Birth of the Living Dead is a new documentary to hit the UK on DVD release; directed, written and edited by Rob Kuhns, produced by Larry Fessenden and Esther Cassidy. The film takes an interesting angle examining both the making and legacy of one of the most seminal films in modern horror history- George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead(1968). Key to the piece is a fabulous and extremely unguarded interview from iconic genre filmmaker George Romero, who seems only too pleased to talk about the film which helped him to become one of the most loved figures associated with the genre; a film that sparked its own Romero sequels and inspired countless others to make likeminded films. Romero gives an engrossing and in-depth narrative of the time he spent making the film. Handing out anecdotes and behind the scenes stories, he projects an image of someone very humble about his legacy, honest and down to earth, thus making for a compelling watch.
The film differs in respect of most Romero documentaries in that Kuhns builds his story around the social context of the original film- exploring angles such as the political climate, race issues, the strength of feeling surrounding the Vietnam War. Night of the Living Dead in terms of modern genre offerings may seem to a younger audience to be tame in comparison. The film- at the time of its release- was considered shocking, and ground-breaking; paving the way for the genre to evolve and move away from classic horror tropes and associations, into the new world of a realistic menace. Many films followed- take The Exorcist (1973) or Rosemary’s Baby (1968) which was made the same year as ‘Night’ for example- which placed horrific aspects in the lives of everyday people. Romero’s forerunner film cannot ever be underestimated for its power in helping to build that road for others to follow. Kuhn’s film examines this power in explicit detail conveying the story of how a small independent filmmaker managed to change history with a low-budget and highly original film.
While for Romero buffs Birth of the Living Dead may not open up any new doors, the film does have its place in telling the story that has had very little focus. For those with an interest in the historical aspect of horror filmmaking, this is a must watch. Kuhns supports Romero’s own story with supplementary interviews from filmmakers and critics, to explore the enduring resonance the film has even today. The film also comes beautifully illustrated with animations from Gary Pullin, a name that many of those who have more than a passing interest in the genre will already be familiar with.
The Gore Splattered Corner (in association with The London Horror Society) managed to catch up with Executive Producer Larry Fessenden and ask him about the project. As always our thanks go out to all those who helped this happen and of course to Larry for giving us his time.
GSC- Starting off Larry, you have already produced genre films, and you direct?
Larry- Yes, I mean I am primarily a director, but it’s hard to get movies made so I produce as well.
GSC- But Rob was mainly in- non genre- documentaries prior to this wasn’t he, so how did you two get together to work on this, and are you both zombie fans?
Larry- Well Rob, this is his first feature. He works as an editor for Bill Moyers who is a commentator here in The States- very highbrow- Channel 13. Rob is a huge zombie fan and he got an interview with George Romero and he wondered what to do with it, so he decided to tell the story of the making of Night of the Living Dead. He started gathering other interviews, people who are known to love the film, and I was invited to speak on camera about my affection for Night of the Living Dead. When the interview was over Rob and I struck up a friendship, and I said I would love to see an edit, and I’d love to help him out- because I just love the topic and I love Romero’s history. So I came in and helped find interviews and I ended up being a producer on the second half of the process.
GSC- So you were actually in it to start with but that grew and turned into something else?
Larry- Yes, and I helped him find the illustrator who did the poster and all the animations in the film. I helped bring in some other interviews- people I thought could bring some insights- so you know I helped him build the final product. But he already had the interview- Romero- and the project set up.
GSC- Everyone seems to be making zombie films- well for a while now people have made zombie films- but there seems to be a real popularity with zombies at the moment. So why a film about a zombie film?
Larry- Well this is truly an origin story. It’s where the whole cultural phenomenon of zombies started- literally with one movie- you can trace it directly- because all the other films before this with the word zombie in the title were more about voodoo and the Haitian aspect. As is often pointed out Romero doesn’t actually use the word zombie in Night of the Living Dead. I think by the second one the word was used, so it wasn’t even his invention. However what was his invention was this slow moving living dead trope which we often see.
GSC- Which remains an argument now, fast moving or slow moving, which comes up time after time doesn’t it?
Larry- *laughs* Well Danny Boyle, he is certainly one of the guys who started the whole fast moving zombie thing, but I am happy with either!
GSC- So you haven’t got a preference?
Larry- I like the slow moving zombie. But then World War Z is a whole other kind of thing where they have almost insect behaviour, where there are thousands and thousands piling on each other. But then as with anything, exactly like with vampires, you have rules in order to break them.
GSC- Who was your target audience for Birth of the Living Dead?
Larry- I think what is interesting was that Rob’s approach was about the social context that the movie came out of, and why it was effective- because there was an African American in the lead role, and there was so much unrest in the Vietnam era. It was really a different kind of horror movie than we were used to. At the time there were a lot of Roger Corman films, and Hammer Horror, which were a little more campy, very gothic, and Night of the Living Dead was very much rooted in the everyday experience of their characters. It was very helpless, very bleak and the gore was out of control at the time.
GSC- So what was Rob’s starting place then? Was it as an educational piece?
Larry- Yeah, it’s to look at the movie in the historical context of the period. I must say that, that’s my interest in horror- or at least in talking about horror- is to show what a vital genre it is; it’s not just an entertainment, it really does express the anxieties of the culture at the time. Of course in the 50’s we had giant ants and Godzilla, because that was a response to the atom bomb and the atomic age. I think it is fun to analyse. In a way it says horror movies are cooler than you think. People really need them to express their sense of despair. So this movie- Birth of the Living Dead- takes one film and analyses how vital it was.
GSC- How receptive was Romero to getting on board with the film?
Larry- I can say that Romero gave an incredibly generous interview that went on over more than a single day, and you can tell he’s very at home. Now he’s given good interviews for other films and documentaries, but I think Rob caught him in a very good time and place. Romero was very generous and he’s a great storyteller and really settled into all the details.
GSC_ The film is very well researched, it’s quite thorough isn’t it?
Larry- It is very thorough. Rob is a great reader of critical essays about the time period and the role of cinema in culture, so he’s quite a thoughtful person. He’s not the first person you would imagine is in to zombies, which is why I think Birth of the Living Dead has such a specific flavour, it comes from an intellectual place but also a gleeful love of the genre.
GSC_ If you consider Rob’s output prior to the making of Birth of the Living Dead- I mean Louis Theroux documentaries for example- you really would not imagine he would be the type to make films about zombies!
Larry- Well he is a radical zombie fan, and he loves all of them. I love how it’s against the cliché, he’s not just a gorehound, he really does have great passion for these movies. He’s seen all Romero’s other films- like Martin and The Crazies- and does have a great affection for all of Romero’s output.
GSC_ At one point in the film we meet a teacher who uses the film to as a teaching aid for his class of young children, and we get to see him teaching his class and the kids involved giving their opinions. I have to ask this, where the hell did they dig that teacher up from?
Larry- Well that was my contribution! I just thought that it was so bizarre that a teacher would use that movie. I mean it scared me when I was young, but I was at least a teenager when I first saw it. But the fact that the culture is so extreme now, that you can show that movie to little kids and imagine it as a teaching tool, I thought it was a very interesting dynamic.
GSC- The kids did not seem to be affected by it at all did they?
Larry- Well they seemed delighted! *laughs*
But it wasn’t in a negative way, I mean they were engaged, I found that kind of charming. It grabbed their attention and it seemed like they worked hard to make their own little zombie films. I think it’s an interesting thing to have in the movie, it’s an interesting little off shoot. Some people find it an odd digression, but I think it shows what a cultural impact that movie has had.
GSC- It just goes to show doesn’t it? Over here in the UK there was recently an uproar when a teacher played the theme from Psycho to a class of young school kids- not the film, just the theme! It was reported in the press that these kids had been traumatised by the experience, and how could this teacher do this?
Larry- See there again, you can see I have a lot of affection for horror. I mean Bernard Herrman is one of our great composers, and I think it is perfectly legitimate to expose the children to the Psycho score haha *laughs*
GSC- Personally I think it’s character building.
Larry- Yes! *laughs*.
GSC- The social commentary aspect then, that was always going to be Rob’s key factor, it was in there from the start and it was always going to be his angle?
Larry- Yes it was. But it is important to note that he doesn’t mean that Romero intended that when he made Night of the Living Dead, it is more something to be explored after the fact, to see what an impact the film had and it’s place in history. But Romero had his own reasons for making the film and those are hopefully explored as well.
GSC- I guess it is like a lot of these Independent low-budget features that they don’t realise the potential impact when they are making them. I guess it is because they aren’t governed by these mainstream studio rules and they can put a lot of freedom in there.
Larry- I completely agree it’s what makes these movies exciting. I mean nowadays- even horror which used to be a bastard sub-genre- now it’s made by the mainstream so now they have more calculation. Always the more interesting horror films come from Independent voices because you are going to get things which are unexpected, and uncalculated, a little bit more off kilter; that’s the role of horror to shake you up a little and make you rethink your complacency.
GSC- So Birth of the Living Dead has just arrived in the UK on DVD, and it’s already out Stateside. Did it do the festival circuit?
Larry- Yes it did. I must say it was very well reviewed and well liked. As a piece I think the critics enjoyed the slightly serious aspect. There are other movies about Night of the Living Dead, but they tend to be for the zombie fans and not quite as exploratory of these other issues. I think the movie is unique in that way.
GSC_ Reponses have been positive so far then?
Larry- Yes mainly, the only negative ones have come from those who already know every little thing about Night of the Living Dead and they are just annoyed that there isn’t something more revealed here. But those are people who just know every little detail anyway!
GSC- Are there any more genre based projects like this in the pipeline for you guys?
Larry- For me, I’m always making genre movies, usually narratives, not always doing documentaries although we have had our share of those. Rob and I are collaborating on expanding this idea of power and the culture beyond 1968 to look at other historical periods and the genre films being made at the time so we will see how that pans out.
GSC- Finally what do you think the enduring attraction to the zombie is?
Larry- Well in America, but I guess in every country nowadays- even though we are very divided politically- I guess everyone can relate to the metaphor of the zombie. It’s either the endless stupid consumer masses walking endlessly forward as they are depicted in Dawn of the Dead, or the menace. I just think it’s an enduring image of these relentless flesh eating creatures. Masses of them coming after you and you are battling against all odds for survival. I think people of all stripes can relate to that.
The GSC also caught up with director Rob Kuhns to briefly ask him about his experience working with genre legend George Romero and this is what he had to tell us…
Esther and I got to George through producer Chiz Schultz (also interviewed in “Birth”) who knew Pat Buba and Zilla Clinton. Pat, one of Hollywood’s top film editors, edited some of George’s films, including “Knightriders,”
“Creepshow,” and “Day of the Dead,” and was also one of the bikers in “Dawn of the Dead.” Zilla was production manager for “Dawn.” “Dawn” is one of our all-time favorite films, so even if nothing came of the meeting we were honored and thrilled to meet Pat and Zilla. We are so grateful to them because after our meeting, they called George on our behalf, and he immediately agreed to an interview.
We were extremely excited and more than a little terrified to meet George.
When he opened the door of his apartment to greet us I was reminded of that scene in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” when Malcolm first met Elijah Muhammad – we
were awestruck and speechless. George’s graciousness, humility, and sense
of humor soon put us at ease. When Esther asked him if he wanted a glass of water as we were getting started, he responded with an uncanny Bela Legosi accent, “I never drink water.”
He held us spellbound with the most incredible stories about the making of “Night.” He spoke with a freshness as if it all happened yesterday. Romero is a compulsive, wildly-gifted storyteller with no off-switch. Michael Grippo, the director of photography, couldn’t change the tapes fast enough.
Even during lunch and dinner breaks, when the camera wasn’t running, he kept entertaining us with stories. He’s obviously one of the most gifted filmmakers in the world as well as one of the smartest people we ever met – no surprise there – but to our delight, he’s also one of the most playful and charming. Astonishingly, he gave us several days of his time and through his interview alone we immediately knew we had the core of a great documentary. When we were finished filming, George shook our hands and said, “Thank you for your interest in my work.”
Birth of the Living Dead is out now! Check out the official site here.
Birth of the Living Dead is out now to own and rent on iTunes here.