At last count, there were eight, count em, EIGHT 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. In fact, he 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 pals produced the new material and recut and rescored the original -- as they'd see any profits from the hybrid edition. But Romero chose not to participate, though he did join them in producing Tom Savini's gory remake in 1990.
So, you're probably wondering, "Are there ANY versions a fan can purchase in good conscience?" Absolutely, and Elite Entertainment is responsible for BOTH. Their Special Collector's Edition was long the first and best option, but Elite topped themselves with this subsequent release of an even MORE extras-packed Millennium Edition. Well worth the upgrade!
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). 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 video 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.
For the Millennium Edition, Elite adds a brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 track along side the original mono. Ambient noises like rolling thunder and crickets chirping are especially crisp. The disc also includes THX calibration tools to get the most out of your home theater experience.
Extras: As with Elite's Special Collector's Edition, we have 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. 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.
For the Millennium Edition, Elite expands upon its previous samples of Romero's early commercial work, with a written history of Image Ten/Latent Image/Hardman Eastman Studios, as well as providing eight spots and a silent clip from The Derlick (starring mean ol' Harry Cooper). Fans can also peruse full-color clips from Romero's "lost" film There's Always Vanilla -- one involving, gulp, a speculum (5 mins). There's more than 400 pages (or screens) containing the script and original treatment for the picture as lifted from Russo's "The Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook." More than 160 still images from Survinski and Eastman's personal scrapbooks. There's also oodles of images of props, posters and other collectibles. A video interview with Judith Ridley (10 mins). Audio interview with the late Duane Jones, who looks back with reluctant fondness on this strange little film he'd made 20 years earlier (16 mins). It's particularly rewarding to hear Mr. Jones speak about the film, even if it isn't in quite the glowing terms CineSchlockers might hope. Static menus with music and audio quotes from the flick. Unlike the plain-Jane Special Collector's Edition, this new disc HAS a printed insert with liner notes by none other than Stephen King AND actual graphics on the disc itself! Not to mention it comes in a ghoul-worthy blood-red keepcase.
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. Truly an absolute must-have for any self-respecting CineSchlocker. Collector Series.
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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.