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Night of the Living Dead (1990)

List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 6, 2012 | E-mail the Author
This remake of Night of the Living Dead was such a nightmarish experience for Tom Savini that the legendary effects artist never went on to direct another feature film. Many of the concepts he'd meticulously storyboarded wound up being scuttled to accommodate a tight shooting schedule. Meddlesome producers stomped on Savini's most inspired ideas. This is a movie with a masterful gutslinger at the helm, and yet pretty much every last spatter
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of gore was gutted by the MPAA. Savini has repeatedly said that less than half of what he envisioned found its way onto the screen. Considering how severely compromised Night of Living Dead was at pretty much every conceivable turn, it's impressive that this remake is as effective as it is.

The remake of Dawn of the Dead kept the stripped-to-bare-metal premise of "zombies in a shopping mall" but was otherwise an unrecognizably different movie. The borderline-unwatchable Day of the Dead remake kept some military men in the fray and fuck-all of anything else. Savini's Night of the Living Dead is -- especially by comparison! -- an exceptionally faithful updating of Romero's original. The core concept remains the same. There's no prelude. There's no warning. As Johnnie (Bill Moseley) waggles his fingers and teases his sister with yet another "they're coming to get you, Barbara...!" at the foot of their mother's grave, a flesh-eating ghoul savagely attacks. Johnnie's lifeless corpse lays battered and broken. Barbara (Patricia Tallman) manages to escape to the only thing resembling sanctuary here in the middle of nowhere. She soon finds herself surrounded by a handful of other survivors, among then the pragmatic Ben (Tony Todd) and a raging prick named Harry Cooper (Tom Towles). Ben wants to board up the windows and barricade themselves inside; Cooper's dead certain that they'd be most secure in the basement. As more and more of the undead swarm around this remote house, tensions grow fatally heated among the living.

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead is, by any reasonable measure, a classic. Remaking the movie that changed the face of horror and continues to define what a zombie's dangerous. In quite a lot of ways, this update is wildly effective. With an expert craftsman like Savini at the helm and John Vulich supervising the effects, it really ought to go without saying that the look of the undead is unparalleled...ghastly, ghoulish, and freshly dead. Savini has assembled what is overall a far more capable cast. Future horror icon Tony Todd makes for a hell of a leading man. Genre vet Bill Moseley appears only briefly but makes an immediate
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impression with the iconic "they're coming to get you..." line. Whereas Judith O'Dea alternated between shrill and catatonic in Romero's original, Patricia Tallman infuses the character with astonishing strength and resolve. Her take on Barbara briefly succumbs to the horror around her but quickly recovers. She doesn't steel herself into Ripley or Sarah Conner, exactly, but her transformation is gradual and entirely convincing. Although this remake is generally faithful, Savini cleverly toys with the expectations of those who've memorized Romero's original, chapter and verse, and the film tears off in some smirkingly clever directions as it draws to a close.

Still, Night of the Living Dead isn't at all the movie that Tom Savini set out to make. His most inspired ideas, such as starting the film in black and white and gradually easing into color, were jettisoned. There's very little gore, paling in comparison to the gruesome imagery of Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, and...hell, just about every other zombie movie ever. Cooper is a disastrously poor antagonist...a sweaty, wormy, irredeemably awful excuse for a human being. There's nothing vaguely compelling or intriguing about the bastard, just gnawing on the scenery and shouting "you bunch of yo-yos!" I get that the idea is to show that the living pose just as much, if not more, of a threat than the undead, but a nails-on-chalkboard raging asshole really isn't the way to go about it. Cooper ranks somewhere down there with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's Franklin as one of the most excruciatingly awful characters in the annals of horror, and the "basement!" argument just seems to make the movie pointlessly spin its wheels for far, far too long. The remake builds to a more frenetic crescendo but somehow isn't nearly as effective as the climax of the original. There's not that same sort of...apocalpytic atmosphere that pervades every frame of Romero's film.

We'll never get a chance to see the remake that Tom Savini set out to direct. Still, despite the many missteps of this severely compromised version, Night of the Living Dead manages to distinguish itself as one of the more effective horror remakes out there. Hell, we're talking about a movie with such a rabid fanbase that all 3,000 copies of this limited edition Blu-ray disc sold out before it was even released. It's a flawed but worthwhile update of George Romero's iconic zombie classic, and at the right price -- something that's wildly out of reach with this out-of-print Blu-ray disc now! -- Night of the Living Dead is worth unearthing.

So, yeah, there's a controversy roaring on the usual message boards about this revisionist presentation of Night of the Living Dead. There are more than 5,500 posts droning on about it on
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When this remake of Night of the Living Dead first shambled its way into theaters, its colors were pronounced...the sky a bright blue, the grass a fairly lush green, and the undead a sickly, jaundiced shade of yellow. Though the bulk of the film takes place after dusk, just as its title suggests, Night of the Living Dead opens in the bright of day. Every presentation of the remake up to this point -- its initial theatrical release, early appearances on cable, its first release on DVD, a high definition remaster on HDNet Movies, the HDX version floating around on Vudu, and even the trailer offered elsewhere on this disc -- has had fairly consistent color timing. I'm sure that approach -- especially throughout its earliest stretches -- turned off some viewers, seeing as how this is a remake of such an iconically black-and-white film and all. When director of photography Frank Prinzi was approached to oversee this latest transfer of Night of the Living Dead two years ago, presumably as part of an aborted twentieth anniversary release, he decided to take the film in a very different direction visually.

Night of the Living Dead has been drenched in blue. This tinting is at its heaviest throughout much of the first reel, retroactively shifting its backdrop from afternoon to dusk, but this new grading is pervasive to some extent throughout the film. There's no shortage of comparison shots floating around online. I'm not going to copy and paste them here, uncomfortable with the idea of illustrating points with screengrabs I didn't snap myself, but the difference is dramatic.

I'm not even a little bit of a fan of this sort of revisionist meddling. I want the untainted version of the Star Wars trilogy on Blu-ray. I have zero interest in a version of E.T. with the feds' handguns replaced with walkie-talkies. I don't care how much William Friedkin adores that ancient Moby Dick flick; what he did to The French Connection its first time out on Blu-ray was a straightahead disaster. If Prinzi wants Night of the Living Dead to be tinted a dark blue...whatever, that's okay, but let me watch the movie as it was originally intended too. That, disappointingly, is not an option with this Blu-ray disc.

I've said what I think in principle, but in practice...? It's tolerable. I'd only managed to catch moments of the Night of the Living Dead remake in fits and spurts before this, so I don't have the intense attachment to its original presentation that some viewers might. The many, many screenshot comparisons floating around online had me expecting the worst, and it's a very different experience on a high-end, 60" HDTV than it is on an unremarkable, never-once-calibrated LCD monitor. Using the high-def trailer elsewhere on this Blu-ray disc as a point of reference, this presentation is considerably darker throughout the first reel, yes. Still, it's nowhere near as punishingly, unwatchably dark as the screengrabs I'd seen beforehand would suggest. The tinting is unconvincing, to be sure. The blue push leaves the interiors looking thin and drab, and it's such an overly digital tint that it
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seems out of place for a film lensed in 1989. The long shadows and cheerfully chirping birds also seem sorely out of place when the frame is artificially bathed in such dark blues.

It's kind of strange looking, and there were a couple of moments where the blue tinting pulled me out, but...well, I was also expressly looking for that sort of thing. I wish it weren't there, but I personally don't consider the tinting to be a dealbreaker. To be completely honest, the few times I'd sat down and tried to watch Night of the Living Dead before this, the brightness and more richly saturated colors kind of turned me off. If this is Frank Prinzi's way of addressing some visual choices he made in the past and now regrets, I think there's a more comfortable grading somewhere in between these two extremes. Even more ideally, Night of the Living Dead would've been released on a dual-layer disc with both iterations of the film so everyone can get what they want. Twilight Time has said that, going forward, they'll alert collectors beforehand if a presentation differs significantly from previous ones, so the intense reaction Night of the Living Dead has prompted hopefully won't happen again. I'm not going to pretend that filmmakers always make the best decades after the fact, but for what it's worth, the movie's cinematographer and director have both signed off on this heavily regraded version of the film.

...and I haven't gotten around to saying much of anything else about this disc yet! This transfer was licensed to Twilight Time by Sony, and given their unparalleled track record with their catalog releases, it comes as little surprise that the presentation is otherwise outstanding by any measure. The image is consistently filmic throughout, retaining a striking sheen of unintrusive grain. The levels of clarity and detail are very much what I'd hope to see out of a genre film of this vintage. There are no missteps in the AVC encode, edge enhancement artifacts, excessive filtering, or assorted wear or damage either.

The short answer is that the purist in me is disappointed, but the guy who sits back and devours zombie flicks really doesn't have much of a problem with the severe tinting of Night of the Living Dead. If not for the original saturation being seared into my mind the couple times I've tried to watch the film before this, and if not for the violently intense response that's exploded online, I'm not sure it would've even occurred to me as revisionism...just sloppy day-for-night. Honestly, I found the somewhat desaturated look to some of the interiors to be more distracting than the dark blues that dominate the first reel. This is one of the most polarizing releases to ever hit Blu-ray. I can only tell you what my reaction has been, and it's that, by and large, I don't find the tinting to be anywhere near as ruinous and intrusive as it's been for so many others. Your mileage may vary.

Night of the Living Dead arrives on a single layer Blu-ray disc and has been lightly letterboxed to preserve its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

Go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief; I'm not going to write anywhere near that much about this 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The 5.1 remix seizes hold of the surrounds largely for atmosphere, with some brief directionality to the dialogue and, of course, the onslaught of the undead as all hell breaks loose at the end. The sound design doesn't further the sense of claustrophobia it would if Night of the Living Dead were being produced today, but this being a remix, maybe those sorts of sounds were never recorded in the first place.

Use of the subwoofer is generally modest, with the synth bass in the score summoning the lowest frequencies. Effects I'd expect to be backed by a meaty low-end -- shotgun blasts and one monstrous explosion -- don't pack nearly as much of a wallop as I'd have expected. Some of the jump scares sound rather meek as well; when a zombie first crashes through a window, the sound of that glass shattering isn't mixed to make an impact. Dialogue is balanced very well in the mix, consistently rendered cleanly, clearly, and distinctly throughout. The soundtrack is free of any intrusive hiss, pops, clicks, dropouts, or most any other misstep you could rattle off. The one flaw that should be noted is the omission of some shutter clicks that play at the very, very end of the film. They can still be heard in the background when listening to Tom Savini's audio commentary, but they're nowhere to be found in the movie proper. It's an unfortunate oversight, but considering that the movie itself is pretty much over at that point, I won't pretend it's a dealbreaker.

An audio commentary and isolated score have been included as well, and I'll touch on those in a moment. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH).

"The Dead Walk", the making-of featurette from the DVD, disappointingly didn't find its way onto this Blu-ray disc.
  • Audio Commentary: This commentary track with director Tom Savini was recorded somewhere around 1999, and like many early DVD commentaries, the pace is a lot slower than usual. Savini tends to quietly watch the movie,
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    waiting to be inspired to speak. There are long stretches of dead air as a result, to the point where I either wish someone else had been in the recording booth to spur on discussion or that it had just been reduced to a short interview instead. Savini has plenty of interesting things to contribute -- a nod to the centuries-old mystery of the Mary Celeste, an elaborate storyboarding process that wasn't able to be fully committed to film, pointing out a subtle cameo by George Romero, explaining how the effects behind each of the zombie kills were executed, and noting some haunting familial imagery that ultimately didn't make it into the movie -- but it's not really enough to sustain an hour and a half commentary track. Savini has been very outspoken in the years since about how directing this film was "the worst nightmare of [his] life", including struggles with useless producers, not feeling properly supported by Romero, and the MPAA hacking the movie to bits, but nothing like that is expressed in this commentary.

  • Isolated Score: Paul McCollough's keyboard-driven score has been isolated on this lossless, 24-bit stereo soundtrack. The fidelity is terrific, but the overreliance on synth-strings makes it feel awfully dated.

  • Trailer (1 min.; HD): A minute-long trailer is presented in high definition, although it's fuzzy enough that I can't tell if it's natively 1080p or an upconvert.

Night of the Living Dead also features a booklet with liner notes penned by Julie Kirgo.

The Final Word
Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead is an uneven but respectable remake, the sort of movie under normal circumstances I'm sure I'd cautiously recommend. This...isn't exactly a normal circumstance, though, seeing as how the limited edition Blu-ray release has already sold out. Hell, even though Twilight Time's retail partner is accepting returns from people turned off by the revisionist tinting, the waiting list to grab those recycled copies has closed as well. The only way to grab hold of the Night of the Living Dead remake on Blu-ray is the aftermarket, and the asking prices on eBay are already hovering around the $70 mark. I mean, I'd personally struggle with the idea of spending more then twenty bucks on this remake, and triple or quadruple that...? I can't relate, but clearly collectors are biting.

If you scrolled straight past that sprawling nine paragraph epic, the controversy swirling around this Blu-ray release stems from its revisionist color timing. Yes, a big chunk of the first reel has been tinted a dark blue. Yes, there's a blue push to the overwhelming majority of the film after that point, even once the setting has fully shifted to the dead of night, leaving interiors looking pale and desaturated. It's dramatically different from every other presentation of Night of the Living Dead to date, and the screenshot comparisons floating around online had me bracing for the worst. Once I actually had this disc in hand, though, the retinting looks out of place but rarely took me out of the movie. I frequently find this sort of thing to be bamboo-shoots-under-fingernails torturous, so my saying that kind of does mean something. The controversy at this point is moot anyway since you have to go to considerable effort and expense to even see this revised presentation of the film. The DVD and every high-def streaming/download service on the planet all present Night of the Living Dead with its original color timing intact.

As flawed as this remake of Night of the Living Dead is, it's by and large very well-cast, the ghouls look every bit as phenomenal as you'd expect with Tom Savini at the helm, and I really like the approach of the once-shrill and catatonic Barbara being steeled into more of a warrior. I'm not sure how to close out a review of a disc that you can't really rent and, overpriced aftermarket aside, can no longer be purchased. I guess I'll end by saying that, if you're willing to shell out the money for it, this Blu-ray disc comes Recommended with some clear misgivings.
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