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
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’.