaborators, and the works that they created together. If you watch one then watch them both as they complete and heighten the overall effect.

Beginning his career in Pittsburgh shooting beer commercials and short films for Mr. Rogers, Bronx-born George A. Romero was obsessed by the myriad jobs required to make films. Like many independent filmmakers, Romero was forced by practicality to learn these skills but also seems to really enjoy doing them. From directing to writing and editing, he was often required to put huge amounts of effort into his projects simply because he didn’t have the available staff or funds.

This sort of “can do” mentality was pushed to the limit during the shooting of his first feature film Night of The Living Dead. From favors called in by local businesses and TV personalities to a chess game being played for the cost of sound processing, Romero and his collaborators made everything count. And instead of this being a detriment to the film it instead creates a feeling of reality that has rarely been equaled.

Birth of the Living Dead PosterBirth of The Living Dead begins by exploring the social and political landscape of The United States during the years that NOTLD was being written and shot. Drawing his initial inspiration from the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend, Romero re-imagined the concept of the dead returning to life as a revolutionary act, perhaps the penultimate one. One of the many strengths of Birth of The Living Dead is that it places the film perfectly into this world of violent revolution and frustration at the still staggering injustices being perpetrated on various groups during the 1960s. Although there has been a lot of discussion about the various socio-political themes in NOTLD, it is extremely interesting to hear from Romero himself which of those themes were intentional and which were serendipity.

A collection of admirers of NOTLD including film critic Elvis Mitchell and filmmaker Larry Fessenden discuss the challenges and successes of the film without ever going too deep into wide eyed worship. In particular having Mitchell and Sam Pollard giving their take on seeing the film as black men has a powerful resonance and they make abundantly clear how mind-blowing it was to see a strong, intelligent black man in the lead role of Ben. Although Duane Jones was initially cast for the part simply because he was the best actor of the group, it is clear that once people picked up on what his character meant that he was by far the best choice. Jones himself often had misgivings about some of the actions that Ben takes in the film simply because they were going to be seen as shocking to predominately white, middle-class America. But luckily neither he nor Romero backed down from his portrayal and instead created a character that was far more in line with a real person and not some watered down, simpering expectation of what a black man should be.

Birth is a very tightly structured and well paced retelling of the history of the filming of NOTLD. The opinions of the various experts are informative and interesting. And Christopher Cruz’s NOTLD class for junior school students would have been a blast to be in. But the true joy of the documentary comes from the still bright and friendly Romero himself. Talking in a naturally cool and hip voice, Romero comes across as a favorite uncle, the guy who’s been places and seen and done things that make for great stories around the dinner table. There’s a relaxed manner to Romero that is engaging and endearing. He’s in on the joke and knows that your hip enough to pick up what he’s putting down.

TDDOTDThe Definitive Document of The Dead is a far messier beast having originally begun as a teaching aid created by Roy Frumkes for a film studies class. It begins during the filming of Dawn of The Dead and shows some great behind the scenes footage while explaining the basic filmmaking process as well as showing the various challenges that Romero’s crew faced during filming in Dawn’s shopping mall setting. Frumkes was given access for a long weekend and he collected a good amount of material not only with Romero but also the producers, actors, and other people responsible for the production. This coverage of Dawn takes up half of the film’s running time and shows us a very different George A. Romero.

Instead of the elderly hipster of BOTLD we get to hang out with the handsome and laid back Romero of the late 70s, a guy who can use the words rap, trip, and man so naturally that they don’t sound like asshole affectations. Romero has always had a killer smile and he flashes it often. You get the sense that he is just a really nice dude who  truly wants to get along with the people around him. In the super stressful world of independent filmmaking this trait must have gone a long way.

The second half of TDDOTD is a strange mish mash of set visits from various Romero films and party shenanigans including a pretty uncomfortable scene of Joe Pilado (Rhodes from Dawn of The Dead) drunkenly flirting with NOTLD’s Judith O’Dea. Roy Frumkes is still walking and talking with Romero but we again see a different side of the director, one that seems tired and a bit put off by all of the hoopla surrounding his work.

Few films of any kind have had the massive social and artistic impact of Night of The Living Dead. It proved that entertaining, thought provoking films didn’t have to be made in Hollywood and actually went a long way towards showing that the Hollywood system makes it damn near impossible to make that type of film. It’s appeal crossed social boundaries and its inclusive style of filmmaking made untold numbers of amateur  auteurs pick up cameras and struggle to make their own films. It was a massive success that made its creators next to nothing and became a bad joke of a copyright issue. It is the single best public domain film ever created and is truly a gift to the world of film.

All fans of horror film owe a huge debt to the cast and crew of NOTLD. They willingly gave their blood, toil, sweat, and tears so that we might have this film and I am grateful to all of them. And I am especially thankful to George Romero, the man who got all of these people together and who inspired them with kindness, leadership, and vision.

Birth of The Living Dead and Document of The Dead go to show that the man at the helm is also a really decent guy and that we’re lucky to have him. Thanks for what you’ve given us Mr. Romero.

Birth of The Living Dead is available on Netflix

Score: 4/5

Director: Roy Kuhns Studio: Glass Eye Pix and Predestinate Productions Run Time: 76 mins

The Definitive Document of The Dead is available on Amazon Instant Video

Score: 4/5

Director: Roy Frumkes Studio: Midnight Pulp Run Time: 103 minutes