Deep Fried Interview: Birth of the Living Dead director Rob Kuhns
The making of George Romero’s paradigm-shifting horror film Night of the Living Dead was an exercise in perseverance. The movie’s 30-day shooting schedule was spread out over seven months, with the majority taking place in an about-to-be-demolished Pennsylvania farmhouse with no running water. Everyone wore multiple hats – from Romero, who also served as cinematographer and co-editor, to Ross Harris, who invested not only money but also entrails from his meat packing plant for the zombie extras to chow down on.
The documentary Birth of the Living Dead follows the production and release of Romero’s seminal film. Its making also required significant perseverance from director Rob Kuhns and his producer/wife Esther Cassidy.
The duo spent a year-and-a-half pursuing Romero for an interview. When they discovered the production stills they’d been using in their preliminary edit couldn’t be legally cleared, they commissioned original illustrations as a substitute. When they faced a shortage of funding, they financed a portion of the production out of their own pockets.
All told, the film took more than five years to complete. Kuhns talked to Deep Fried Movies about his memorable first Night experience, tracking down Romero and how his day job as an editor for one of Bill Moyers’ PBS shows helped shape his tribute to the most influential horror movie ever made.
I very distinctly remember seeing Night of the Living Dead for the first time as a kid in the 1980s on an old black and white TV. What were some of the films that had an impact on you when you were growing up? Were you a big horror buff as a kid?
Rob Kuhns: I have to say I was more of a sci-fi/fantasy fan as a kid. I loved the Ray Harryhausen movies like Mysterious Island and Jason and the Argonauts. I also loved Fantastic Voyage and The Time Machine and my favorite TV show was probably “The Six Million Dollar Man.”
The first movie I can remember really blowing me away was Planet of the Apes. I saw it when I was about 10 or 11 on the TV broadcast premiere in 1973 on my family’s first color TV. That ending – when Taylor [played by Charlton Heston] comes across the Statue of Liberty – truly shocked me. I had a very similar feeling when Ben gets shot at the end of Night of the Living Dead. Only a handful of movies in my lifetime affected me in this way.
Still, as a kid, horror had a strong pull. Rod Serling’s TV series “Night Gallery” truly scared the shit out of me. I’d wake my parents up in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep. It was not a pleasant thrill, but rather genuine terror. In spite of this, I found myself drawn to horror time and time again. I wouldn’t say I became a horror aficionado until I was into my 20s and had better control over the fear. I sometimes wish I could be as scared as I was as a kid by a movie again. The closest I came recently was The Conjuring – what a pleasure that movie was! I saw it once with a buddy in the theater (we were in the fetal position much of the time) and a second time at home with my wife, Esther. I loved the fact it could fill me with such a sense of dread with so little violence and gore.
Is your wife Esther a genre fan as well?
Rather than try to answer that myself, I passed it on to Esther. Here’s her answer:
I love good horror films like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. These films, like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and all of its sequels, scare me to the brink of insanity. But I especially love horrifying sci-fi films. (I argued with Rob that my favorite horrifying sci-fi films should be classified as horror/sci-fi – but he disagreed. I think he’s wrong.) The sci-fi films that I love because they horrify me include (the Don Siegel and Philip Kaufman) versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as Howard Hawks’ production of The Thing from Another World and its newer version, John Carpenter’s The Thing. I also like to see how sci-fi filmmakers shock and horrify audiences with their distortions of normal earthly animals like Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes and the wonderful Them (directed by Gordon Douglas), which shows giant radiated ants attacking Tinseltown.
You first saw Night of the Living Dead at a midnight screening while you were an NYU film student in the early 1980s. What do you remember about that experience?
I’m so glad I saw Night for the first time that way – in a movie theater, at midnight. It wasn’t in a grindhouse – it was in a respectable little theater on 8th Street which is now NYU’s Cantor Film Center. I went with a big gang of NYU kids and we were all really amped to see it. I remember it feeling like a surreal experience – your resistance is lowered because it’s so late. You’re sort of in a fog. And, again, it was the ending that I remember the most. It was so shocking. One of the things I’ve come to realize lately about it, too, is that not only does Ben get shot at the end, but there’s nobody to witness it who knew Ben and what he went through. It was such a brutal injustice. And that still sequence of him being dragged by meat hooks to the bonfire with the pile of dead zombies! We all walked out of the theater in a profoundly disturbed daze.
Talk a little bit about the inspiration behind Birth of the Living Dead.
While I certainly loved the film Night itself, the inspiration to make the documentary came from reading about the making of the film in Paul Gagne’s biography of Romero, “The Zombies that Ate Pittsburgh.” It was enormously inspiring to read about how Romero, a 27-year-old college drop out from the Bronx, and a crew of mostly very young working class people, not very experienced in filmmaking and with very few resources, came together to make this seminal film. And to do it in Pittsburgh of all places! I lived in Pittsburgh during my teens so I have a sentimental attachment to the place. It was this incredible underdog, “little movie that could” story, which I thought could make a great documentary. That was the original inspiration and a very important part of the documentary. Fortunately, as I learned more about the film and its making and about the moment in history in which it was made, the doc grew into something even richer.
Night is often called the first “modern” horror film. Why do you feel it still resonates more than forty years later for younger audiences raised on “post-modern” horror?
Esther and I saw Night recently at a theater in Brooklyn. A few seats down from us was a young woman who clearly hadn’t seen it before. As the daughter (in the movie, played by Kyra Schon) grabs that gardening tool and slowly walks towards her mother, the young woman in the audience whimpered, “Oh no!” I loved that moment.
While the film clearly has some power to younger audiences today, I frankly don’t think it has nearly the power it did when it first came out. If I had one mission with Birth it was to set the audience in the moment of the late 60s to try and recreate what that initial impact must have felt like. Still, even today, there is a powerful sense of dread that wraps its tentacles around you and holds firm. I think a lot of it has to do with the skill of the filmmaking. As Larry Fessenden says in the documentary, Night follows Aristotle’s rules for effective tragedy – unity of time, space and action. It holds its spell that way. Also, the film offers none of the comforts audiences were used to in movies at the time. For instance, the young couple – which usually signified hope for the future and were therefore never killed – were the first ones to die. Not only that, we see them get eaten! It’s a relentless, merciless movie.
How difficult was the process of pinning down Romero for the interview?
It ended up taking about a year and half to finally get to Romero. A producer friend of Esther’s and mine, Chiz Schultz (who is one of the interviews in the documentary) had worked with (editor) Pat Buba and (production manager) Zilla Clinton, both of whom had worked with Romero. The house in Martin – Romero’s favorite of all of his work; mine, too – was Pat Buba’s childhood home. Pat and Zilla also worked on Dawn of the Dead – Pat was one of the motorcycle gang and Zilla was production manager. Chiz connected Esther and me with Pat and Zilla, which in itself was a tremendous thrill for us. Even if nothing practical came of our meeting, this was an incredible opportunity. We bought them dinner in L.A. when I was editing the TV series Sleeper Cell in 2005. They were protective of Romero – they asked us a lot of questions about ourselves and the project. Being such sincere and avid fans, we apparently passed the test and Zilla called Romero and recommended that he speak with us. We interviewed Romero at the end of 2006 at his home in Toronto.
It sounds like the Romero interview came pretty early in the production process. Can you tell me a little bit more about the project’s chronology?
Romero’s interview was indeed the first thing we shot. In October of 2007, we shot the “Zombie March” at the Monroeville Mall (where Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was shot), and there got an interview with Bill Hinzman, the cemetery zombie in Night.
I cut a trailer using the Romero interview, the Monroeville shoot and stills and clips from Night from which we hoped to raise funds. I worked on it primarily in mornings and weekends. I had a terrific day-job editing for Bill Moyers on his show “Bill Moyers Journal,” which had a profound effect on the doc. No money came in from the trailer, which gave us our first fork in the road – do we continue? Or more specifically, do we continue spending our own money to finish this thing? It’s very expensive to make any kind of film so this was a big decision for us. I was hesitant – it’s not like we have a lot of disposable income – but fortunately my wife Esther is a very courageous person. We decided to plow forward.
We got our second set of interviews in 2009 – Chiz Schultz, (author) Mark Harris, (filmmakers) Sam Pollard and Larry Fessenden. Chiz and Sam are old friends of ours. We got Larry through an actor friend of ours, Matt Huffman, who had been in a few of Larry’s films. Mark was the only one we didn’t get through a personal connection or by referral. I called the publisher of his book, “Pictures at a Revolution” and he graciously accepted the invitation to be interviewed.
An old friend of ours, Cy Voris (he in fact was part of the NYU gang that went to that midnight showing of Night in ’83; he’s also one of the creators of “Sleeper Cell”), had worked with Gale Anne Hurd, producer of “The Walking Dead.” Through his referral, I went to L.A. to interview Hurd in March, 2011. Later that year, Jason Zinoman’s great book, “Shock Value,“ came out. Larry knows Jason so we got the interview.
Over the next year or so I worked these interviews into the documentary, and it started to really shape up. Larry, who eventually became Executive Producer of Birth, recommended we interview (former NY Times critic and current The Treatment host) Elvis Mitchell. I’ve always liked Elvis’s writing and appreciated that he never showed a condescending attitude towards horror films.
We submitted a rough cut of the documentary to the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) and got an “Individual Artist” grant which helped us enormously. After that we also got some funding from individual investors.
We locked picture in September, 2012, shortly before the Tallgrass Film Festival (in Wichita, Kansas) where Birth had its world premiere.
In addition to the noted film historians and filmmakers interviewed, you also talk to a pair of seemingly random adults who saw Night of the Living Dead as a matinee during their childhoods. How on earth did you find two strangers with such a similarly specific experience?
(One of those two people is) Mike Kimber, the building super who works with Esther at the Downtown Community Television Center. Esther spoke with him about the doc and he told her about his experience. (The other), Clara Tirado, is the assistant to my dentist, who told me about her experience. I in fact wish we could have found more people – I’m sure they’re out there.
Birth of the Living Dead has two main thrusts. First, it’s a history of the film’s production and distribution. Second, it’s an attempt to contextualize how radical the film was when released in 1968. I understand that the latter developed further into your doc’s development.
That’s right. That’s where my editing job with Bill Moyers came in. Moyers was the Press Secretary for President Lyndon B. Johnson at the time that Night was made. Many of the pieces we worked on (for Moyers’ show) had to do with that moment in history. Bill interviewed one of the authors of the Kerner Report – the report LBJ commissioned to understand the cause of the race rebellions in 1967. So I learned quite a bit. Plus I had access to all of this spectacular archival footage. This was a time of enormous upheaval and Night was revealing itself as a document of its time. Also, Michael Winship, Moyers’ head writer, recommended to me Mark Harris’ book “Pictures at a Revolution,” which looked at the cultural and political context of the films that were nominated for the Academy Award in 1968, the same year Night was released.
It’s great when a project starts taking you in directions you didn’t anticipate. It was exciting to connect these dots and have the film gel in such a fascinating way.
One of the most distinctive elements of Birth of the Living Dead is the use of animated illustrations of scenes and production stills from Night created by artist Gary Pullin. Where did the idea to use that device come from?
Larry (connected us with Gary Pullin). Gary has designed many of the posters for Larry’s films, plus he does the posters for Larry’s radio show, “Tales from Beyond the Pale.” The use of his art is a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention story. In early cuts, I used behind-the-scenes stills of the making of Night to illustrate that part of the story. I got these stills from sources that couldn’t claim ownership of them, so the use of them created a legal problem. Esther came up with the idea of using artwork. Gary had already designed a poster for Birth, which we loved, so he was an obvious choice. Then (graphic and motion designer) Tim D’Amico did a wonderful job animating Gary’s art.
For your sit down interviews, you opted for a black backdrop rather than shooting subjects in a natural environment. Talk a bit about your choice of that look.
I saw the black backdrop for interviews used in Sam Pollard’s John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker and the Legend, an excellent documentary. I liked the way it gave a uniform, clean look to the whole film. I sometimes find real-life settings – offices with books in the background – a little distracting, and even a bit corny. It probably helped that Night is a black and white film, so a black background would tie everything together nicely.