Rob Kuhns first saw George A. Romero’s landmark Night of the Living Dead in 1983 at a midnight show while he was attending New York University film school. “The film just blew me away — especially the ending,” he recalled.
He later read Paul Gagne’s book The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh, which would lead to an even deeper interest in Romero, whose low-budget 1968 film ended up “changing the world.” Now, 30 years later, Kuhns is preparing to release Year of the Living Dead, a documentary that chronicles the making of the Romero classic from a historical perspective, illustrating how the political and social changes of the era influenced Romero, and how his film affected the audiences who saw it, giving birth to the billion-dollar zombie subgenre of entertainment.
Through friends, Kuhns met Romero in fall 2006 while he was in Toronto working on Diary of the Dead, and the director sat in front of the camera over the course of two days to discuss the creation of his seminal 1968 film.
“He was just this incredibly gracious, entertaining guy,” Kuhns told Spinoff Online in an exclusive interview. “And the way he is off-camera is the same way he is on-camera — completely relaxed and sort of a compulsive entertainer. He told us all of these wonderful stories.”
After finishing the interview with Romero, the question became how to transform the footage into a full-length feature. “I had to kind of work from the ground up,” Kuhns said.
He realized, however, that the Romero footage wasn’t enough for a full documentary. “I would have loved to have interviewed everybody involved with the production of Night of the Living Dead, but the timing didn’t work out,” Kuhns said. “While I was making this [Year of the Living Dead], everybody else was making One for the Fire, the documentary which was part of the 40th-anniversary DVD of Night of the Living Dead. They didn’t want to have another documentary competing with theirs. That had a bearing on me and what I could do.”
So Kuhns turned to his day job as a film editor for PBS’s Bill Moyers Journal. “Bill was the press secretary for Lyndon Johnson in the late ‘60s, at the time when Night of the Living Dead was being made,” he said. “So I was steeped in this history, and I had access to all of this historical footage and historical facts and context. I found that while following the story of the making of Night, it was also interesting to follow what was happening in the world as they were making the film, which included the race rebellions that were happening in Newark and Detroit and really all across the country. It was a scary, frightening, tumultuous time in 1967. Also the war in Vietnam was escalating at a time when it was becoming increasingly unpopular. So the world’s becoming very polarized, both from a race standpoint and also in terms of the war. It was this great metaphor for the world being split between zombies and human beings. Of course, that’s just one way to interpret the film — the film’s very rich metaphorically. Setting the film in a historical context ended up being a really rich reservoir of material, and the documentary started to move in that direction. I found that, as an editor, the cross-cutting between footage of what was happening at the time in history and the film clips — that the film clips helped us understand what was happening historically and what was happening historically helped us understand the film. They illuminated each other.”
Kuhns interviewed a variety of subjects to comment on the historic aspects of the film. Chiz Schultz, a producer of Harry Belafonte TV Specials in the ‘60s, discusses how revolutionary it was for Romero to cast a black actor, Duane Jones, as the lead in the film as the hero but then never once in the film address or mention his race. He compares that to a Belafonte television special in which a sponsor demanded there be no physical contact between Belafonte and white guest singer Petula Clark. NYU film professor Sam Pollard discusses Jones’ character and compares it to tamer Sidney Poitier performances in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Defiant Ones and In the Heat of the Night. Filmmaker Larry Fessenden talks about how Romero’s guerilla-style filmmaking and radical story choices made Night an icon film of the counterculture.
The documentary also includes a segment on Bronx school teacher Christopher Cruz, who uses Night of the Living Dead in the classroom. He teaches “Literacy Through Film” for students ages 8 to 13, and discovered that film and filmmaking is a great way to instruct kids about language. “The kids were into it,” Kuhns said. “They were jazzed about the movie, and their interviews were pretty good. It’s pretty controversial. One of the questions I get from people who see the film is, ‘Do you think it’s appropriate to teach kids Night of the Living Dead?’ A good friend of mine was horrified that kids were being exposed to this movie, but these kids seemed like they were able to take it. They were in a safe environment. They were able to take it in context and not be freaked out by it and got excited by it. It seems to work.”
While today’s kids might not get freaked out by the film, the same cannot be said for those in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Another segment of the documentary deals with present-day adults who were affected by the film when they saw it as children. “I was stunned to find in the midst of interviewing Elvis Mitchell, who is a great critic and a brilliant guy, that he had seen Night of the Living Dead as a kid. It had a profound impact on him,” Kuhns said. “And not only that, he grew up in Detroit when all these racial things were going on. He saw the movie as the city was burning down around him. So he saw it during that time and the film really spoke to him and to his world so closely. That was a great find.”
There’s also a post-credits sequence featuring Night of the Living Dead graveyard zombie Bill Hinzman shot in 2007 at a zombie convention at the Monroeville Mall where Dawn of the Dead was filmed. Hinzman is dressed in character and looks exactly the same as he did in 1967. “When we shot that in 2007, I hadn’t really found the focus of the documentary yet,” Kuhns said. “But Bill died last year. We felt it was appropriate to put it in the film after the credits as a eulogy to him.”
Year of the Living Dead has played at a number of festivals over the past few months, winning Outstanding Documentary Feature at the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita, Kansas, and runner-up in the OFF the Edge category at the Omaha Film Festival. It’s scheduled to screen next month at the Florida Film Festival in Maitland, Florida, as part of the American Independent Competition.
Kuhns said additional festivals are on the agenda, but then the work shifts to getting wider release. “We’re talking to some distributors now,” he said. “It looks like we will get some sort of limited theatrical release in the fall and hopefully that will spread outside of New York and Los Angeles. We’re also talking to a distributor in Europe, and it looks like it will be broadcast on television there sometime in the fall.”
A loaded Blu-ray/DVD is also in development. “We’ll have a ‘George Uncut’ section where he speaks much more about his early industrial work in Pittsburgh before he shot Night of the Living Dead, and a lot about Dawn of the Dead,” Kuhns said. “I also have a great audio recording from an interview George gave in 1970 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One of the highlights from that interview is when George is asked, ‘Do you think you will ever make any more horror films?’ and George answers, ‘No, I don’t think so.’”
Kuhns is also developing a television series with filmmaker Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo) for which Year of the Living Dead will serve as a pilot. The project will look at horror films throughout history and how they reflect the anxiety and politics of the time.
“I think pop culture in general and horror films specifically are really fascinating reflections of what’s happening in the country,” he said. “A clear and obvious chapter would be the McCarthy era with the House Un-American Activities [Committee] and the hunt for Communists and the Cold War scare. There were great films like The Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers that reflect this. I think it’s a really interesting way to look at history, and I think it’s a great way to ‘de-ghettoize’ the horror film. Shows like The Walking Dead have helped make horror a more respected art form, but I’d really like to see more and for horror to get its due.”