“It was this tiny little movie in Pittsburgh that seemed to have no chance and it changed the world,” says Jason Zinoman at the beginning of Rob Kuhns’s extremely entertaining new documentary, Birth of the Living Dead. Zinoman, author of Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, is one of several experts discussing the making, influence, and legacy of college dropout George A. Romero’s 1968 classic frightfest, Night of the Living Dead, which essentially invented the flesh-eating zombie. Throughout the documentary, the Bronx-born Romero, looking somewhat like a wide-eyed, white-haired Martin Scorsese, shares fascinating behind-the-scenes details about the creation of his masterpiece, describing how he raised what little funds he could, how most of the nonprofessional actors were members of the local community (steel workers, cops, meatpackers, ad executives, television hosts, etc.) who not only played ad-libbing humans or zombies but also supplied props, did the makeup, and donated equipment, and how no one really thought they’d ever actually finish and distribute the film, having previously specialized primarily in beer commercials and such authorized shorts as Mister Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy — which Romero still considers his scariest work to date. Fans of Night of the Living Dead will glory in learning more about Harry and Helen Cooper (business partners Karl Hindman and Marilyn Eastman), newscaster Charles Craig, cemetery zombie Bill Hinzman, Sheriff McClelland (George Kosana), and others. While Romero says that the casting of Duane Jones as Ben was not based on race — and that not a word of the script was changed because Jones was black — a group of talking heads relates how it was a genius move not to make specific mention of race in the film, which was completed just before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Among those excitedly placing NOTLD firmly in film history and sociopolitical context, explaining how it was a counterculture touchstone that symbolized the unrest in late 1960s America brought about by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, are critic, curator, and radio host Elvis Mitchell (The Black List, The Treatment), indie filmmaker and Birth executive producer Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter, Habit), Hollywood producer Gale Anne Hurd (Aliens, The Walking Dead), film journalist Mark Harris (Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood), documentarian and NYU professor Sam Pollard, producer Chiz Schultz (who tells an amazing story about Harry Belafonte and Petula Clark), and the aforementioned Zinoman. It’s absolutely gripping when Ben’s slap of Barbara (Judith O’Dea) is compared to scenes from In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The Brooklyn-based Kuhns, who wrote, produced, directed, and edited the film, includes archival news footage that he was able to access through his role as editor of the Bill Moyers television program Moyers & Company; meets with Bronx elementary school teacher Christopher Cruz, who is questionably showing fifth- and sixth-grade students NOTLD as part of his film class; and adds ghoulish graphic-novel-style animation by Gary Pullin. However, he curiously never touches on anything Romero did post-NOTLD, a career that has boasted another five Dead movies so far. But he has done a great service for the nonpareil standard-bearer, offering a thrilling examination of the little horror movie that could. Stick around for a post-credits tribute to Hinzman, who passed away last year at the age of seventy-five. Birth of the Living Dead opens November 6 at the IFC Center, with Kuhns on hand for the 8:35 screenings on Wednesday and Thursday, which will be followed by free 10:15 showings of the original Night of the Living Dead.