“Welcome to a night of total terror.” The documentary Birth of the Living Dead by filmmakers Robert Kuhns and Esther Cassidy takes audiences to the very first graveyard where the now iconic zombie arose. As a low budget, black and white film of the late sixties, Night of the Living Dead, directed by George A. Romero, served not only as a breakthrough in the horror genre of filmmaking but also as an illustration of the anger and anti-war sentiments of many people in the United States as it waged a losing war against Vietnam.
Using mainly the hilarious and insightful commentary from an interview with George Romero himself (along with other interviews, clips from Night of the Living Dead and other zombie movie and television franchises, and short sequences of elementary class students giving their input on zombie culture), Birth of the Living Dead creates a smooth and entertaining recount of the production, making, and public reception of Romero’s cult classic. From Bill Hinzman’s stumbling and lumbering gait in the cemetery to the gore of using real animal guts for the zombies to “really dig into,” Night of the Living Dead established popular icons for today’s zombie industry.
But Romero’s film did much more than create a new monster to haunt and prey upon people. Unintentionally, this film made critical remarks upon the political and social atmosphere of its time. It challenged conventional movie industry standards of heroism and salvation and scientific explanations and love. In a time of racial inequality and social reform, having the hero as a black man (though his race was not specifically written in the script) seemed like the perfect opportunity for an uproar. Yet no one raised any political issue with this except in discussion of the traumatic ending, where the hero has survived the onslaught of zombies only to be mistaken as one and killed by the mob of vigilante-like townsmen. His death seemed almost like a lynching. But this end serves to illustrate the reversal of who one should put faith and trust in, as the mob in the end were just as horrifying, if not more so, than the ghoulish zombies. If Night of the Living Dead attested to anything, it was to the hopelessness felt by the people of this time. And that, perhaps, is the worst fear of all.
In a question-and-answer session after the screening of Birth of the Living Dead, the questions came up: So why are horror movies so enduring? Why do we find ourselves seeking fear and adrenaline and hopelessness? Kuhns offered an explanation to this “paradox” of our attraction to horror film, stating that there is “something about anxieties being spoken to and reflected that makes them meaningful.” Perhaps this is why Romero’s film has become a cult classic and a testimony to the “raw anger” and revolutionary spirit of the sixties, as it addresses that deep fear of all hope being lost, which makes leaving the theater much more of a comfort than one might expect.
Welcome to a night of terror indeed.