By all rights, "Night of the Flesh Eaters" should have been a frightful flop.
It was made for $114,000 at a time when studios were doling out $3 million or more per picture, shot in black and white when color was the film fashion, and its cast was assembled from largely unknowns whose day jobs were Clairton steelworker, roller-rink owner, fireworks technicians, policemen, newsmen, producers, co-writers and even director.
Yes, the movie that would be retitled "Night of the Living Dead" had everything going against it -- but an audience eager to gobble up its topical terror the way the undead gnawed on the buckets of cow livers and other entrails a meat packer supplied to the Pittsburgh production.
"Birth of the Living Dead," written, produced, directed and edited by Rob Kuhns and opening Friday at the Harris Theater, assembles the backstory of "NOLD" in one place and allows other filmmakers and critics to weigh in on the cultural significance. As one marvels, "It was this tiny little movie in Pittsburgh that seemed to have no chance and it changed the world."
It turned George A. Romero into the godfather of ghouls and spawned an eerie empire of movies, television shows, comic books, novels, video games and conventions. Some of the tidbits in the documentary may be familiar to Pittsburghers who have been hearing about "NOLD" for nearly half a century but some are fresh.
For instance, Russ Streiner, who uttered the famous line "They're coming to get you, Barbara" at the movie's beginning, won the sound mix in a chess match, and the sheriff's assessment of the ghouls to TV reporter Bill Cardille, "They're dead. They're all messed up," was ad-libbed.
Mr. Romero resisted changing the ending of the picture even though it would have meant landing a distributor earlier in 1968. "We boldly said, 'Forget about it. This is our movie,' " he recalls, in an exaggerated accent worthy of his Bronx roots.
"Birth of the Living Dead" recounts Mr. Romero's early work producing commercials for Duke and Iron City beer, borrowing from "Fantastic Voyage" to make "The Calgon Story" and shooting short films for "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," including a dramatization of Rogers having his tonsils removed in an effort to show children what it would be like and allay their fears.
Mr. Kuhns, a co-director and editor of two PBS documentaries, shot "Birth" in New York, Toronto (where Mr. Romero lives) and Los Angeles between late 2006 and summer 2011.
In addition to Mr. Romero, he interviews producers Gale Ann Hurd and Chiz Schultz, filmmaker Larry Fessenden along with nationally known writers or film critics who recount what "NOLD" meant to them and why it was so distinctively different.
For starters, it featured a leading man in Duane Jones who happened to be an African-American, a fact never referenced in the story. The movie had echoes of the Vietnam War and social unrest along with a tragic, ironic ending.
"NOLD" was not a critical darling at the start.
Variety denounced it as an "unrelieved orgy of sadism" while Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times: " 'Night of the Living Dead' is a grainy little movie acted by what appear to be non-professional actors who are besieged in a farmhouse by some other non-professional actors who stagger around stiff-legged, pretending to be flesh-eating ghouls."
The 76-minute documentary gives cemetery zombie Bill Hinzman, who died in 2012, the last word. He is shown at an event at Monroeville Mall, home to "Dawn of the Dead."
It's too bad the filmmaker didn't have the inclination, time or money to visit the Evans City Cemetery location (the farmhouse is long gone) and talk with other key players, such as Mr. Streiner. He would later become board chair of the Pittsburgh Film Office and his brother, Gary Streiner, doubled as sound engineer, led a successful drive to "Fix the Chapel" at the cemetery and organizes "NOLD" anniversary events.
I've never met anyone, from accidental extra to repeat moviegoer, who didn't delight in talking about "NOLD," first released Oct. 2, 1968, representing a milestone in moviemaking in Pittsburgh and still lumbering through our culture and consciousness 45 years later.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: email@example.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.