DirectorGeorge A. Romero
Release Date(s)1968 (February 13, 2018)
Studio(s)Walter Reade Organization/Continental Distributing/Janus Films (Criterion – Spine #909)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: A+
Night of the Living Dead is, unquestionably, one of the most important horror films ever made, and more so, one of the most important independent films ever made. While George A. Romero was initially reticent to return to the genre upon the film’s unexpected success, he thankfully did, making more films in the Dead series, as well as other genre ventures. However, for certain fans and critics, Night of the Living Dead is George at his purest. A simple story about zombies (or ghouls as they were then known) coming back to life and surrounding a farmhouse full of mixed personalities also served as a metaphor for human society, up to and including its gut punch of an ending. Eventually, Night of the Living Dead transformed into a full-blown sociopolitical statement masquerading as a horror film, but from a small, local group of amateur filmmakers.
By modern standards, Night of the Living Dead is somewhat tame compared to what the zombie film and TV landscape ultimately became. But, for an 8-year-old who popped in a Media Home Entertainment VHS copy of the film, consequently having the wits scared out of him, I can safely say that the film affected me in a deep, personal way, as it did many others. The inability of the film’s human inhabitants to get along with each other and survive the night without being consumed is distressing, but not far from real life truth. Not everyone manages to get along during a crisis, especially one in which they must work together closely. In this way, Night of the Living Dead serves an allegorical purpose as the outside force, in this case flesh-easting zombies, is eager to take us over and literally devour us piece by piece, but not before we devour each other in the interim.
Night of the Living Dead is also considered one of the original “midnight movies”, along with films like Eraserhead, El Topo, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, amongst others. While you can certainly poke holes in the performances and the low-tech nature of the special effects, there’s no denying how effective the film is in front of an audience. George would go on to soften the initial concept a little in Dawn of the Dead (subsequently reversing that softness in Day of the Dead), but Night of the Living Dead stands as an example of a fledgling filmmaker with something on his mind that was fully capable of realizing it in both an artistic and commercial way outside of the Hollywood system.
A very long and overdue edition of the film on home video, which for years has been plagued with a variety of bottom-of-the-barrel VHS and DVD releases (only occasionally getting decent treatment through companies like Elite Entertainment), the Criterion Collection welcomes the film into their catalogue with open arms and loving care. This release contains a brand new 4K digital restoration of the film from the original 35mm camera negative, also substituting certain pieces that couldn’t be utilized with scans from a 1968 35mm fine grain print. This restoration was carried out by the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, and was personally supervised by George (before his passing), co-writer John Russo, sound engineer Gary Streiner, and producer Russell Streiner. There’s no disputing this: Criterion’s presentation of the film is the best the film has ever looked on home video, likely even during its original theatrical and drive-in run. It features thoroughly even and well-resolved grain, revealing high levels of fine detail previously hidden in substandard, murky home video presentations. It’s incredibly organic and film-like with deep, inky blacks, perfect grayscale, and top of the line contrast and brightness levels. It’s also entirely stable and clean, leaving behind no film damage of any kind.* In other words, this is a crisp, beautiful transfer. The audio is of the same caliber, which is featured in the film’s original uncompressed English mono soundtrack with optional subtitles in English SDH. This track was also supervised by Romero and Gary Streiner. It’s an obviously narrow but extremely clean soundtrack with excellent dialogue reproduction and well-separated score and sound effects, leaving no leftover distortions. It’s also much clearer and cleaner than ever before with very good ambient activity, but no major hiss, crackle, or dropout issues whatsoever.
For the extras selection, Criterion has done themselves proud. Not only does it draw upon many of the film’s previous Laserdisc and DVD releases, but they have also included previously-thought lost material as well. On Disc One, which contains the film itself, there are two audio commentary options, both from 1994. One features Romero, co-writer/producer Karl Hardman, actor Marilyn Eastman, and co-writer John Russo. The other features producer/actor Russell Streiner, production manager Vincent Survinski, and actors Judith O’Dea, S. William Hinzman, Kyra Schon, and Keith Wayne. Also included is the never-before-seen Night of Anubis, which is a 16mm workprint of the film, featuring an alternate opening title and a day-for-night ghoul shot that wound up being removed. While it’s missing its second reel and is full of damage due to tape and cement splices on every cut (not to mention being presented with unrestored sound), it’s a fascinating artifact that gives us a minor peek behind the curtain at how close the film was to its final version, even in this form. To compliment this is Hands-on-Horror: The Night of Anubis Workprint, which is an introduction to this version by Russell Streiner.
On Disc Two, the bulk of the extra material can be found. This includes Light in the Darkness, a new video piece featuring filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez discussing the importance of the film and its influence; yet another revelation, which is a set of silent 16mm dailies from the film, including some alternate takes, with an introduction by sound engineer Gary Streiner; Learning from Scratch: The Latent Image and Night of the Living Dead, an interview with co-writer John Russo about the early days of the company and his experiences on the film; a VHS recording of silent, B-roll 16mm film shot for Pittsburgh broadcast news, which was saved by newscaster and actor Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, and is the only behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the film known to exist; Walking Like the Dead, a set of interviews that were shot for the 2009 documentary Autopsy of the Dead with cast and crew members Ella Mae Smith, Charles Craig, Lee Hartman, Herbert Summer, William Mogush, Dave James, Regis Survinski, William Burchinal, Kyra Schon, and S. William Hinzman; Tones of Terror: The Night of the Living Dead Score video essay narrated by Jim Cirronella, which delves into the film’s use of library music; Limitations Into Virtues: The Image Ten Style, an excellent video essay by filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos from “Every Frame a Painting”; excerpts from the 1979 episode of Tomorrow with Tom Snyder featuring an interview with George and Don Coscarelli about the state of horror films at the time; George A. Romero: Higher Learning, a discussion about the film from a 2012 Toronto International Film Festival event, hosted and moderated by Colin Geddes; a previously available but extended 22-minute audio interview with Duane Jones that took place in 1987 and was conducted by journalist Tim Ferrante; an interview with Judith Riley that was produced by Elite Entertainment in 1994; a brief snippet of a 1967 newsreel detailing the real-life findings of the Mariner 5 Venus probe spacecraft in Venus’ atmosphere which prefigures the radiation-contaminated satellite that causes the dead to rise in the film; the original theatrical trailer from 1967, as well as the 2017 Janus Films trailer; 2 TV spots, one lasting 20 seconds and the other lasting 60 seconds; 5 radio spots, one lasting 30 seconds and one lasting 60 seconds (both from 1968), and 3 from a 1970 re-release of the film; and last but not least, a fold-out paper insert with a poster on one side and the film essay “Mere Anarchy is Loosed” by critic Stuart Klawans on the other side, as well as restoration details.
Obviously Criterion was not able to license every piece of extra material from the film’s previous home video releases, but there are some notable absences. Missing from the Elite Entertainment Millenium Edition Laserdisc and DVD releases is the film’s original script, all of the Latent Image commercials, an outtake from The Derelict featuring Karl Hardman, the parody film Night of the Living Bread, and an insert which contains liner notes by Stephen King. This release also contained a variety of stills from the production itself, advertising, posters, and props, but some of them (along with the commercials) are used in Criterion’s various video essays, featurettes, and interviews. Also missing from the Dimension/Genius Products DVD release is the long-form documentary One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead; Speak to the Dead, a Q&A with George A. Romero from 2007 at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, Canada, hosted by Stuart Andrews of Rue Morgue Radio; and an additional still gallery. Missing from the Umbrella Entertainment Blu-ray release is the Reflections of the Living Dead 80-minute documentary. Just for posterity, all of the extras from the fairly useless 1998 30th Anniversary DVD release which primarily apply to that version of the film and not the original aren’t included either (which is for the best). There’s also various DVD and Blu-ray releases from all over the world that seem to contain some exclusive extras, including other additional featurettes, and in one instance, a CD soundtrack. Also not present (whether it actually exists or not is up for speculation), but for several years, around 15 minutes worth of additional footage that was ultimately cut from the film was said to have been found. However, I personally believe that wound up being the dailies footage that’s been included in this new release. Regardless, if you own any previous releases with any of these extras, it might be good to hang onto them if you’re a fan and want absolutely everything.
It’s kind of remarkable that a group of people who primarily made commercials for a living were able to pull off a film that, not only worked, but changed a part of the horror film landscape in general. Night of the Living Dead isn’t a flawless film by any stretch of the imagination, but it has inspired many of us throughout our lives, whether we make films, write about them, or simply watch them. Sorely in need of royal treatment on home video for years, Criterion’s release is a home run if ever there was one. It’s one of the year’s best releases by far, and it comes highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons