Columnist's note: Since this review was first published, Elite Entertainment has released a second, even more extras-packed Millennium Edition that miraculously manages to trump their first release. With that in mind, this disc's original recommendation has been lowered in favor of the new version. (March 2002)
At last count, there were seven, count em, SEVEN versions of the classic Night of the Living Dead (1968, 96 minutes) available on DVD. Most can be found in the bargain bin -- but a more appropriate expression would be the "trash bin." Beyond those, hapless fans are likely to encounter Anchor Bay's 30th Anniversary Edition (there's also a 2-disc Limited Edition.) With 15 minutes of horrendous NEW scenes and the addition of a ghastly musical score, the disc is the greatest abomination of the film's checkered past -- and that's including the colorized TV version. Look closely at the packaging and note the absence of co-writer/director George Romero on the disc's commentary track, which should be an excellent indication of how George feels about the tinkering. He recently told Wicked magazine, "Those guys are still friends of mine, and I said to them that I'm not going to put a heavy slam on it. So, I won't. As far as I'll go is to say that I certainly didn't like it." He's talking about co-writer John Russo, Bill Hinzman and Russell Streiner -- all of whom worked on the original film and produced the dubious anniversary edition.
Since the beginning, Russo and Romero have battled over who had the rights to the film. They eventually agreed that John owned the script and the words "Living Dead," while George got the word "Dead" by itself. Their agreement explains the titles of Romero's sequels, Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Things got even more confusing after the movie was thought to be in public domain and a flood of different videos hit the market. It also meant the filmmakers weren't getting their cut anymore. This is likely why Russo and his pals produced the new material and recut and rescored the original -- as they'd see any profits from the hybrid edition. Romero chose not to participate, though he did join them in producing Tom Savini's remake in 1990.
So, you're probably wondering, "Is there ANY version a fan can purchase in good conscience?" Absolutely, Elite Entertainment's Special Collector's Edition. It's the original, unmonkeyed-with movie that's been masterfully restored and packed with extras. Accept no substitute.
The movie: This is the harrowing story of seven strangers, hiding in a Pennsylvania farm house, who find out what happens when people stop being dead, and start getting hungry. The tale begins with Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) paying their respects to a deceased relative, when they encounter the first representative of the undead -- who makes it clear he doesn't come in peace. Barbra runs screaming from the cemetery to a nearby house, where she hides from her lurching pursuer. Soon our hero, Ben (Duane Jones), joins her and begins to fortify the house. He's had to flee from a bunch of zombies by plowing through them with his car. Ben successfully keeps the undead at bay via pyrotechnics and a good old fashion club to the noggin. Halfway through the movie, five more refugees emerge from the basement and things get even more interesting. We have a young couple Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley), and a family of three, Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman) and their injured daughter Karen (Kyra Schon). Harry is a weaselly grump who challenges every decision Ben makes. Should they all hole up in the basement, or work together to board up the house? Try and go for help, or wait out the sieging mob? Accordingly, the conflict INSIDE the farm house becomes every bit as tense as the danger outside. So just how DO you get rid of hundreds of living dead, munching human flesh, all over the Eastern third of the United States? Do the inhabitants of the farm house survive the night? When the credits roll, you'll know the answers and understand why this flick is recognized around the world as a true horror classic.
Notables: Two breasts. Eight corpses. Hordes of living dead. Tire iron brandishing. Flaming ghoul. Gunshot to the stomach. One right cross. Fingers tumble. Bug eating. One three-star general. Molotov cocktail fu. Corpse bonfire. Multiple bullets to the brainpan. Exploding truck. Trowel attack. Zombie barbecue.
Quotables: Johnny taunts his frightened sister, "They're coming to get you, Barbra ... Look! There comes one of them now!" Overheard during news reports, "We don't know what kind of murder-happy creatures we have here" and "Kill the brain, and you kill the ghoul." Ben doesn't think hiding in the basement is such a good idea, "If you're stupid enough to go die in that trap, that's your business. However, I am NOT stupid enough to follow you. It is tough for the kid that her old man is so stupid. Now, get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there. I'M the boss up here!" Probably the best lines are from Chief McClelland, and are said to have been improvised, "Put that one all the way in the fire, we don't want it gettin up again" and "Yeah, they're dead. They're ALL messed up."
Time codes: The first zombie appears (5:45). "Fire BAAADDDD!!!" (20:10). Radio news reports detail the extent of the crisis (32:30). The famous nekkid undead chick (46:43). TV report suggests radiation from Venus probe may be the cause (56:00). McClelland leads his ghoul extermination squad (1:19:00).
Audio/Video: Beautiful fullframe, black and white print. What makes the transfer even more astonishing, is the fact that the original master and other reels were lost during a flood. Coincidentally, they were stored in the same basement featured in the movie. Surviving theatrical prints were duped and reduped -- transferred to video and duped all over again. (An indecency the film endured once it fell into public domain.) The image quality deteriorated to the point graphically illustrated by Elite's false start of the film. Through the years, critics even acknowledged the filmmakers' documentary style -- in reference to the degraded image, but in reality, the original image had been quite pristine. That's not to say the disc is flawless. In a handful of scenes, the picture freezes momentarily, due to the fact that even with the best source material available, some frames were either lost or damaged. However, the instances are so minor, it barely warrants mention. The THX audio track sounds good as well. Ambient noises like rolling thunder and crickets chirping are especially crisp.
Extras: Two commentary tracks. The first with co-writer/director George Romero, co-writer John (or Jack) Russo and cast members Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman (The Coopers). The second with additional members of the cast: Bill Hinzman (Cemetery zombie), Judith O'Dea (Barbra), Russell Streiner (Johnny), Keith Wayne (Tom), Kyra Schon (Karen Cooper) and Vince Survinski (the "I heard a noise" gunman). Each are great to hear as the old colleagues get back together and reminisce. The tracks highlight what a group effort the movie was -- down to set dressing and actors mixing sound. I actually enjoyed the second track a bit more than the first, as the group was much more lively. But the first track is more technically oriented with interesting trivia mixed in. Beyond the commentaries are theatrical and television trailers. Plus examples of commercials produced by Image Ten, Inc. (which most of the cast and crew worked for in some way or another). And my favorite extra, Kevin O'Brien's 8-minute student film Night of the Living Bread (1990). It's hilarious and a clever addition to the disc. The only negative criticism I can really offer is in regard to the disc's packaging -- there's no insert card or liner notes and the disc itself is plainly labeled. A real missed opportunity.
Final thought: The movie that spawned countless copyists and spoofs. The word "classic" is often tossed around too easily, but in the case of this picture, the label is wholly deserved. Highly Recommended.
G. Noel Gross is a Dallas graphic designer and avowed Drive-In Mutant who specializes in scribbling B-movie reviews. Noel is inspired by Joe Bob Briggs and his gospel of blood, breasts and beasts.