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Birth of the Living Dead

on Thu, 10/24/2013 - 09:57

Birth of the Living Dead Poster
The year was 1967. America was fighting an unpopular war in Vietnam. The Civil Rights Movement had exploded into violence. There was a feeling of fear in the country, an uncertainty about the future. It was within this atmosphere that a group of ten Pittsburgh investors each pitched in $600 to begin filming a black-and-white horror movie. The spearhead behind the project was a twentysomething Bronx transplant who had attended Carnegie Mellon University and then stayed in the Steel City afterwards, forming his own video production company that specialized in commercials for Iron City Beer. That man was George A. Romero, the film was Night of the Living Dead, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The 2013 documentary Birth of the Living Dead sets out to chronicle the creation of Night of the Living Dead but instead of being a mere “making of” account of Romero’s efforts, the film also discusses the classic zombie movie within the political and social context of the 1960s. While George Romero is the featured participant in Birth of the Living Dead, no other cast or crew members appear in the documentary as director Rob Kuhns instead relies on a collection of film historians, movie critics, fellow film directors and television producers to place Night of the Living Dead into its proper historical perspective.

Although the references to the war in Vietnam and racial unrest within the United States are indeed insightful, the strongest element of Birth of the Living Dead is the detailed account of the impossible odds that Romero and his fellow cohorts had to overcome in order to complete Night of the Living Dead. Latent Image, the video production company that Romero formed in 1963, initially cut its teeth by creating short films for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood before recruiting the likes of Duke Beer and Iron City as clients. A later commercial for Calgon Detergent, meanwhile, resulted in Latent Image purchasing a high-end 35mm camera. With a few years of experience under their belt and the necessary equipment, the idea of filming an actual movie soon popped into Romero’s head, and he decided to run with it.

“We started to shoot not knowing if we were ever going to finish,” George Romero says in Birth of the Living Dead. “We lived in that farmhouse and we had to go out to the little stream in order to wash off. So it was real guerrilla stuff. I mean, talk about dedication. And everybody went along with this somehow. I would say, ‘Hey guys, it’s going to be rough, but we’ll make a movie.’ And everybody’s, ‘Alright.’ I expected people to say, ‘What, are you crazy?’”

And in some ways the idea was crazy. This was 1967, and very few people were making independent films at the time, and certainly not in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Despite the various skills that Romero had acquired through Latent Image, meanwhile, making Night of the Living Dead was a learning experience for everyone involved, and more of a collaborate effort than one man’s singular vision. Actors Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, for instance, owned an audio production company in the region and thus provided the recording equipment, while Vince Survinski—who played one of the gunmen in Night of the Living Dead—simply owned a roller rink.

“Vince was always the go-to guy,” George Romero remembers. “I mean, he would get things done. We’d all be sitting around and puzzling, ‘Oh, this is a great farmhouse but you got to wade across a stream to get over there.’ So Vince said, ‘I’ll build a little bridge.’ And goddammit, with his own hands, he built this little wooden bridge that you could actually drive a car over.”

Then there was the demolition crew. “Vince’s brother Reg, he had a partner named Tony Pantonello, they used to do fireworks,” Romero continues. “They were not the Zambellis but if you needed some fireworks down at your church, you called these guys. They did all of the pyrotechnical stuff and they were hilarious guys. Tony would have this cigar constantly burning in his mouth. He’s working, putting a fuse together, only he couldn’t see very well so he’s like this. And there’s this cigar, and I’m going, ‘Tony, you’re going to blow your fingers off.’”

Fortunately Tony Pantonello did not lose any body parts, but the strain on the stomachs of the ‘zombies’ was another matter. “One of the investors, Ross Harris, was a meatpacker,” Romero explains. “So he brought all these entrails. It was all real stuff—real intestines, real livers. We wanted to push the envelope, let’s see what we can do with this. So you just bring out buckets of stuff. I’m telling you, boy, the people who come to be zombies, they’ll dig into that stuff and chew on it. Never get me to do that.”

Although there was a finished script for Night of the Living Dead, many of the segments were adlibbed. When local television personality Bill Cardille, for instance, interviewed Sheriff McClelland, the scene was completely off-the-cuff, including the answers provided by actor George Kosana. The same holds true for the television news reports. “Chuck Craig was an actual newsman,” George Romero says. “Wrote his own copy. He read the script, then we sat around and we bullshat about the concept that was going on. That stuff has a ring of authenticity about it because Chuck did it himself.”

Despite this unconventional method of filmmaking, Romero and his colleagues were able to finish the principle photography for Night of the Living Dead but then needed additional funds to edit and complete the project. “At first people had no faith that we would actually make a movie,” Romero remembers. “It was only when we were able to actually show some dailies, and people saw that the lips were in sync with the sound, they were able to say, ‘It looks like a movie.’ We said, ‘That’s what we’re trying to tell you. One of these days it’s going to grow up to be a movie.’ So money dribbled in over the course of several months.”

In the end, however, it took more than mere cash to finish the film. “We didn’t have money for the sound mix,” Romero continues. “So Russ Streiner challenged the guy who owns the lab to a Chess match, and at stake was the sound mix. Russ beat the guy, and won the sound mix.”

George A. Romero’s reflections on creating the low-budget horror classic are by far the most interesting aspects of Birth of the Living Dead, but director Rob Kuhns does an admirable job of mixing these filmmaking anecdotes with the historical importance of Night of the Living Dead within the genre as well.

“There’s no movie director that’s responsible for the vampire,” New York Times critic Jason Zinoman explains in the documentary. “There’s no movie director that’s responsible for Frankenstein. There’s no movie director that’s responsible for the werewolf. There’s people who’ve made key movies of that, but those are much older characters which have this kind of literary pedigree. And while there have been undead and zombies, what we know of as a zombie—the ‘It’s Alive!’ moment of it—was 1968, George Romero in Night of the Living Dead in Pittsburgh.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Anthony Letizia

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