Reviewed at the 2012 Tallgrass Film Festival
In 1967, a 27-year-old college dropout and industrial filmmaker named George A. Romero assembled a ramshackle cast and crew of friends, associates, and clients, rented a farmhouse in the sticks, and made Night of the Living Dead--"this tiny little movie in Pittsburgh," notes historian Jason Zinoman, that "changed the world." That sounds like a tall claim for a low-budget horror picture, but in his new documentary Year of the Living Dead, director Rob Kuhns mounts a convincing case.
The film is part biography, part behind-the-scenes feature, and part sociological study. We're introduced to Romero, whose Pittsburgh production company made industrials, commercials, and even some of the outside-the-studio films on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. (We get a glimpse of one, "Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy," which Romero notes "remains one of the scariest movies I've ever done.") He initially wanted to make his feature filmmaking debut with a Bergman-esque art drama, but quickly realized that they'd be better off making a horror movie--something a little more commercial. They got that, all right.
The stories of how they scraped the movie together out of spit and scotch tape and ingenuity are fascinating, and Romero tells them well--much of Year of the Living Dead's first half is him holding court entertainingly, a grinning charmer with giant glasses and a hearty laugh. He's told these stories for decades, but he's not tired of them, and the doc also fills in some of the casual fan's lingering questions about the pictures's making and release (like how it ended up playing those kids' matinees, and the remarkable blunder that put it into the public domain). But that would make this a fine DVD featurette, and little more. Kuhns pushes further, exploring Night of the Living Dead in its most compelling form: as a metaphor and commentary on then-current events.
Because those current vents have now become history, the filmmaker and his interview subjects provide extensive context for the film--the things we take for granted now, but which made it so revolutionary at that particular moment. He pulls together a marvelous trio of film writers to talk about the picture's environment and influence: the aforementioned Zinoman, who wrote last year's terrific Shock Value; Mark Harris, author of the brilliant chronicle Pictures at a Revolution; and the always insightful Elvis Mitchell.
Their discussion is wide-ranging, from the casting of African-American actor Duane Jones in the leading role as subtle subversion of both conventional treatment of black people in film and the Poitier factor, of the authenticity of the newscasts and the unnervingly real quality it lent the film, the influence of Vietnam War and Civil Rights imagery on the lean, pseudo-documentary look of the film. Much of the Night playbook became standard for not only horror films but mainstream storytelling in the decade that followed, but such elements as the enigmatic nature, the anything-goes morality, and the subversion of narrative exposition are here pinpointed as the innovations they were.
Night, and many of the great films of the 1970s that followed it, offered no comfort for the audience ("There's always the refreshment stand!" Romero counters cheerfully). As with many groundbreaking films, much of what it does has been so often duplicated that it's become hard to appreciate the source. Night of the Living Dead has been separated from its time, and one of the finest qualities of Year of the Living Dead is how expertly it positions the picture back within that framework. It's a slender effort that doesn't overstay its welcome (and even at that, a couple of its digressions--like the visits to a Bronx classroom--don't really work). Its aim is simple: to trace the history of this remarkable film, and to remind us of how truly original it was. Mission accomplished.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.