It’s only fitting that “Birth of the Living Dead” is playing at the University District’s Grand Illusion as Halloween draws near. It’s there that George Romero’s classic, prototypical zombie film “Night of the Living Dead,” has played every year for decades in late October, one of Seattle’s longest-running movie traditions.
As its title suggests, “Birth” sets out to chronicle the origins of Romero’s 1968 film, but what first appears to be a standard “making of” feature becomes a more ambitious combination of historical perspective and sociopolitical commentary. Romero himself is the film’s highlight, appearing relaxed and funny in an entertaining interview. But with only one exception (a posthumous after-credits tribute to “graveyard zombie” Bill Hinzman), none of the film’s cast members are interviewed.
Instead, director Rob Kuhns applies experience from working on PBS’ “Moyers & Company” to place “Night of the Living Dead” in the tumultuous context of 1968, focusing on racial tensions and Romero’s provocative, matter-of-fact casting of an African American (the late Duane Jones) in “Night’s” lead role. By foregoing any mention of race, Romero assured that “Night,” which was initially rejected by most critics, would ultimately be recognized as an influential classic.
In addition to scenes of students enthusiastically responding to “Night of the Living Dead” in a classroom context, Kuhns also includes personal recollections from critics Elvis Mitchell and Mark Harris, “The Walking Dead” producer Gale Ann Hurd, horror director Larry Fessenden and others. Some choice production details (like “Night’s” 1967 budget of $114,000) will engage trivia buffs; and, by placing Romero’s film at the epicenter of its volatile era, “Birth of the Living Dead” pays wide-ranging tribute to an enduring pop-cultural milestone.