A quote on the back of the packaging for this release from Elliott Stein of The Village Voice states that Night Of The Living Dead is 'the most influential horror film since Psycho, which is probably true. Fans and critics alike will be hard pressed to think of another film that has had a bigger impact on modern horror films. In fact, Night Of The Living Dead has really gone on to be more than just a film, it's literally become an important part of American pop culture as a whole and it's influence can be seen not only in films but also in novels, comic books, video games, television shows and even music. Not bad for a movie made forty years ago by a small commercial film company made on a small budget in rural Pennsylvania! This makes Night Of The Living Dead a bit of an odd choice for a Rifftrax release.
For those not hip to what Rifftrax is all about, it's basically Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett from Mystery Science Theater 3000 doing their quirky and often times very funny commentary over top of the movie, this time without the aid of interweaving skits and characters. This gives you the illusion that you're sitting around watching a cheap horror movie with a bunch of pals. Up until recently, Nelson and company have been selling the commentary tracks as downloads off of their website, but now they're starting to put out DVD releases.
But before we go any further, there's the movie:
For the one or two people out there who haven't seen the movie, it begins when a woman named Barbara (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) head to the local cemetery to pay their respects to their dear, departed grandfather. When they arrive, a sickly looking man (Bill Hinzman) attacks Barbara. When Johnny tries to help, he falls and hits his head on a tombstone. Barbara runs to the car but crashes it into a tree. She runs to a farmhouse to hide and soon realizes that the ghoul at the cemetery was only one of the countless re-animated corpses that have, for reasons unknown, risen from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living!
Barbara tries to leave the house but is stopped by a man named Ben (Duane Jones) who convinces her to stay in the house with him. He starts to board up the windows and the doors to keep the zombies at bay while Barbara zones out on the touch. Neither realize that a couple named Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman) have been hiding in the basement with their daughter, Karen (Kyran Schon), and two teenagers named Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Riley). The radio alerts the group that all across the eastern seaboard zombies are attacking the living and the group reluctantly works together to survive in hopes that the military will soon show up and save them.
Aside from kick-starting the whole (modern) zombie film sub-genre, Night Of The Living Dead also represented a remarkably bleak take on the horror film. Sure there had been darker horror pictures before this one but none as nihilistic or grisly. Throw in some very clever political sub-text (a staple of Romero's work) and one of the freakiest scenes of matricide ever committed to celluloid and you're left a film but fascinating and frightening. Keeping in mind that in the America of 1968 civil rights weren't even close to where they should have been, it's also remarkable how Romero and company made the strongest and smartest of their cast a black man - something that was quite rare in that era.
Carefully shot and incredibly claustrophobic at times, Night Of The Living Dead made the most of its small budget by using stock library music, shooting in black and white and having various crew members double as cast members. In many ways the film is simple, almost primitive, but on the other hand it's quite relentless, incredibly rich with atmosphere, and very, very effective. The picture is very well shot, tightly paced, and finely acted. As such, the movie still holds the power to scare audiences and it remains one of the finest examples of the American horror film ever made.
So how does this movie, a legitimate masterpiece of horror cinema, hold up with the Rifftrax guys doing their thing over top of it? Well, if you can aside your cineaste tendencies for an hour and a half and not take things too seriously, quite well. As damn good as Night Of The Living Dead is, these guys have a good time with it. They make some deserved jabs about the film's opening scene and the way that it's edited and playing quite effectively off of some of the film's at times rather starchy dialogue. Now this is a film that, unlike a lot of Rifftrax victims, still holds up well despite its low budget origins and despite its low budget, so to a lot of fans this is all going to seem rather sacrilegious but this is worth a listen even if the first half hour or so isn't particularly funny. The track does build up some good steam as it progresses, however, it fails to really ignite the way some of the best tracks that these guys have recorded together have. Essentially, this track is moderately amusing in sporadic bursts, rather than consistently funny throughout.
The 1.33.1 fullframe transfer on this DVD is about on par with most of the public domain releases of the movie that are out there. The picture is quite often fairly murky and suffers from some mild compression artifacts throughout, particularly in the darker scenes. There isn't much print damage to complain about but this is far from a great transfer. Don' t purchase this disc expecting to replace your Elite or Dimension remastered discs, as it's nowhere near as nice a picture as either of those releases.
The commentary comes through nice and clear, there are no problems understanding the participants and they've balanced nicely against the audio from the movie itself. As far as the quality of that part is concerned, it's on par with the transfer. It's not great, in fact, there are times where it sounds quite shrill. It gets the job done, I suppose, but it's nothing impressive.
The disc is barebones save for a static menu though it does allow you to watch the movie with or without the Rifftrax commentary. Inside the keepcase packaging is a coupon that gives you a free download from the Rifftrax website for Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets.
Some of the Rifftrax commentaries are comedy gold. At their best, these guys are witty, clever, and very, very funny but here it doesn't really seem to gel. Part of the problem could be that the movie is engrossing enough and well made enough that it's not such an easy target, but overall the three 'Riffers' just are not at the top of their game here. Fans will want to give it a shot and decide for themselves and the track does definitely have funny spots, but the inconsistency makes this tough to wholeheartedly recommended. Rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.