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Night of the Living Dead
Elliott Stein of The Village Voice called Night Of The Living Dead is 'the most influential horror film since Psycho, which is probably true and now the film gets its due as part of the Criterion Collection. 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.
Criterion presents Night Of The Living Dead on Blu-ray taking up roughly 29GBs of space on a 50GB disc in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer taken from a new director approved 4k restoration of the original 35mm negative (save for a tiny bit of footage sourced from a 35mm fine-grain source). The picture quality here is outstanding. Contrast looks dead on, blacks are nice and deep without crushing out detail and whites look crisp without ever blooming. There are no noticeable issues with compression artifacts to note at all, nor are there any problems to gripe about in regards to edge enhancement or noise reduction. Fine detail is excellent and film grain, while quite obvious and very natural looking, never feels intrusive or distracting. The image is quite clean, showing virtually no print damage outside of a small white speck here and there. There's nothing to complain about here, this is a gorgeous transfer.
The English language LPCM Mono track is also of excellent quality. Dialogue is clean and clear and levels are properly balanced throughout. There are no audible issues with any hiss or distortion and the score sounds quite good, as do the sound effects. At the same time, the limitations inherent in the original sound recording is still there, just as it should be. So, while this doesn't offer the most enveloping listening experience you're ever going to hear, compared to past editions of the film it is still a pretty substantial upgrade. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.
Extras on the first disc include Two audio commentaries, the first of which features 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.
Also included on disc one is the never-before-seen Night Of The Anubis cut, which runs approximately eleven-minutes shorter than the feature cut of the film. This is also presented in high definition, taking up approximately 11GBs of space. This is essentially a work print of the film, the audio is in Dolby Digital Mono and it's presented with an optional introduction from Steiner that runs roughly eight-minutes in length and provides some welcome to this interesting alternate version of the well-known classic.
The bulk of the supplements, however, are found on the second disc starting with a selection of new supplements, the first of which features filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro and Robert Rodriguez entitled Light In The Darkness. Over the span of just under twenty-four minutes, the three filmmakers share their thoughts on what makes NOTLD the classic that it is, why it's important not just from a film history stand point but a cultural stand point as well, it's influence on so many horror films that came in its wake and quite a bit more. From there, check out eighteen-minutes of never-before-seen 16mm dailies, presented silently but with a four-minute optional introduction from Gary Streiner. There's some alternate footage included in here that is interesting to see and it's great that this has been included on this release. In the twelve-minute Learning From Scratch writer John Russo details not only how he came on board to work on NOTLD but also how he and some of the others involved in the production cut their teeth working in the industrial film industry in Pittsburgh making various small scale commercial film productions. Complimenting this is three-minutes of TV Newsreel footage from 1967. Sourced from a rather rough VHS tape and presented silently with new music from composer Jeff Carney over top, this is important because it happens to include the only known/existing raw footage shot on the set of the film while it was in production. Walking Like The Dead is a new thirteen-minute featurette that gathers up ten different people that were cast to play zombies in the feature. Here they share their experiences and discuss what it was like on set, it's an interesting look into one of the less explored areas of the history of the film. In the twelve-minute Tones Of Terror producer Jim Cirronella talks about how and why the library music used in the film came to be, why certain selections are effective and the importance of the score to the quality of the film itself. Limitations Into Virtues takes twelve-minutes to let filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramo provide a video essay that talks about the film's significance, importance and influence as well as ho Romero and company overcame issues brought about by a low budget to create a legitimate masterpiece.
There's a fair bit of archival material included here too, starting with an eighteen-minute selection of footage from the NBC program Tomorrow wherein Romero and Phantasm director Don Coscarelli are interviewed about their thoughts on horror films and the state of the genre in 1979 (which is when this footage was recorded). Higher Learning is a lengthy forty-six-minute segment that documents Romero's appearance at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. Here Romero, with help from host Colin Geddes, talks about the history of the production, the film's distribution, it's legacy and the socio-political aspects that are so often discussed in the same breath as the film.
Also carried over from the Elite releases 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 its effect on pop culture. We also get an eleven-minute archival interview with Judith Ridley wherein she talks about her role in the film, memories of her time on the set and more.
Rounding out the extras are an original 1968 theatrical trailer, a 2017 re-release trailer, two TV spots, five radio spots, a half-minute news clip called Venus Probe that notes Mariner 5's findings in 1967 that tie into the film, menus and chapter selection. Included inside the packaging is a color insert booklet that contains credits for the feature and for the Blu-ray disc as well as a new essay on the film penned by film critic Stuart Klawans.
It is worth noting that there are other releases out there with a fair bit of supplemental content on them not carried over to this release, the biggest omission being the eighty-four-minute documentary One For The Fire that was included on the old DVD release from Miramax (and was subsequently included on the Japanese Blu-ray release from Happinet). Still, what Criterion have assembled for this package is, in a word, impressive.
Night Of The Living Dead remains a high point in the history of the horror film, a picture that remains as intense and involving now as it has ever been. The Criterion Collection has done an excellent job bringing the film to Blu-ray. While it wasn't possible to carry over every single supplement from past editions, what is here is very good indeed and the audio/video presentation is top notch, all of which makes this release well worth the DVD Talk Collector's Series stamp of approval!
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.