Review Date: April 1, 2002
Released by: Elite Entertainment
Release date: 3/12/2002
Region 1, NTSC
Full Frame 1.33:1
The late 1960s were one of the most tumultuous times in American history. Civil rights was the issue at home, and the escalating war in Vietnam had our attention abroad. One might even argue that the country changed more in those few years than in the war for independence nearly 200 years prior. Artistically, movies and music reflected the rapidly changing society and political landscape as well. The watershed horror film of the times was George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, as it clearly was the link between the innocuous fright films seen previously and the dark and brutal films that became popular in the 1970s. Long considered a "murky and grainy" low-budget drive-in film, Elite Entertainment shocked the world in 1994 with a laserdisc release struck from original 35mm masters, and showed just how gorgeous the visual presentation really was. On that laserdisc was an unprecedented array of extra material, but not all of those extras made it to the first DVD Elite produced of the film. They've changed that with this "Millenium Edition", which finally lets the millions of DVD owners learn everything there is to know about a dark night in Western Pennsylvania. A night…of the living dead.
Is there anyone who's never seen this movie?
Johnny and Barbra (Russell Streiner, Judith O'Dea) are visiting their father's grave, when things take a horrifying turn: A lumbering figure attacks the duo, killing Johnny. Barbra runs for safety, finally managing to reach a remote farmhouse, seemingly uninhabited. Soon arriving at the house is Ben (Duane Jones), who is also on the run from the bizarre creatures outside. Barbra is now pretty much useless, and it's up to Ben alone to board up the doors and windows.
They learn that the creatures are actually dead human beings, reanimated by some unknown force (A recently returned space probe to Venus is suspected), and with a taste for live human flesh. They also learn that they are not alone; up from the basement come the Coopers (Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman) and a young couple (Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley).
What soon ensues is a power struggle with Ben and Mr. Cooper, and how best to fight off the zombies and survive the night. Should they stay upstairs or barricade themselves in the basement? Maybe they should even try to make a run for it. What is very clear however, is that the real monsters may not even be the ones outside the house.
Night of the Living Dead was (and still is) a classic horror film, easily one of the top 10 (or even 5) ever made. Even more amazing is that this was not a big budget extravaganza produced by the best writers and filmmakers Hollywood could find. Instead, it was a small group of dedicated men and women from Pittsburgh PA (who were very professional filmmakers) with what little money they could scrape together, and they were able to produce an intelligent, entertaining, coherent, and thought-provoking film. While most of the cast and crew went back to their previous careers after this movie, George Romero became well respected in the film industry. Many of Romero's subsequent films (Dawn of the Dead, Martin, and Creepshow) are genre classics as well.
Night often gets a bad rap as a "low-budget shocker." While that's technically true, more heart and soul went into this film than almost any film produced even to this day. It's too bad that the limited funds used to make Night are so often cited. Yes, it was not uncommon to have low-budget horror films in the day, but many of those films were amateurishly made with little regard for quality filmmaking. Romero and his associates were well versed in film techniques, at least in terms of making commercials. While this does not automatically qualify one to make feature-length films, the editing and cinematography of Night of the Living Dead clearly shows the work of people who know their way around a movie camera.
Also commonly mentioned about this film is its shocking and graphic violence. OK, it may be tame by today's standards, but it really is tough to find a film this violent made before 1968. Herschell Gordon Lewis literally made a career out of his early 60s gore fests, but those films are also quite hilarious, and in no way were meant to be taken seriously. Night of the Living Dead takes away the giant rubber monsters, the wacky mad scientists, and charismatic vampires that so dominated the first fifty years of horror. Here we have horrible zombies who cannot be tamed or reasoned with. And we rarely get the feeling that somehow, our plucky heroes will live to see the end of the film. Overall, there's a feeling of dread and pessimism, and we wonder not IF the zombies will make a meal out of the cast, but rather WHEN.
Not only did Romero & Co. work so well within the genre, they were just as talented outside the context of the horror film. Here, they used an old filmmaker's technique: Make a genre film (in this case horror) that will automatically draw a decent crowd by its very nature, yet slyly slip in drama and social commentary. An interesting film to compare to is John Ford's Stagecoach, in which he used the framework of the typical Western, yet created three-dimensional characters as well as biting commentary on the institutions they represented. Romero does a similar thing here. Night of the Living Dead is really a tense drama in a farmhouse, and the zombies are merely a prop to keep the characters trapped in that inescapable situation. How these characters react to the situation is the central focus of the film, and what separates it from typical horror fare.
Often discussed about this film is the unique casting of a black man as the central figure in an otherwise all-white cast. Romero and Russo will tell you that there is no significance to that; Duane Jones was simply the best actor who auditioned. To back that up further, they will point out that there is no reference made to Ben's skin color, as it didn't exist in the script when individually written. Now, while I believe all of that, I still contend that when you cast a young black actor as an adversary of an older white man in 1968, you're making racial commentary whether you intend to or not! One has to consider the time when this film was made, where race riots and demonstrations were an everyday occurrence. Martin Luther King would be assassinated not long after the film was completed, so there was obvious racial tension at the time. The way Mr. Cooper is so antagonistic towards Ben may have only been character driven, but his actions are remarkably representative of the attitudes many ignorant white people harbored in 1968. While Romero may have been colorblind during casting, America certainly was not. The fact that this film mirrors the difficult race relations in the 60s may have been purely coincidental as the makers contend, but they also should remember that they were actually living through this time period. They were not reading about it in history books, and their real-life views definitely show up on screen, consciously or not.
But of course, even with all the genre-busting and social commentary, Night of the Living Dead is still a fun horror movie at it's basic core. The flesh-eating zombies became a mainstay of fright films, and we still see obvious nods to this film quite often. Watch it by yourself late at night, and you'll still feel an unease as those final credits roll.
Night of the Living Dead is transferred here it it's standard 1.33:1 ratio. There is no anamorphic enhancement, but quite obviously, none is actually needed. Now, I've never seen the original Elite DVD, but I did do a side-by-side comparison with the Elite Special Edition laserdisc. Simply put, the differences between the two are practically non-existent. The DVD only offered slightly more detail, and for that you really have to look close. My guess is that both DVDs and the LD were struck from the same master, thus those with older disc versions will not notice much (if any) improvement on those already wonderful transfers.
For those who have never seen Night of the Living Dead on any of its previous disc releases, shame on you. This is required viewing for horror fans, and everyone has probably suffered through one of the multitude of poor transfers of this film. This is nothing short of a revelation. Night was originally filmed on high-quality 35mm stock, but almost immediately transferred to low-quality 16mm prints. Here we see it as it was originally shot, and it's likely that no audiences ever saw a print that looked this good. The detail is amazing. Aside from the black-and-white photography and obvious 60s styles, you could almost think this film was made present-day, not more than 30 years ago. While color is obviously not an issue, contrast and black level is critical, and this disc does a fantastic job with both. Again though, it seems very similar to the older Elite releases, so many already know what to expect.
The audio track here gives us something new: a Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix. Even though previous releases were THX approved, they were mono mixes. I was a little worried with the 5.1, as it could easily be artificially "enhanced" with sound effects that were never intended. Didn't anyone learn from the hideous colorized version or the "added scenes" version that you don't try to modernize this film? Well, I'm happy to say that the 5.1 mix adds subtle effects without altering the original intent. It's mostly the music that is moved to other speakers, creating a more enveloping feel. Most of the dialogue and sound effects are still confined to the center speaker, and thus does not have an adverse or revisionist effect on the film. But for the purists out there, the original mono mix has been included as well. Both sound mixes are clean, with no distortion or noise.
Holdouts from the laserdisc era have always treasured the special edition of Night of the Living Dead produced by Elite Entertainment in 1994. It carried a hefty price tag of $89.95, but it contained a wealth of supplements that wouldn't appear on the DVD Elite released a few years later. Well, Elite has finally righted that wrong, and given fans the extra features (well, most of them) that were previously only available on the outmoded 12-inch format.
The audio commentaries that were originally on the old laserdisc and DVD are included here again. The first one is the better one, as it features director Romero, writer Russo, producer/actor Karl Hardman, and actress Marilyn Eastman. The commentary is fun, insightful, and informative, everything an audio commentary should be. We get details of the inception of the film, technical talk, anecdotes, and the obligatory discussion of the racial aspect of the film.
The second commentary is a little duller. It's cast members Judith O'Dea, Russell Streiner, Kyra Schon, Keith Wayne, Bill Hinzman, and production director Vince Survinski. Maybe it's too many cooks spoiling the broth, but it's just not as informative as the main commentary. Judith O'Dea does dominate much of the talk (perhaps to make up for her mostly silent performance in the film), and while it's interesting to listen to once, it really does lack the insight one might hope for.
Several other tidbits from the previous DVD show up here like the trailers ("Night!…..of the Living Dead"), and the parody short film Night of the Living Bread. That parody does show love for the original film, but it ceases to be amusing a few minutes in.
But now we get to the stuff that only laserdisc owners have seen before. Judith Ridley and Duane Jones, the two cast members who didn't participate in the commentary are interviewed. Ridley talks with Marilyn Eastman about her brief acting career, and how she got the role in the first place. The Jones interview is audio only, and is the last interview he ever did, as he died in 1988. It's extremely fascinating, as while he never regretted acting in Night of the Living Dead, he never tried to capitalize on its success either. Well worth the price of the disc.
Romero and Russo made a film not long after Night, entitled There's Always Vanilla (or The Affair). Here we get a couple of short scenes with Judith Ridley (credited as Judith Streiner after marrying Night producer/actor Russell Streiner). I'm not sure I'll ever need to see the full-length version of this film, but one has to wonder if Romero would have avoided making horror films in the future had Vanilla been successful. Some of Romero's pre-Night of the Living Dead material is included as well. In this case it's some of the commercials he made with The Latent Image, a company that he and Karl Hardman founded.
The rest of the "new" supplements are all of the still variety, but just as interesting. The entire script is included, and while I have not read the entire thing, I definitely would like to someday. In their commentary, Romero and Russo allude to changes made to the script upon the hiring of Duane Jones. They actually softened the character to fit Jones' mellow personality. The other stills galleries are shots of memorabilia and actual film props. There are T-shirts, posters, and Night of the Living Dead pet food(!). Several interesting things pop up here like the original film proposal with detailed budget listings.
But here I have to mention something that seems to be missing: The extensive (nearly 400) stills gallery that appeared on the laserdisc. This may be an oversight, as the gallery is listed on the back of the packaging, yet I was unable to find it. Either it's a sort-of Easter Egg, or there may be a recall from Elite in the near future. I suggest those who buy the disc keep an eye out for any announcements from Elite.
Now, with all of these new supplements, one must wonder whether or not to upgrade to this disc. For those without a copy, or the older DVD, I'd definitely recommend this "Millenium Edition." However, those who have the extensive LD may only want this if they're planning on converting all their LDs to DVD. The supplements and quality are exactly the same, and since stills galleries are much easier to navigate on CAV LDs, one can surf the extras on the LD a little better. Those who only own DVD players have a very simple choice: Buy this DVD!
I still love laserdisc. And I'll admit to feeling a bit boastful when I can watch a movie on LD that hasn't made it to DVD yet (original Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies) or view supplements not available anywhere else (The Frighteners, Dawn of the Dead, Halloween). But I'm not naïve. Laserdisc is simply a dead format, as no one is producing players or discs anymore. It's quite obvious that DVD is the way to go in the future, yet several studios still refuse to release certain films or extra content that were only available on an older format.. With this release of Night of the Living Dead, Elite has finally made a great edition available to a wide audience, where previously it was only a small niche that had access. This decision makes so much business sense, it's amazing that it even has to be discussed. So while this edition does give us old laser-heads a little less reason to brag, the special features that took so much time and money to produce will see a much wider audience than ever before. For DVD owners, this is the definitive version of Night of the Living Dead, and I can't imagine anything more that needs to be done with this all-time classic film.
Movie - A+
Image Quality - A+
Sound - A
Supplements - A
- Running Time - 1 hour 36 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- THX Dolby Digital 5.1
- Original Mono Soundtrack
- Trailers/TV Spots
- Dual Commentary Tracks featuring creator/director George A. Romero and the entire cast
- Film Parody "Night of the Living Bread"
- The history of Romero's company - The Latent Image
- Scenes from the "lost" Romero film , "There's Always Vanilla"
- Video interview with Judith Ridley
- Final interview with Duane Jones
- Foreign and Domestic posters and collectibles
- Original props
- The entire original shooting script
- Cast members' personal scrapbooks
- Romero-directed TV spots and short films