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Night of the Living Dead – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

At long last, on the year of its 50th anniversary, Night of the Living Dead has been given the ultimate Blu-ray release it deserves. George A. Romero’s 1968 film, the godfather of modern zombie movies, is one that has received so many different releases due to its public domain status that it was only a matter of time for real justice to be done. Thankfully, The Criterion Collection has once again gone all out for a true classic (‘Night’ was even added into the National Film Registry nearly 20 years ago). This spectacular new release boasts 4K digital restoration, a workprint edit of the film, multiple commentaries, never-before-seen footage, new interviews, and more. It’s practically everything one can want for the perfect release of this film, which I was thrilled to dive into for this review.

Film:

For those unfamiliar with this landmark film for the horror genre, the story is deceptively straightforward. Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) are visiting their father’s grave in the countryside. An unhinged man attacks them, killing Johnny in the process, and leading Barbara to run away. She takes shelter in a seemingly abandoned home, only to discover that death literally surrounds her, as the undead seem to be swarming the area. Another man, Ben (Duane Jones), arrives with enough confidence to take care of the gathering undead around the house, and board up the doors and windows. Before long, Ben and Barbara discover more strangers are hiding in the house, and it becomes a tense drama about the efforts made to work together, while horrors outside of the dwelling become a more considerable force.

I’ve always been a massive zombie movie fan, and it specifically has to do with Romero’s work to create the genre. Sure, there are films like White Zombie that featured this sort of ghoul first, but those were films dealing with voodoo and witchcraft. Night of the Living dead gave rise to what truly works about these types of movies – the tension and unease that stems from the humans trying to survive. That idea, which Romero would continue to explore in his other ‘Dead’ films and other filmmakers would try to replicate over the decades. Yes, there is also the gruesome gore and undead ghouls aspect, which Romero would put plenty of investment in as well. That speaks to having the filmmaker find a way to satisfy those looking for B-movie thrills while finding a way to insert his views of the world. There’s rarely anything interesting about the zombies themselves, but the messaging that can come from that sort of world has its own importance.

Embedding social commentary into his films is something Romero would certainly be remembered for, and it is another great benefit of this film that I respect. While there are all sorts of interviews and discussion over Romero’s intentions and what came next by casting a black actor in the lead role (in a film featuring only white actors around him), the results were still fascinating. Romero has insisted that Jones was cast because he gave the best audition, but that choice only further cemented what the writer/director would refer to as taking a snapshot of the times and putting it on film. While the script wasn’t altered, the subtext is right there, and the film’s final minutes are genuinely horrifying for a variety of reasons, and that comes after we see undead hordes eat the body parts of various cast members.

Looking beyond the social commentary, however, it’s always amazing to see just how immersive Night of the Living Dead still feels. Despite less experienced filmmakers and cast members, it is easy to compare this film to 12 Angry Men, of all things. While Night of the Living Dead certainly has a broader scope by having more than just the house as a location, it is the hostility that builds inside of the house that makes the film so involving. Getting television exposition dumps or breaks by way of zombie attacks keep thing lively, but the arguments that take place between Ben and Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) find the film at its most tense, building off the claustrophobic setting while leaving you less concerned with the quality of the production.

Speaking of the film’s quality on a technical level, for a horror movie made on a shoestring budget, Night of the Living Dead is far more accomplished than some may think. Yes, you can call out some of the performances and take note of certain limitations that Romero would improve upon in years to come, but why not make a better record of all that indeed works. The sense of dread is constant, as no one ever feels safe. That comes from the film’s use of space and no separation of danger whether it’s day or night. That said, the film is called Night of the Living Dead, and there are plenty of well-handled contrasts in seeing the outside threat and the brightly lit indoor areas that nevertheless feel dangerous. Even in moments where the sound is not quite the best aspect of this film, there’s an economical sense of filmmaking that makes every scene feel necessary. Romero was a great editor.

One could point to character motivations that seem perplexing, but I’ve never found that to be an issue, given the panicked nature of this story. Along with that, Jones is just damn good as Ben. A man who has what he needs to get by, even if he doesn’t have all the answers, but must also contend with those less sure of themselves. While the remake would go out of its way to solve the issue surrounding the Barbara character (with all the ambitious filmmaking and directorial choices taking place, Romero’s handle on the female characters is not all that noteworthy), the true lead of the film has the sort of logic and optimism you want in the midst of a cynical tale of how the world came to an end. Good thing Dawn of the Dead would come along over a decade later to take things to a whole other level when it comes to the treatment of the lead characters.

I feel like there’s so much more I could say regarding Night of the Living Dead and its legacy, but suffice to say that it’s an all-time great horror film made from one of the horror filmmaking greats. Sadly Romero* passed away a year before this release, but it’s fantastic to know he was very much involved in seeing his classic film be restored and continue to bring so much joy to the many horror fans who have championed it and hold it up as a high-water mark for the genre. Flaws and all, the film was an incredible achievement for its time that continues to be just as effective for a variety of reasons that stem from the level of its take on being a scary movie to the relevance the film has in its portrayal of humans and how we can all look at them and see that connection to our time. As the dead walk through the night, horror takes many shapes, and this film is a continually phenomenal portrayal of this.

*Check out our Out Now with Aaron and Abe horror special podcast with guest Brandon Peters, also of Why So Blu, to hear more about our thoughts on George A. Romero.


Video:

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Transfer Details: The Blu-ray package is happy to boast that the new 4K digital restoration was supervised by Romero, co-screenwriter John A. Russo, sound engineer Gary R. Streiner and producer Russell W. Streiner. This took place thanks to the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, along with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation. Oh, and Martin Scorsese happened to be involved in overseeing the restoration process. So yeah, you could say a lot of very qualified people wanted this video presentation to be the best it could be.

Clarity/Detail: Other Blu-rays have boasted great new transfers, but this is the one to beat. Night of the Living Dead looks fantastic when it comes to taking in all the exceptional levels of detail. The early scenes outdoors immediately show you how clear the rest of this film will look, given the contrasts on display to truly let us into the world of this film. Once entering the house, all the production design begins to shine as well. We see books, boarded up windows, clothing, and more in a way that never registers poorly.

Depth: Thanks to how the undead characters move, there is plenty of chance to see a level of depth on display. The position of characters never feels flat in any way, which speaks to what kind of work was done to not overly sharpen the film or make adjustments that take away anything in the process.

Black Levels: Oh my goodness, how great are the black levels? They are outstanding. Once the night sets in, it is incredible to see just how well the blacks contrast with things like fire or the dead characters. The black levels are deep and inky, with no signs of crushing at all. They play incredibly well with the grays and whites always on display, adding to the level of nuance found in Romero’s direction.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: These zombies may not be as visually impressive as what Romero and make-up guru Tom Savini would cook up in later years, but this transfer does a great job of showing the efforts made to turn some extras into ghouls. Along with this, the humans look great, with the facial textures registering as correctly as you would hope. It is just another great element of this fantastic transfer.

Noise/Artifacts: With so much work to deliver a remarkable new transfer of this film, there is nothing to complain about here. There is a consistent level of grain that is to be expected, but this movie is spotless.

 

Audio:

Audio Format(s): English LPCM 1.0

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics: This uncompressed soundtrack was also restored and supervised by Romero and Gary Streiner. It all comes out as great as one would hope. Even as a mono soundtrack with various limitations, all that is necessary to make this audio track effective is present.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone sounds clear.

 

Extras:

This 2-disc set is loaded with extras. Yes, there are some documentaries and other features previously found on other releases that do not show up again here, but given all that is present for this release, there is nothing to be up in arms about. There’s an excellent collection of special features here.

Features Include:

Disc One:

  • Commentary One – Features Romero, producer/actor Karl Hardman, actress Marilyn Eastman and co-writer John Russo. Recorded in 1994 and is full of great information if you haven’t heard it before.
  • Commentary Two – Features producer/actor Russell Streiner, production manager Vincent Survinski, and actors Judith O’Dea, S. William Hinzman, Kyra Schon, and Keith Wayne. Also recorded in 1994 and between the two commentary tracks, any fan will get plenty they want to know about the making of the film.
  • Night of Anubis (SD, 1:26:00) – An uncorrected 16mm workprint of Night of the Living Dead, presented with the original working title. This is an interesting watch, as it has only one significant cut from the film, but the slim approach shows what Romero and his team were working towards in making the most efficient movie they could.
    • Introduction (HD, 8:00) – Producer/Actor Russell Streiner explains what this cut was for.

Disc Two:

  • Light in the Darkness (HD, 23:41) – This excellent new featurette finds directors Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Frank Darabont separately explaining what makes Night of the Living Dead the classic film that it is and how it has impacted the horror genre.
  • Dailies (SD, 19:00) – An uncorrected, silent 16mm reel of never-before-seen footage and alternate takes not used in the film.
    • Introduction (HD, 4:00) – Streiner provides some context.
  • Learning From Scratch (HD, 12:00) – Co-writer John Russo discusses how he became involved with the film, his observations concerning the production, and more.
  • TV Newsreel (SD, 3:00) – Silent B-roll film shot for the sake of Pittsburgh’s news broadcast to be used for the film. Features music by Jeff Carney.
  • Walking Like the Dead (HD, 14:00) – A 2009 interview piece, featuring ten actors that played zombies in the film.
  • Tones of Terror (HD, 12:00) – Producer Jim Cirronella discusses the use of stock music featured in the film.
  • Limitations Into Virtues (HD, 12:00) – A visual essay with filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos that goes over the difficulties of the production.
  • Tomorrow (SD, 19:00) – An archival episode of NBC’s Tomorrow, where Romero and director Don Coscarelli discuss the state of horror then. Originally broadcast on July 3, 1979.
  • Higher Learning (HD, 46:00) – An archival interview from 2012 with director George A. Romero. Recorded at the Toronto International Film Festival. He goes over production history, the distribution process, and supposed myths about the film.
  • Duane Jones (HD, 22:00) – An archival audio interview with the film’s star from 1987. He discusses what came from the film’s success and his distance from it.
  • Judith Ridley (SD, 11:00) – A 1994 interview with the actress, featuring her anecdotes about the production.
  • Venus Probe (SD, 1:00, 11:00) – Actual newsreel details from 1967 that detail the findings of the Mariner 5 spacecraft and would inspire the film in some ways.
  • Trailers
    • Trailer One (SD, 2:00) – Vintage trailer.
    • Trailer Two (HD, 2:00) – 4K restoration trailer.
  • Radio Spots (HD) – A collection of vintage radio ads.

PLUS – A poster/essay by critic Stuart Klawans

 

Summary:

Night of the Living Dead is a spectacular release from The Criterion Collection and a must-have for any film lover and movie collector. Even if you are not huge on horror films, there is so much going on in Romero’s classic that it hardly feels like an issue. The film holds up as well today as ever, and the new restoration is phenomenal. This is the best-looking and sounding version of the film, and that’s not about to be undone. Plus! The bevy of special features is terrific as well. So much to go through and enjoy in this set. Easily a favorite release for 2018 and one that many will surely enjoy.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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