Netflix Instant is streaming two documentaries focused on zombies. The first is Birth of the Living Dead, a documentary all about the making and significance of George Romaro’s Night of the Living Dead, ground zero of the modern zombie. The second is called Doc of the Dead, which takes a wider angle view of the zombie phenomenon, looking at the history of zombies in folklore and film, examining the metaphors of zombie-incarnations, and then even exploring the survivalist’s market for zombie apocalypse readiness and the ever-growing zombie walks. Conservative zombie fans should stick with Birth of the Living Dead (and you shall know ye by the rage that arises with fast-moving zombies). Those who are a little more liberal about their zombie fascination should also seek out Doc of the Dead.
Birth of the Living Dead is for the fan of George Romaro’s seminal Night of the Living Dead. Alternatively, it’s for my film students after I make them watch Night during the cult classics unit.
Birth mixes interviews with clips of the film and animated recreations of the making of Night. It gives the history of production as well as the significance of the film, not only for the zombie genre (which is obvious), but also for horror films, and even racial depictions. Romaro and his cohorts have a sense of humor about Night, understanding long after its creation both its merits and its faults. Interviews with film critics and fans emphasize the game-changing nature of the film. Horror prior to Night was largely Gothic and campy. But Night used realism through non-professional actors and a banal, newsreel tone. Perhaps most intriguing is the statement about race relations the film makes. Romaro admits the part of Ben was not written to be a black man, and they felt they were being progressive when they chose not to change the script after casting Duane Jones. Thus, his race never comes up for any of the characters. However, his fate at the movie’s end certainly has the ring of race-based social injustice.
Doc of the Dead is an odd duck. Because it deals with the zombie phenomenon with a wider angle, it seems it would also appeal to a wider audience than Birth of the Living Dead. However, it gets weird in a way that not everyone will appreciate. The film starts with mocked up news footage of a zombie apocalypse and a zombie-themed pop song through the credits. It seems geared at the fan of Zombieland who then goes on to immerse themselves in greater zombie films. Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) and Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead) are the celebrity interviewees, followed by zombie-lore creators George Romaro, Max Brooks (World War Z the book), and Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead). Numerous other zombie specialists give their expertise, and there’s lots of interesting zombie info to be gained here. Pegg makes an astute metaphorical reading that zombies are like death itself. You can outrun it for a while, protect yourself from it, but the monster never sleeps, never tires, and you do. And eventually, it will get you. Robert Kirkman reveals his zombie apocalypse plan: jump off the tallest building he can find. I felt vindicated, since this is a variation on my own plan.
In the final third of the documentary, things get weirder. A porn parody of The Walking Dead? People in the survivalist industry who market realistic zombie shooting and hacking targets? One comes in an ex-girlfriend mold. Gross. The growing popularity of the zombie walks, where multitudes show up in their best zombie costume to parade around together? If that all seems palatable, then I fully recommend this documentary.
However, maybe don’t watch it right before bed. There are some scene clips and images that are difficult to cull from a mind in the dark.
Doc of the Dead got me thinking about why people would make a zombie plan. Here’s my hypothesis. Living post-911 under the threat of many global catastrophes from war to economic collapse to extinction by climate change, most people are at least subconsciously dealing with the fear of impending apocalypse. It’s too psychologically difficult to face the likely ramifications of climate change head on, but zombies are fictions. They’re not real. So we can imagine and simulate what social collapse and pandemic plague might wreak upon us and think our way through the scenario, and it’s fun entertainment. It gives a sense of control without requiring the full-on emotional terror of a real-world scenario.