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HTF DVD Review: Night of the Living Dead - 40th Anniversary Edition (Recommended)



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#1 of 42 OFFLINE   Sam Posten

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Posted May 26 2008 - 07:40 AM

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Title: Night of the Living Dead – 40th Anniversary Edition
Rated: Not Rated
Screen format: Widescreen 1.33:1 (OAR and B&W)
Studio: Diumension Films, Genius Products, Image Ten, The Latent Image
First released: October 1, 1968
DVD released: May 20, 2008
Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Judith O’Dea, Duane Jones, Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Judith Ridley, Keith Wayne
Sound Formats: Dolby Digital 5.1
Length: 96 minutes
Subtitles: English & Spanish



Plot: 5/5
Few movies are as influential as Night of the Living Dead, a film which transcends beyond its horror roots and has spawned a whole subgenre within it. Conceived as an entryway from commercials for the small group of artists and friends that made up The Latent Image, a Pittsburgh based industrial film company, NOTLD went on to both critical acclaim and achieved cult celebrity, based on its truly terrifying imagery, shocking conclusion, and infinitely borrowed from story line.

Siblings Johnny (Russell Steiner) and Barbara (O’Dea) arrive at a lonely country cemetery to place flowers on their father’s grave for their mother who could not make the trip, when they are attacked by a gregarious savage. Johnny is knocked out in the scuffle but Barbara takes off and happens upon a country farmhouse, where she is let in by Ben (Jones) who has escaped a similar attack. Through radio reports the pair learn that attacks are occurring all over the country and that they are being perpetrated by the recently dead. The dead have come back to life and there are only two known ways to re-kill them: burn them or destroy their brains.

Ben and Barbara also discover that others have blocked themselves in the basement: Tom (Wayne) a buff but naïve young man and his girlfriend Judy (Ridley) plus the Cooper family, which includes angry patriarch Harry (Hardman), his soon to be ex wife Helen (Eastman), and their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who seems to be suffering some unknown illness.

More people doesn’t translate into more safety tho, as the residents begin squabbling over their survival options almost immediately. Ben argues for boarding up the windows and doors and using the basement as a last ditch escape hatch. Harry is for going directly to basement. Tom wants to make a run for it. Helen seems more interested in belittling Harry and caring for her daughter. Judy will do whatever Tom does. And Barbara is nearly catatonic and completely unaware of the danger around her when she does speak. Almost all of these options will be explored as the night wears on, meanwhile the radio and TV keep the survivors up to date on what the government is doing about the situation and informed about the formation of posses which intend to take the zombies out.

It’s the subtexts that make the movie so spectacular however. First, having an African American man and Caucasian woman as the leads, especially when Ben has to slap Barbara around a bit to get her to respond, was explosive stuff in 1968 all by itself, but the fact that this is never really addressed is brilliant. That this is just how things are, that this is how people should act, regardless of color, is simply an understood fact, is remarkable. Of course it can be assumed that the racial tensions are still there under the surface, and one can read this however one wants, but the characters act in general as any group of survivors would.

Also important is the look of the film, choosing to use simple but gorgeous lighting to highlight a noir thriller style in black and while glosses over the independent and low budget production. The mixture of professional and amateur actors also hides this fact nicely, as the whole cast rises to meet the standards of classically trained actor Jones.

And then there is the whole zombie angle. While careful editing and subtle use of minimal special effects are done to superb results, a sprinkling of cannibalistic feasts are so shocking that viewers in 1968 would have been truly mortified as few movies dared to go to those lengths. Even today this film is creepy and is even scarier than the legions of more gory imitators that it has spawned. The “Macguffin” that is credited with spawning the undead horde in this one is a crashed radioactive satellite, which would have been a lot more believable on its release than it would be today, as the cold war rush was in full effect and the perils of a nuclear age were still being explored.

The really brilliant part of this movie is that it’s not really the Zombies that are the creepiest part, it’s just how nasty we can be to each other when stressed. There’s just as much tension in the air when the zombies aren’t immediately in view and one gets the feeling that there would be that tension with this group of people together in a house with or without zombies surrounding them.

What makes the film for me tho is the inclusion of the posse, which ostensibly would be the true American solution to things, neighbors banding together to take care of the situation regardless of the Government’s inability. That posse’s had other racial significance was not lost on audiences either, which makes the shocking ending to the film all the more gut punching, and it was absolutely critical that race not be a factor in the farmhouse that makes this ending not just work, but work better than any other ending really could have, and cements this film as not just a classic horror film but as an important American film and shows the real genius that Romero and his cohorts possess.

Sound Quality: 3/5

While encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1, this re-mastered mix still remains fully front focused; however there is good stereo separation and nice use of the center channel for dialogue. There are several scenes where bass effects get unleashed as well, and while nothing too impressive for a modern film, for a 1968 vintage release these are well done. Music is minimal throughout. Overall the contents are better than expected for a film from this era and the cleanup effects from re-mastering are well done and much appreciated.

Visual Quality: 4/5
While the audio cleanup is well done, the video cleanup is miraculous; this version simply destroys the previous transfers that I have seen on VHS and broadcast TV, tho somehow I never got any of the DVD versions, but more on those below. In this version the video transforms my perspective on this film from low budget rush job into a black and white work of art. I simply was not able to appreciate the forethought and artistry that went into this production in the versions I saw prior to this, and looking through the extras its clear that the experiences Romero and his Latent Image friends had in creating bigger ads than their budget would normally allow through old fashioned film tricks and solid editing paid off tremendously.

The video isn’t perfect of course, there are still nasty transitions between some scenes and some other damage, dust and grit occasionally pops up, but the overall impression is very positive and likely to be about as good as this film can look without a real high definition transfer. Grain is well contained and I only spied edge enhancement a very few times, otherwise this is a very sharp looking print. As the extras note, many of the original elements were destroyed in a flood, so it’s remarkable that they were able to get this version looking as good as it does.

Extra Features: 4.5/5

There is a veritable ton of all new content on this disk, all prepared for this 40th anniversary edition. There are two separate commentaries, one with Romero and a second with surviving members of the cast and crew. The heart of the extras is a feature length ‘documentary’ titled One of the Fire. I put that in quotes because it really isn’t a true documentary, its more a series of disjointed but closely linked featurettes that interviews the cast and crew about their remembrances and ‘where are they now’ kind of information, with little to join these segments together as a cohesive unit.

There is a short series of Q&A with Romero from a Film Festival and an audio ‘podcast’ style interview with Duane Jones before his untimely death due to heart disease. Also included is the original theatrical trailer (which shows how much work went into this remastered video!) and a slick gallery of production stills. Finally the original script is available in PDF format for those willing to dig it out by using the disk on a DVD equipped PC, which is a nice touch!

While I have not delved into the commentaries yet, the one with Romero is definitely on my ‘to do’ list. His attitude and ingenuity are very endearing and the guy simply understands how to tell stories, whether it be in a film or about his own life. NOTLD has had a tremendously rocky road since its inception and it has spawned a career for him that is quite a journey, as a fan of film in general I could listen to that stuff for hours.

As noted, there are literally dozens of versions of NOTLD on VHS and DVD due to a strange quirk of distribution, as the film was originally titled Night of Anubis, then Night of the Flesh Eaters, and retitled Night of the Living Dead when it originally screened. Unfortunately the copyright information was left off of the distributed versions and this effectively left the film in copyright limbo, so anyone who wanted to could package it up and sell it. From what I’m told, the best version came from Elite entertainment and looking over reviews of that version it might be worthwhile to have both this new release and some of the extras available on that one as well. There are a ton of other versions, some of which added new synthesizer music, added a preacher character back in and other odd edits. I’m not the right person to comment on the inclusion of those, but since this is the version that has the approval of the original creators, has the original cur and original aspect ratio as well as the great audio and video quality from re-mastering, if there was only one version I would get it would be this one.

Overall: 4/5 (not an average) - Recommended

Night of the Living Dead has well withstood the test of time, and this edition is a testament to the effects it has had on those who were fortunate enough to be involved in its production, tho several of the principal actors have had sadly shortened lifetimes. Because of the error in copyright it has even had more exposure than would have been likely due to its intrinsic merits, which is something worth considering as we struggle with the modern problems of DRM and copyright in the digital age. But this specific disk brings all of the best available audio and video qualities that are able to be squeezed out of the existing materials and piles on a ton of new and quite interesting and well produced extras along for the ride, and is surely the definitive version to own, to date. All of this leads me to note that this disk earns a solid ‘recommended’.

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#2 of 42 OFFLINE   Sam Posten

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Posted May 26 2008 - 07:41 AM

Sorry for the delay on this one guys, between being sick, on travel and the ton of extras in this one it took a while to get through. I'm watching Diary of the Dead now and quite liking it halfway through! Full review on that one early this week I hope.

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#3 of 42 OFFLINE   Russell G

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Posted May 26 2008 - 10:56 AM

Nice work! I have the previouse Millenium edition or what ever it was called by Elite. I'm going to wait to hear about some of the comparisons, but I might snatch this one up too. Truely a great film, and I love how your not afraid to call it the true American classic that it is. Posted Image

#4 of 42 OFFLINE   Sam Posten

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Posted May 26 2008 - 12:12 PM

Hard to argue against its success and level of influence! Thanks for the kind words tho, and I agree, at this price its probably a good idea to have both this and the millenium editions, they seem complementary.

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#5 of 42 OFFLINE   Brian Borst

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Posted May 27 2008 - 02:42 AM

Are there any screen comparisons available for this? It's not that I don't believe you Posted Image (I do, actually), but I would like to see the differences between the old version and the new restoration for myself.
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#6 of 42 OFFLINE   BethHarrison

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Posted May 27 2008 - 03:00 AM

Thank you!! I have been wanting to pick up this disc for ages, but I have never gotten around to it!

#7 of 42 OFFLINE   Matt Butler

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Posted May 27 2008 - 07:24 AM

I read in another4 thread that NOLD is going Blu so Ill wait till then. I already have the Eilite DVD so Im good for mow.

Diary is a great film BTW. It still doesnt overtake Dawn though. Posted Image
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#8 of 42 OFFLINE   Sam Posten

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Posted May 27 2008 - 07:36 AM

As I said I don't own any prior DVDs, so i can't help ya with screenshot comparisons, sorry!

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#9 of 42 OFFLINE   Jim Peavy

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Posted May 27 2008 - 11:44 AM

I posted a few screen caps of both the Millennium Edition and the new 40th Anniversary here at the Classic Horror Film Board:

New NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD release - Classic Horror on DVD - Classic Horror in Other Media - Classic Horror Film Board - Message Board - Yuku
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#10 of 42 OFFLINE   mike kaminski

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Posted May 27 2008 - 12:22 PM

Before people start complaining about "Cropping" I will offer that the new version offers the correct framing, with the previous release printing the safe zone that was never supposed to be seen. You can see that the framing is much better composed, without awkward headroom and just feels more "Right." Plus, in the fifth example you could see the boom shadow, which follows if the previous release did a full printing of the safe zone. I looked for this in stores today but didn't see it, but I have to say those caps look really really incredible.

#11 of 42 OFFLINE   Vincent_P

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Posted May 27 2008 - 01:54 PM

I'm sorry, but the extent of that cropping goes far beyond any sort of "normal" matting. If you crop the top and bottom of the Elite frames to match the top and bottom of the 40th Anni Edition, you actually end up with a pretty well composed 1.66:1 frame. That being the case, I don't understand why they cropped this on all four sides when they could have just done a 1.66:1 pillar-boxed HD transfer, keeping the "new" top and bottom framing but also retaining the full width of the frame. It's a shame Don May wasn't actually able to do the original film-to-tape transfer on this (he was hired after the initial film-to-HD transfer was already done to clean up the master, and it seems he did a great job at that), 'cause if he had I doubt we'd have seen this issue crop up (no pun intended). Vincent

#12 of 42 OFFLINE   mike kaminski

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Posted May 27 2008 - 01:58 PM

Because if the Elite was a full-aperature transfer, which I suspect it was, then it is proper to crop all four sides. There is safety room on all four sides, not just the top and bottom, it would be incorrect to just arbitrarily chop off the top and/or bottom. The framing on the new version seems much more "correct" in terms of composition, based on the examples I have seen.

#13 of 42 OFFLINE   Vincent_P

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Posted May 27 2008 - 02:04 PM

There is some "safety area" but not nearly so much as is cropped in the Dimension transfer. The only area I'll agree it looks more "correct" is top and bottom, which bears out that NOTLD can be presented in widescreen, so long as you don't lop off the sides of the frame. Vincent

#14 of 42 OFFLINE   mike kaminski

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Posted May 27 2008 - 02:33 PM

The only thing that looks like it might be a bit too much is the right side of the frame--based on the caps provided there, it looks like the left side has the appropriate amount of cropping, but there appears to be more done to the right. Actually, the left looks like it might have too little--theres a very proportional "shift" in the framing. But to say this is incorrect assumes that the Elite was proportional to begin with--the Elite may have unpreportionally framed the image in the first place, so when the correct Dimension framing is compared the result is a framing "shift". Given that the top and bottom are clearly "correct" in that they better compose the image and hide obviously unintended things like boom shadows, this gives credence to the fact that we should treat this as a legitimate source, thus the shift in horizontal alignment should be assigned to left-right cropping on the Elite transfer. That this one is supervised by Romero and the Elite not also reinforces my belief in this. Might be beneficial to do a few more comparisons actually.

#15 of 42 OFFLINE   Jim Peavy

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Posted May 27 2008 - 03:17 PM

Any requests?
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#16 of 42 ONLINE   TravisR

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Posted May 27 2008 - 03:25 PM

I'd suggest posting the shots that are mostly obviously reframed/cropped. Granted, I don't know if that's 10 shots or 200 so post what you can. Posted Image

#17 of 42 OFFLINE   mike kaminski

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Posted May 27 2008 - 03:36 PM

The Elite is almost certainly wrong, its quite apparent to me that its a full aperature transfer, the question is "is the new Dimension release also wrong?" (despite being "more correct" than the Elite). What seems a bit strange at first is that the top and bottom of the image are cropped in a symetrical manner, but the left and right are cropped asymetrically. However, what is significant is that they are consistenly asymetrical, and proportionally so as well--its not a shot-by-shot basis, the entire framing has simply shifted (at least in the caps provided). Compared to the Elite, it is more biased to the left side of the frame, as the right is cropped more heavily (instead of having equal preportions cropped on either side). But to say this is wrong, that the Dimension crops too much on the right, first presupposes that the Elite transfer itself was perfectly preportional in the first place--often, prints/transfers have the image cropped asymetrically. While this could be the case for the Dimension transfer, its much more likely to suppose that it is the Elite transfer that is guilty of this, as the Dimension's correct framing on top and bottom and supervision by Romero seems to point to this version as being the source to hold others against, rather than holding this version against the Elite.

#18 of 42 OFFLINE   Vincent_P

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Posted May 27 2008 - 04:05 PM

Excuse me, but where did you hear that the Elite was not supervised by Romero? Don May worked very closely with the entire Image 10 team way back in 1993 when they did the transfer for the Elite LaserDisc. I've heard the opposite is in fact true of this new release- that the HD transfer was done at the lab with no filmmaker supervision. I'm sure Romero is pleased with the final results of the new version in terms of image quality (after all, Romero hired Don May to do all the clean-up on the existing HD master for this new release- you know, the same Don May who supervised the Elite version that you are now claiming Romero wasn't involved with and isn't correct...) and signed off on it, but that's not the same as saying he "supervised" it, and again, I'd love to know where you heard that Romero wasn't involved with the classic Elite release. Vincent


#19 of 42 OFFLINE   mike kaminski

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Posted May 27 2008 - 04:32 PM

Because this one has been reported as such, while the Elite has NOT been reported to have involved Romero (burden of proof, you know). Since Don May has been involved in both the Elite and Dimension transfer, the change in framing should be presumed to be due to the involvement with Romero, who is confirmed for this but nowhere mentioned as involved in any manner with the transfer of the Elite (I won't rule it out--its just never been reported as being the case).

#20 of 42 OFFLINE   Don May Jr

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Posted May 27 2008 - 11:01 PM

OK, I am reading this thread and I have to jump in. When I did the original Elite version of NOTLD, just to set the record straight, the entire IMAGE TEN team (including Romero) was involved in every step of the LaserDisc release, including the transfer.

Romero wasn't available to be there during the transfer process of the Elite version personally, but Karl Hardman, John Russo and Russ Streiner were all there over the week we spent on it and supervised what it looked like and the way it was composed. Romero DID look at it before we finalized and finished the transfer.

The new NOTLD transfer from Dimension was done at some point without my (or Romero's) supervision. But, the end result seems to have made Romero extremely happy and, cropping aside, me too. I am very proud of the quality of the image on the new version and feel it is the best of all the versions of NOTLD on the market.

Romero readily admits he didn't know what he was doing when he directed NOTLD... and, from the looks of the original negative (which I have analyzed personally), there is plenty of, ahem, "dead space" on all four sides of the image he photographed. The cropping certainly isn't ideal in my opinion, but it doesn't really hurt the action of the film because most of the photography is indeed central to the frame. Maybe, one of these days, I'll again get to tackle a new transfer myself and see what happens. I doubt that'll happen, though, unless we can raise about $350K, which is what it would maybe take for me to do it the way I want. Posted Image
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