Larry Fessenden on Birth of the Living Dead
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 (opening Friday, October 25. at the Sie FilmCenter) 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.
Birth of the Living Dead.
Westword: 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 importantly 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.