Unrated Dir: George A. Romero | Criterion | 1h 36min
Plot: What’s it about?
A rash of gruesome attacks, murders, and at times, total chaos has left the world in an odd position, one it never expected to be within. As she visits a graveyard, Barbra (Judith O’Dea) finds herself being teased by her brother, who claims dead people have risen from the ground and are coming after her as he speaks. But when a strange man approaches, attacks the couple, and leaves her brother dead, Barbra realizes his words were true, even though he never intended them to be truthful in the least. After a narrow escape, she finds herself at an isolated farmhouse and soon discovers a band of other survivors has formed there. All is not smooth with these people however, as a rift has formed between them, as a black man wishes to move upstairs and a stubborn man demands that downstairs is the better choice. As they argue and finally take action in the ways decided upon, a swarm of undead creatures closes in on the house, seeking to eat the brains of those inside the farmhouse. How did the dead somehow rise from the grave and more to the point, how can they be stopped?
Some films are so well crafted, they become a cornerstone of the genre and influence movies for decade upon decade, transcending the simple label of the genre involved. One of those films is Night of the Living Dead, which has stood the test of time and then some, winding up as perhaps the most influential & popular horror picture of all time. I’d have to agree on all counts, as this is an excellent example of horror cinema and low budget filmmaking, as director George A. Romero and his cast & crew rose above the limited funds, to create a powerful, memorable, and highly effective feature film. I doubt even Romero could have guessed how much success the film would gain over the years, but he and his fellow filmmakers nailed this one from start to finish, redefining the horror genre in the process. The film’s stark black & white photography is stunning at times, while Romero is able to create superb tension, thanks to the atmosphere, characters, and of course, rampant zombies on the prowl. Simply put, this film deserves a place in any film buff’s collection, even those not too sold on horror, as it has surpassed all genre limitations and proven to be a true classic, in every sense of the word.
He has directed a lot of films since, but Night of the Living Dead will always be George A. Romero’s definitive picture. Romero has seen his finest effort fall into public domain, be duped into miserable editions all the time, and even hacked up and ruined by some of his fellow filmmakers, but his original vision is preserved in this version. This is Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and thanks to a marvelous transfer, we can see the film as it is meant to be seen, so a new approach to the visuals and style can be made. I think Romero works the material to sheer perfection and spins together an almost perfect horror movie, the closest the genre has to a standard, since most other horror movies are judged by this one’s merits. I hope Romero can find his stride once again after some missteps in recent projects, but even he does, I doubt he will ever equal this feature. Other films directed by Romero include Martin, Monkey Shines, The Crazies, Knightriders, Dawn of the Dead, Bruiser, and The Dark Half.
Video: How’s it look?
Criterion has some impressive titles under their belt and they do most all of them right by way of the transfer. Included in the leaflet is this text which should show the sheer amount of detail (pardon the pun) and effort that went into this transfer:
This restoration by the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation, was undertaken from a new digital transfer created in 4K resolution on Cineric’s wet-gate film scanner, primarily from the original 35mm camera negative. For the few seconds that proved impossible to scan from this element — approximately 1 percent of the feature film — a 35mm fine-grain from 1968 was used. The transfer was supervised by director George A. Romero, co-screenwriter John A. Russo, sound engineer Gary R. Streiner, and producer Russell W. Streiner. After the evaluation of eighteen separate source elements, the original monaural soundtrack was remastered under the supervision of Romero and Gary Streiner from the original quarter-inch mix masters, quarter-inch premix audio tape, a final composite 16mm magnetic track, and the 16mm magnetic mix units. The restoration was performed at Audio Mechanics, led by John Polito.
Having said all that, I can safely say that this is, simply, the best the film has ever looked on any home video format. The film is presented in black and white, so contrast and black levels will play a more prominent role. Noise, debris and dirt has been removed as well. Honestly folks, I could go on and on, but Criterion has once again done this one right and fans of the film will certainly enjoy this new restoration.
Audio: How’s it sound?
The Mill Creek version of this film had a few problems associated with it, but Criterion has included the original LPCM mono track. Granted, with only one channel, it’s kind of hard to mess things up but I was surprised at how robust this one channel actually was. Obviously any directional effects are, for lack of a better word, dead but vocals seem sharp and crisp. There’s a lack of distortion that I wasn’t prepared for. This is living proof (again with the pun, sorry) that you don’t need x.1 channels to have a great-sounding track.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Similar to the Silence of the Lambs, Criterion has divided the supplemental material for this film into two discs, with the first offering up two commentaries. The remainder of the supplemental material is relegated to the second disc.
- Night of Anubis – The original title for the film along with an introduction by Russell Streiner, is shown here in all its 16mm glory.
- Audio Commentary – Originally recorded in 1994, this features director George A. Romero, actors Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman as well as co-writer John Russo. It’s nothing new, of course, and has appeared in several other incarnations of the movie on disc, but it’s a welcome inclusion.
- Audio Commentary – Similar to the above track, we get a slew of cast and crew members as this was also recorded in 1994.
- Light in the Darkness – New to this edition, we get some interviews with directors Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Darabont as they explain what it is that makes this film so special and its long-lasting influence in the horror community.
- Dailies – We get a few “deleted scenes” of sorts as we see some footage that was cut from the final version of the film.
- Learning From Scratch – In another new feature for this Blu-ray, co-writer John Russo tells of his involvement with the project, how it came to be and a few of his stories from the set.
- TV Newsreel – If you’re into nostalgia, this has three minutes of silent footage (in very sub-par quality) that’s from the set.
- Walking Like the Dead – Ten of the actors were dug up (!) as they recall the shoot and tell some tales from the set. This is another new feature, though the footage is from 2009.
- Tones of Terror – Producer Jim Cirronella, in another new feature exclusive to this disc, explains the use of the music that conveyed the sense of “creepiness” in the film.
- Limitations into Virtues – Filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos examine the visual look and feel of the film as well as what made it appear unique.
- Tomorrow – An archive of the television show in which George A. Romero is interviewed. This aired on July 3, 1979.
- Higher Learning – George Romero is interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012 as he explains some of the visible and not so visible messages in the film.
- Duane Jones – This audio only interview features Duane Jones as he was interviewed in 1987. He discusses some of the issues he had with the film.
- Judith Ridley – Judith Ridley regales us with a few funny moments from the shoot. This again is circa 1994.
- Venus Probe – In the “art imitates life” department, we get some footage of the Mariner 5 ship and how it eerily played into this film.
- Trailers – Two total.
- TV Spots
- Radio Spots
- Leaflet/Poster – Film critic Stuart Klawans essay is included.
The Bottom Line
Say what you will about the zombie genre, but this is the one that started it all and it embodies the word “classic” in all facets. Criterion has pulled out all the stops here and it shows. The much improved video and audio alone would be enough to warrant a purchase, but the inclusion of so many supplemental materials makes this one a no-brainer (again…sorry).