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Night of the Living Dead
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!
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.The DVD
The all new transfer on this fortieth anniversary edition of Night Of The Living Dead is a noticeable improvement over the Elite Entertainment edition (which was previously the transfer to beat). Presented in Romero's preferred ratio for the film, (that'd be 1.33.1) there's a lot more detail present in the picture and it's overall a considerably sharper, cleaner, cleaner and more film-like image. That said, there have been some changes made to the framing of the film compared to past editions and in some spots it looks like it was zoomed in slightly (possibly to eliminate the boom mic from a few shots) but this doesn't really harm the film much in the long run even if it's bound to annoy purists. The picture is less jittery than it has been in the past and whole lot of print damage, dirt and debris has been removed from the picture resulting in a much improved image. The picture is still grainy, just as it should be, but the movie really does look excellent here, framing oddities or not.Sound:
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix advertised on the packaging for this release is conspicuously absent but the English language Mono track that does show up gets the job done nicely. Again, there's a big improvement here over the Elite Entertainment release. The soundtrack is much cleaner (on past releases you could hear needle drops from the records used on the score - not anymore) and it has a bit more depth to it. The dialogue sounds stronger and most concise and a lot of the audible background noise has been eliminated. This is still an old Mono mix and it sounds like an old Mono mix, but it definitely sounds better than it has in the past. Optional Spanish and English subtitles are included as is English closed captioning.Extras:
Dimension has carried over the commentary track with director George A. Romero, actor and producer Karl Hardman, actress Marilyn Eastman and writer John Russo that first appeared on the Elite laserdisc way back when and which also appeared on Elite's Millennium Edition DVD release. There are a few slow spots here but by and large this is an excellent and truly informative discussion that covers the origins of the film as well as the production and distribution of the finished picture. There's a lot of excellent information here and the camaraderie between the participants makes it an enjoyable track. A second commentary (which also first appeared on the Elite laserdisc release) has also been carried over. The participants include producer Russell Streiner, production manager Vince Survinski and cast members Bill Hinzman, Judith O'Dea, Kyra Schon and Keith Wayne. This commentary isn't quite as warm as the first one but it's still an interesting listen. While it covers much of the same ground as the very thorough first track, it does so from a different point of view and so we wind up getting a different take on some of the stories that are told here. Between these two tracks, a lot of ground is covered and fans who haven't heard these commentaries by way of the past Elite releases will definitely enjoy these recordings and those who have heard them before might even enjoy revisiting them.
Up next, and the real reason to dig through the supplements on this release, is One For The Fire (1:23:44, 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen), a brand new and insanely comprehensive documentary on the making of and history of Night Of The Living Dead. Clocking in at almost an hour and a half long, this fascinating look back at the picture includes on-camera interviews with almost everyone associated with the film who (excluding those who have passed away, obviously). Look for input from Romero and Russo, cast members O'Dea, Hinzman, Schon, Eastman, and Ricci, crewmembers like Regis Survinski and Gary Streiner, fans like Alice Cooper, Max Brooks, Greg Nicotero, Steve Barton, Camden Toy and Bill Mosely, Billy Cardille, and many more. In addition to the interview clips we get a tour of the building that was where all the Latent Image film work was stored (which also doubled as the basement in the film!), we get modern day visits to some of the locations with cast members in tow, and we get a chance to see some of the commercials that Latent Image made before Night Of The Living Dead. It's a fascinating and sometimes sad story, particularly when we learn about the circumstances surrounding how the film fell into the public domain (which would wind up losing the filmmakers an untold amount of money). This documentary alone makes this release worth a purchase - it's that good.
From there, be sure to check out Speak Of The Dead (15:45, 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen, identified on the packaging as Speak To The Dead) which is an all new question and answer session with Romero himself conducted at the fabulous Bloor Cinema in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on August 26th, 2007. Here Romero discusses his career, starting with Night Of The Living Dead. It covers some of the same ground that the other features detail but it's a fun watch as Romero always makes for an interesting interviewee.
Also carried over from the Elite releases is Ben Speaks (16:44), which is an audio recording of Duane Jones' last interview which was recorded by journalist Tim Ferrante on December 13, 1987 at his residence on the campus of the College At Old Westbury in New York where he taught. As the audio plays out a slideshow of stills plays out underneath. This is the only in-depth interview that Jones ever gave about Night Of The Living Dead, which is a shame as he's got some fascinating insight into the film and it's effect on pop culture.
Rounding out the extra features are the film's original theatrical trailer (1:48, fullframe), a still gallery of production photos and artwork (68 images, color and black and white), and the film's original script in PDF format, accessible by DVD-Rom only. Animated menus and chapter stops are also included and before you get to the main menu a few Dimension Extreme promo spots play.
With all of the extras that do appear on this release, it should be noted that not all of the material from the Elite releases has been carried over. Missing from this DVD are the Night Of The Living Bread parody film, the Ridley/Eastman interview, the clips from There's Always Vanilla, and some of the still gallery material.Final Thoughts:
While completists will absolutely want to hold on to the Elite edition for the extras and because of the framing issues on the new transfer, this new fortieth anniversary edition of Night Of The Living Dead really is excellent. The new transfer is at times a revelation and the inclusion of the One For The Fire documentary really adds a lot of value to this package. Highly recommended.
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.