Larry Fessenden on Birth of the Living Dead: Zombie Movie as History Lesson
The zombification of America got its start in 1968, when George A. Romero and a bunch of his friends and colleagues released Night of the Living Dead, the scrappy little horror movie that could not only serve as patient zero in the ongoing pop-cultural zombie apocalypse, it also revolutionized horror as a genre and marked the birth of a new era in independent filmmaking. Now, 45 years later, Birth of the Living Dead (available on iTunes) shines a light on the film's creation, the turbulent world that it was born into and its enduring influence to this day, both within the zombie genre and in the larger world. We spoke with executive producer Larry Fessenden about what to expect from the doc, how it came to be and why Night of the Living Dead still has such an impact.
OC WEEKLY: Let's start with how you came to be involved with this project, and what your role was as executive producer.
LARRY FESSENDEN: Ah yes, of course, it has many implications. In my case, Rob Kuhns, the director, invited me to do an interview about Night of the Living Dead for his documentary. So I went in and pontificated about the movie and my affection for it. I've always cited it as my favorite horror movie, for various reasons.
I did the interview, then Rob followed up and said, "Do you want to see the cut?" I watched it and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I really loved the mission of his film, putting Night of the Living Dead in a historical context, so I just got involved. I offered him a few more names of interviews that I thought would help flesh out the direction he was going, and I found him the illustrator who did the poster and helped tell the story in the film. I helped him with the mix and helped him finish, just became a partner to it. So, executive producer can mean many things—sometimes it's the guy with the money, sometimes it's the guy with the little bit of help that can get a film finished.
Were there interviews you wanted to get for the film that you were unable to get?
Well, look, I think with a film like this, of course you can wish for bigger and bigger names. You can wish for Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, all the thoughtful horror guys out there. But I think actually, we got the flavor he was looking for. Elvis Mitchell came in and offered a perspective . . . we didn't even know he was that fond of the movie. It was really fun when we discovered it was a seminal film for him. Then Jason Zinoman has written a wonderful book called Shock Value and you couldn't hope for a more scholarly, thoughtful guy. So he was an interesting interview. Of course, you can picture a movie like this with even bigger names, but I think the names that Rob got fulfilled the mission.
On that note, the material with George Romero is fantastic and obviously the backbone of the film, but none of the other principals from Night were involved. Why was that?
Rob had approached some of these guys—[John] Russo—and my impression is that they were making Another One for the Fire, one of the docs they were involved in, and a well-liked, well-known doc on this topic. I think they felt like, "Look, we're already doing one, we don't need to get involved in yours." That was way back in the beginning, when Rob was just piecing things together. I think it was more happenstance than anything.
Obviously Duane Jones was no longer with us. That would have been great. Ironically, we met Duane's sister recently, and she would have been an interesting interview for the movie. She certainly made herself available to us for a special screening of the film. The thing with movies is there's a strange sense of circumstances that combine to be the movie that it actually is. I'm sure he would have loved to interview those guys, but it just didn't happen.
The film does an excellent job drawing attention to some of the dynamics that younger audiences probably overlook, as far as the turbulent times in America and what was going on around the film. How did you approach that?
I know that the agenda of the movie, they were really setting out to try to bring out the immediacy and almost shock of the first viewing of that movie. So there's a lot of time spent setting the stage, what was happening politically and culturally so that a modern viewer can really appreciate how startling this film was when it came out. I think that is very much the agenda and that's why there is quite a bit of time talking about Duane Jones and the racial tensions that were all over in our nation in 1968 and how casting a black dude to be a hero—and more important not to speak about it, to just let it unfold—was very startling at the time.
Now, it's something you would see. You'd see Denzel Washington, no one would be saying, "What are you doing here, Mr. Black Man?" But in those days it was very unusual, and not to talk about it was stranger still. Most films with a racial component, there was a great deal of hand-wringing, trying to make it clear to an audience the role of a Sidney Poitier in a film, for example.
On a similar note, the juxtaposition of some of the newsreel footage of race riots and Vietnam with shots from the film make another element clear. It was eye-opening how similar they looked.
I think that's the power of the documentary. You really see—you're taken back to the handheld footage of Vietnam, then you cut to Romero's shots of the zombies and you really realize the immediacy. The same with the race riots, and how shocking it looks. As he points out, seeing those German shepherds going across a field—these were images that really had resonance to the nation at the time. They sort of suggested the trouble in the streets, and the violence in Vietnam.
I think it's also just seeing 16mm footage and it feels handheld and really kind of immediate. That was the other thing, I think maybe if you see newsreel footage like that and it's cut in with Romero's footage, you see how immediate the film felt. It wasn't staged like a Vincent Price movie or a Universal picture, where the monsters were sort of quaint by then, in comparison to what was happening. That's the thing that I think Rob was going for by intercutting all those elements.
He also does a good job explaining how revolutionary the story structure was at the time, with it just picking up as a slice of life that quickly turns dark. Horror movies like that are more common now, and it's not obvious to modern audiences how unusual that was at the time.
Another thing I like about it, is it's just one night. I mean, that's certainly been done before and after, but it gives it a simplicity and almost a unity of time, where you're almost seeing everything in real time. Every little decision: "Well, let's try to go out the back door this time." or "Let's board up the windows this time." I still think that's resonant, and you see a lot of new films screw that kind of thing up.
I think the acting is a little stiff and so on, but I think the movie still has a strange power. The black and white just makes it feel creepy. There's some goofy stuff—Romero himself makes fun of his special effects at times, just appallingly awful—but there's a mood in the whole film that I think holds up. Of course, because I still recall how I felt when I saw it. I showed it to my 13-year-old who likes the occasional zombie movie and he was unable to see its merits. [Laughs.] He was respectful to me, but it was kind of like, "Nah, I don't think so."
Are there any amusing or interesting anecdotes you'd like to share from the production of the film?
[Laughs.] Well, no. Honestly, on a doc, you have the interviews, and those were all done by Rob and I wasn't even present for the interviews I set up. I know they spent three days with George Romero and that was spectacular and I'll tell you that's there lots of great additional footage that they'll be trotting out on the DVD. Just wonderful stories about his youth, growing up . . . Romero is clearly the heart and soul of the movie,and there's plenty more of that as well.
The other thing that I found, which is not an essential part of the movie, but it's certainly a strange little departure, is the teacher who uses [Night] to teach inner-city kids. [Laughs.] I met that guy and he was my web designer for a while and I just couldn't believe that he was doing that with those kids. I told the director, Rob, that maybe he should go up and get some of this footage. It just seemed to stand in such contrast to Roger Ebert's lament that the poor children who saw this film would be incapable of dealing with the imagery. Well, here we have children half the age seeing the movie and sort of cheering along -- although they have some poignant things to say. That was just another element that I thought would be interesting, and Rob stuck with it and put it in the movie.
What would you say to new-school zombie fans, who maybe had something like The Walking Dead or Zombieland as their intro to the genre, as far as the doc and why it—and Night of the Living Dead itself—is worth their time?
Well, without being too parental, I'd say it's really important to know where stuff comes from. This is one occasion where there's an absolute, definitive origin of all the zombie movies and all the zombie culture that we live with. And it's funny! And it's a history lesson without feeling like a history lesson. So, kids, 75 minutes—why not? It's a good time. [Laughs.]
That would be my pitch. It's got a lot going on. You learn about the '60s, which is not that far in the past, but far enough that it might seem hard to understand. And you spend some time with this wonderful guy who was cool enough to make movies on his own, without the system. Then you learn that one man can make a huge difference, all by himself. Well, not by himself, but with a team of pals. I think it's a lesson in many ways.
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