In the war between zombies and vampires for the domination of American popular culture, the zombies currently seem to have the edge. So suggests a montage in Rob Kuhns’s amusing but perfunctory documentary about the origins of the 1968 ur-text of zombiedom, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” This brisk roundup shows the proliferation of the undead anthropophages in movies, TV, video games, comic books, and mash-up novels like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
How did this happen? You won’t find out here. As the title indicates, Kuhns focuses on the film’s birth rather than its afterlife. His account of Romero’s seat-of-the-pants guerrilla tactics in making what was his first feature film fascinates and inspires. Less compelling, though, is the random assortment of talking heads, including film critic and TV host Elvis Mitchell and indie horror filmmaker Larry Fessenden (also executive producer of the film), who speculate about the roots of “Night” in such traumas as the Vietnam War and ’60s racial violence. Cutting from the film’s grisly scenes to stock TV-news footage underscores the obvious. It doesn’t take long to get the point, and even at 76 minutes, the film drags.
Conspicuous by their absence are surviving members of the original cast and crew, who might have added to Romero’s own colorful recollection of the film’s gestation. People like screenwriter John A. Russo, who also played one of the zombies and agreed to be set ablaze — without any protective clothing (he was advised to roll on the ground “if things got hot”). Or produceractor Russell Streiner, who got the sound mix free of charge by beating the owner of the studio in a chess game.
But Kuhns does offer a thoughtful account of the film’s initial reception, in particular the harsh early reviews. Vincent Canby dismissed the film in three sentences in The New York Times. And an outraged Roger Ebert reported the traumatized reactions of underaged viewers at the matinee screening he attended (Ebert later reviewed the movie again and gave it 3½ stars).
Quite a contrast to the critical respect such films get in this age of Comic-Con. And today’s kids would find the graphic intestine-chewing gore rather quaint, as is demonstrated here when “Night” is screened for a classroom of giggling schoolchildren. In its day a transgressive challenge to the norms of society and cinema, “Night of the Living Dead” would eventually inspire a multi-billion dollar industry that churns out product about as subversive as a Miley Cyrus video.
Not that Romero himself has benefited much from his own monstrous creation. At 73, he still bubbles with anarchic mirth as he remembers those crazy early days of his career, and it’s only when he recalls the “dumb mistake” that deprived him of the copyright to his film that he seems at a loss for words. A plague of zombies has nothing on soulless businessmen.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.