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Talking Dead with Larry Fessenden
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead changed everything in the world of zombie cinema. From suspense down to its gory detail, the film’s continued to be recognized as a one of a kind decades later, and it’s impact can be felt everywhere any cold, dead hands emerge in film.
Taking the spotlight in its latest documentary of Birth of the Living Dead, the film’s meant something special to one director in particular. We had the privilege of chatting with one of its producers, horror extraordinaire Larry Fessenden of I Sell the Dead and The Last Winter to discuss a bit about his career, work, and love of all things creepy.
How long have you worked in film?
I made my first super 8 films in the 70’s. I started Glass Eye Pix in 1985.
What inspired you to pursue Birth of the Living Dead and how did you come to work with Rob Kuhns?
I was invited to interview for Rob’s film because I am known to have a great affection for Night of the Living Dead. After the interview, I offered to help in any way I could to complete the film and we began collaborating on all the last nasty bits it takes to finish a motion picture.
When did you first discover horror and what do you still draw from it now?
I have always loved horror. When I was a kid I related to the monsters, lonely outcasts and misunderstood, but also to the cautionary aspect of the stories: don’t mess with mother nature or play God. Years later I responded to the anger and shock tactics of modern horror: Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead. The genre has made sense to me my whole life.
You’ve written, directed, produced, and acted in a variety of films throughout your career thus far. What’s been your favorite of the four to do as a filmmaker?
I like them all. Having as much creative control as you can, but working with the best collaborators to keep you challenged is the best position to be in making movies. Acting for other directors on their productions can be a respite, for your only obligation is to serve someone else’s vision, not assert your own. Birth gave you the chance to talk with a variety of filmmakers, including Elvis Mitchell, Samuel D Pollard, and The Walking Dead’s Gale Ann Hurd.
Were there any others you wanted to have in the film?
When I came on board the film, most of the interviews had already been taped. I suggested a few other talking heads to Rob and his producing partner Esther Cassidy (Elvis Mitchell, Jason Zinoman), but I didn’t meet the other talking heads.
What was it like working with George Romero himself? What’s he like in person?
I have met George in person, and he is awesome, but his interview for this film predates my involvement.
The documentary well establishes Romero as the father of the modern zombies we know today, whether the ones we see in Resident Evil or The Walking Dead. What about Night of the Living Dead do you think still resonates with today’s horror fans that no other film has?
I am not sure the film does resonate with modern horror fans. But I think it is important to understand the origin stories of our monsters, where these tropes came from. I think the movie is effective still, but I wouldn’t try too hard to convince a kid who has seen the basic premise played out in a more contemporary way.
For years, it was the “Universal Monsters” that ruled theater screens with creatures like Frankenstein, The Werewolf, and The Mummy. Is there something more appealingly humanizing about zombies that’s seen a decline in more conventional, literary monsters?
I think zombies in contemporary films represent a sort of despairing surrender to an apocalyptic future. Seems to me the monsters of old were more of the romantic and gothic tradition, concerned with philosophical matters of science, identity, and the struggle between good and evil. Now our stories are about collapse, chaos, and survival.
Horror seems to go hand in hand with most entertainment in reflecting the fears of the times. For the post-World War II, it was radiated monsters. For Night, it was race riots and the Vietnam War. What emerging trends or themes do you see most prevalent in this decade’s horror films?
Well we had the torture porn flicks of the George Bush years, where sheer depravity was the norm, that seemed oddly connected to the national mood in the U.S. Now we have a spate of found-footage flicks, which reflect our selfie-obsessed society.
It’s said Night carries a kind of dark irony throughout its storytelling. (a.k.a “They’re coming to get you Barbara!”) You’ve worked on your share of horror and horror comedies with The Last Winter and I Sell the Dead. What best draws terror and humor together in a film for you?
I am only drawn to comedy in horror when it points out human foibles and human arrogance. I take horror and comedy quite seriously. Irony on the other hand is a very effective way of showing that we might think we are in control, but we are not. Night of the Living Dead was famously light on effects like most horror classics.
Does the genre seem to benefit from smaller budgets or work in spite of them?
Horror classics come in all shapes and sizes and budgets with all manner of approaches to special effects. I give you: The Shining, The Exorcist, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Evil Dead, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity… vastly different budgets with very different approaches to the special effects, from over-the-top to purely suggested. If you can create a strong atmosphere, and touch a nerve, you might have a memorable horror film.
Are there any works you see Romero’s influence in the most as of late?
The only answer is all the zombie films and video games that are currently being produced stem from the Romero archetype.
What do you think the most valuable lesson 2014‘s up and coming horror directors can learn from Night of the Living Dead?
I think there are a lot of things that make the film vital and relevant, and any newcomer might take note of he choices that Romero made: The whole movie takes place in real time in one location. There is no definitive explanation for what’s going on, so the audience remains unsettled and frustrated. Finally, a number of ideas on how to survive the night are presented by the various characters, but no one idea triumphs, making for a stark existential drama with no comforting moral structure. Even modern movies avoid this ambiguity as a rule, but real life is full of it.
Can you give us any hints about what’s up next for Larry Fessenden?
Only time will tell.
Thanks so much to Mr. Fessenden for the Q&A. You can find Birth of the Living Dead now on iTunes for digital download on demand.