To mark the UK release of Criterion’s remastered, definitive Blu-ray edition of George A. Romero’s seminal subgenre-starting zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, I finally got round to watching two related feature-length documentaries that, er, aren’t included on that release. Never mind, eh?
Anyway, here are my thoughts on One for the Fire and Birth of the Living Dead.
One for the Fire:
The Legacy of “Night of the Living Dead”
Robert L. Lucas & Chris Roe | 84 mins | Blu-ray (SD) | 16:9 | USA / English
Made to mark the film’s 40th anniversary, this documentary interviews many of the surviving creators of Night of the Living Dead to tell the full story of the project’s genesis, making, release, and legacy.
After an opening segment that imitates Night’s own beginning and interviews the graveyard scene’s stars, One for the Fire goes for a chronological telling of events. It starts with Romero’s college days, when he met most of the gang who would eventually create Night. There are some great tales of him as a flamboyant student, swishing around in a cape or dressing up as a Mexican bandit for no particular reason — if you put it in a biopic it’d look like an OTT sitcom-ish affectation. After that they set up a production company, The Latent Image, making local TV ads. The expertise (and equipment) gained there would eventually embolden them to make a feature film, choosing the horror genre because it would be a relatively easy sell.
“We were just a bunch of guys out to make a movie,” says Romero, which kind of sums up the whole shoot — they basically winged it, making up the process of moviemaking as they went along. Any one of them could’ve done each other’s jobs because they all knew about as much as each other did; if someone knew slightly more about something, they were assigned that role. Everyone mucked in, doing what was necessary, be that zombie make-up or running to the shop for lunch. But they were canny, reaching out to local TV personalities, police, and helicopter pilots to lend a sense of scale to some sequences, or popping to Washington D.C. on a quiet Sunday to shoot a scene guerrilla-style, all to make it look like the film had some budget.
Interestingly, Romero says that Night is not only his scariest film, it’s in fact his only scary film. Not what you expect from a renowned horror director. But he says a specific part of the impetus while making Night was to try to scare the viewer, which hasn’t been his goal on any film he’s made since, despite the genre.
The documentary’s general narrative is interspersed with short asides that focus on minor-seeming individuals and the contributions they made to the film, which is a nice way of giving people credit. One who merits a longer discussion is Duane Jones, the actor who played the heroic role of Ben. He died in 1988 and they all pay quite moving tribute to him — he was clearly very well liked; admired, even. His part was written as colourless… well, so they say — I’m sure they assumed he’d be white. But they were young, hip guys, and so they happily cast Jones because he was the best actor they knew. They proudly didn’t change a single thing about the script to accommodate the race change. Romero thought they were being hip, treating him exactly the same as if he were white, but Jones disagreed, arguing they should acknowledge his race at least a bit. Speaking now, Romero thinks Jones was right — they were so busy being cool about it that they didn’t really understand that, in those days, it really was different him being black.
One for the Fire doesn’t get too far into that kind of analysis, mind. It’s really an oral history of how the film was made, by many of the people who were there doing it. How much that interests you will dictate how much this film does. Movie buffs may prefer the next documentary…
Birth of the Living Dead
Rob Kuhns | 76 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15
As Birth of the Living Dead got underway, I was worried I’d made a mistake watching it so soon after One for the Fire: it seemed to be telling the same making-of story (though starting later: it jumps straight to the Latent Image days), but with only one interviewee who was there (at least that interviewee is Romero himself) and some slick animations to illustrate events. However, it moves very quickly on to commenting on and analysing the film’s construction, effect, and influence, and puts both the finished film itself and its production methods into wider social and historical contexts.
There are some familiar stories and anecdotes here, unsurprisingly, but there’s actually not that much overlap with One for the Fire, and Romero even tells some new behind-the-scenes stories. Much more of the film is about commentary from knowledgeable individuals — other people in the industry, journalists, movie experts, and so on. What the film lacks in not having other voices from the production, it makes up for with this outside analysis. This is all good stuff for those interested in the movie’s effect more than its production. Some of the discussion is obvious or reiterates well-known perspectives, but there’s a good variety of voices. It’s the kind of commentary that can enhance your appreciation of the film itself.
The only seemingly pointless thread follows a school teacher as he shows Night to a bunch of elementary school kids. No, that’s not a typo — they’re surely far too young for it! But they seem to delight in it. Nonetheless, it seems like a needless addition to the film, until quite late on. When the documentary gets on to discussing Night’s release, it talks about how horror had become a genre mainly marketed to kids — it was seen as colourful campy fun, with only the occasional hint of slight scariness. But then it was that audience that saw Night of the Living Dead, and they were fucking terrified (see: Roger Ebert’s contemporary article about watching it with an audience of children). I thought the documentary wouldn’t dare to revisit the modern teacher after that, but it does — and they still seem to love it. I don’t know what that says about our society now, if anything.
Aside from traumatising small children, Night of the Living Dead was initially dismissed by American critics as trash; but when it was re-released the next year, it was seen by a writer for Andy Warhol’s magazine, who called it art and said it should be playing in art houses. When it reached Europe in 1970, the French had a similar reaction. That fed back to the US: the Museum of Modern Art played it to a standing-room-only crowd. I guess that’s how we get to where we are today, with it acknowledged as a solid classic.
As I said earlier, when I decided to watch these two documentaries basically back to back I thought it would probably turn out to be a stupid idea. Fortunately, the overlap is minimal, meaning they actually compliment each other pretty well. Fans would surely benefit from seeing both. Alternatively, the fact that they offer distinctly different things means a viewer could pick the topic that particularly interests them. In that regard, I’d err towards recommending Birth of the Living Dead, for its critical appreciation and historical analysis that furnishes viewers with wider perspectives with which to appreciate one of the most significant horror movies — arguably, one of the most significant movies full stop — ever made.
One for the Fire is available as a special feature on certain releases of Night of the Living Dead: the Australian and US 40th anniversary DVDs, the Japanese 40th anniversary Blu-ray, and Optimum’s UK Blu-ray (not the one released by Network). It seems it’s also available on an Italian DVD and Blu-ray, which provided the cover art above.
Birth of the Living Dead is available by itself on DVD in the US and on Blu-ray in the UK, as well as bundled with Network’s UK Blu-ray of Night. It’s also streaming free to Amazon Prime members in the US, and I’m sure available to rent and/or purchase from other digital providers.