Night of the Living Dead [DVD]
Screenplay : John Russo and George A. Romero
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1968
Stars : Duane Jones (Ben), Judith O'Dea (Barbara), Karl Hardman (Harry), Marilyn Eastman (Helen), Keith Wayne (Tom), Judith Ridley (Judy)
Night of the Living Dead reinvented the American horror film. Prior to its release in 1968, horror movies were primarily filled with rubber monsters and tin-foil flying saucers, relegated to cheap drive-in theaters where the only people who watched them were teenagers more interested in their dates than what was on the movie screen.
Night of the Living Dead changed all that. George A. Romero's black-and-white zombie flick caught the country by storm with its intense, claustrophobic horror, graphic violence, and documentary-like aesthetic. Perhaps it was just the right time. America in 1968 was being torn apart by street crime, social uprisings, political assassinations, and stark images of the Vietnam war on the living room television screen. Maybe there was something about Night of the Living Dead's vision of a world gone insane that simply struck a chord with discontented viewers. Whatever is was, this was a film that, in every sense of the word, was a landmark. According to director John Carpenter, who would set his own horror landmark 10 years later with Halloween (1978), Romero "made the horror movie something to contend with."
The plotline of Night of the Living Dead is deceptively simple. It takes place over one night where a group of people have taken refuge in an isolated farmhouse because the recently deceased have mysteriously come back to life as zombies that hunt for human flesh. Romero and co-screenwriter John Russo imagine the farmhouse as a kind of microcosm of human existence, and they create realistic and moving human dilemmas among the various characters that, ironically, sometimes overshadow the ever-looming presence of the bloodthirsty ghouls outside.
However, if that were all the movie had, it would be an effective, but simplistic cinematic exercise. But, despite a limited budget, Romero and Russo were more ambitious. They wanted to depict the entire world being slowly overtaken by ghouls, so they utilized the best possible representation that was cheap and satirically effective: the mass media.
All throughout Night of the Living Dead, the action in and around the farmhouse is put into context by radio reports and television newscasts that tell both the movie's characters and the audience what is going on in the world at large. From initial, vague radio reports about "unknown assassins," to television news coverage of government officials making meaningless statements like "Everything is being done that can be done," to footage of local hunters and police arming themselves to hunt down the ghouls, Night of the Living Dead heightens the realism of the situation by evoking a media-saturated society trying to cope with the ultimate news story.
Much has been written about Night of the Living Dead over the last three decades, about both its horrific potency and its social meaning. What makes the film such a stark masterpiece is that it is so effective on both levels, as a physical, gut-wrenching horror film that left little to the imagination (early audiences were appalled--and fascinated--by the scenes of ghouls eagerly feasting on charred human intestines) and as a social metaphor. The screenplay was taken from an unpublished short story Romero had written called "Anubis," so-named after the Egyptian god of the dead. The story was written in three main parts, which eventually became Romero's zombie trilogy (Night was part one, followed by the even more ambitious Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and Day of the Dead in 1985).
Romero's original story was intended as an allegory about the process of a new, revolutionary society overtaking an old, established order (which is exactly what people feared was happening the late '60s), and it is easy to see why such a interpretation might be read into the film. One of the reasons the movie works so well is that it is envisioned with such single-minded clarity. When the movie comes to its sickly ironic ending that leaves nothing resolved, it is hard to imagine the events depicted in the movie happening any other way. From the frightened, bickering reactions of individual characters, to the panicked mobilization of the government, Night of the Living Dead is a perfect distillation of a society under siege.
However, while I would maintain that the allegorical meaning of Night of the Living Dead is important and worthwhile, in the end, this is primarily a horror film that frightens. By trapping the characters early in the movie and forcing them to work together against an impenetrable force, Romero and Russo create a horrifying human dilemma that has no escape. It is the inevitability of the scenario that makes the movie so engrossing. You know these poor people are doomed, but you root for them anyway. Even if some of them are not particularly pleasant people, you are on their side because they represent individualistic humanity versus mindless conformism (well, there I go again, reading the movie as metaphor).
Suffice it to say, Night of the Living Dead is gory, it's scary, and it's one of the most unrelenting, effective horror films ever made.
|Night of the Living Dead Millennium Edition DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 surround|
Dolby 1.0 monaural
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director George A. Romero, cowriter John Russo, coproducer/make-up artist Karl Hardman, and actress Marilyn Eastman|
Audio commentary by coproducer Russell Streiner, production designer Vince Survinski, and actors Bill Hinzman, Judith O'Dea, Keith Wayne, and Krya Schon
Original theatrical trailer
Original treatment and script
Personal scrapbooks and memorabilia
Night of the Living Bread short-film parody
Audio interview with actor Duane Jones
Video interview with actress Judith Ridley
Beginnings: The Latent Image/Hardman Eastman Studios
Scenes from There's Always Vanilla
There's Always Vanilla theatrical posters and stills
Liner notes by George A. Romero and Stephen King
|Release Date||March 12, 2002|
| Night of the Living Dead has been released in so many DVD editions at this point that I have lost count (I believe there are seven or eight total). The best one to date has been Elite Entertainment's Special Collector's Edition, which was released in late 1999. Now, barely two years later, Elite has released Night of the Living Dead as the first entry in its new Millennium Edition series (in which a two-disc Re-Animator set will be the next entry). |
The 1999 Special Collector's Edition featured a THX-certified transfer from the original negative, and back then I wrote:
When it was first released theatrically in 1968, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, in his typically snooty manner, declared that Night of the Living Dead was a "grainy little movie" that looked like it was shot on "20-year-old Army stock." Well, Crowther may not have liked the movie, but he would have to retract his criticism of the way the movie looks if he saw the glorious new transfer in Elite Entertainment's new special edition DVD. The THX-certified transfer was from the film's original negatives, and it looks great. Simply put, this is the best I've ever seen this movie look, and I've seen it in just about format imaginable: on TV, on videotape, on laser disc, on 16-mm film, and even in Ted Turner's horrifying colorized version.
For the most part, my comments still stand because the transfer on this new DVD is the same one that was used two years ago. However, it has been newly certified by THX, which, according to Elite president Vini Bancalari, "meant a few tweaks to meet their newer specs." In addition, while the 1999 DVD was single layer, the Millennium Edition is dual layer, which allowed for encoding at a higher bit rate, resulting a slightly better image that those with the truly high-end equipment will be able to appreciate.
|In addition to the tweaked transfer, Elite has packaged the Millennium Edition with a brand-new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack (the original monaural soundtrack is also included, so soundtrack purists need not worry). As with all monaural-to-multichannel remixes, there is only so much that can be done given the limitations of the original source materials. But, Elite should be commended for having done a nice job here, opening up the memorable musical score (especially those creepy reverberations that swell back and forth during the opening credits) and expanding the sound effects into the surround channels.|
| The major benefit of the Millennium Edition is the expansion of the supplements. Everything included on the 1999 Special Collector's Edition has been ported over, and quite a bit of new stuff has been added. |
From the earlier disc, we have two audio commentaries, the first by director George A. Romero, cowriter John Russo, coproducer/make-up artist Karl Hardman, and actress Marilyn Eastman, while the second features coproducer Russell Streiner, production designer Vince Survinski, and actors Bill Hinzman, Judith O'Dea, Keith Wayne, and Krya Schon. As I noted two years ago,
The commentaries are laid-back and informative; they sound like Romero and Co. are simply sitting around on a couch sharing anecdotes while they watch the movie. Sometimes they talk over each other and sometimes they debate the validity of certain memories, but it adds to the overall relaxed feeling. Sometimes the commentaries get off-track, but the two of them together shed a great deal of light on the process by which this unique, memorable, and influential movie was made.
Also held over from the earlier disc is Kevin S. O'Brien's amusing 1990 short-film parody Night of the Living Bread (in which killer slices of bread replace the zombies) and the original theatrical trailer (a TV spot has been added, as well).
Now, on to the new stuff ...
A large section of new supplementary material revolves around the history of Latent Image, Romero's first production company, and Hardman/Eastman Studios, a Pittsburgh-based production company that coproduced Night of the Living Dead. This section of the disc includes "About the Studios," a written summary of Latent Image's beginnings (although, oddly enough, Hardman/Eastman is never mentioned); eight Romero-directed commercials produced through Latent Image (only four of these were included on the Special Collector's Edition DVD); about one and a half minutes of silent black-and-white outtakes from The Derelict, a short film produced by Hardman/Eastman; and "Breaking Out of Commercials: About Image Ten," a written summary of how Romero and company moved out of commercials to form Image Ten and make Night of the Living Dead (here we finally get a history of Hardman/Eastman, which should have been included in the "About the Studios" section).
Another notable addition to this DVD is the inclusion of archival elements, including the original treatment and the entire original script for Night of the Living Dead, along with excerpts from cowriter John Russo's book, The Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook. Most impressive is an extensive--and I mean extensive--section of still images of letters, telegrams, behind-the-scenes photographs, production stills, newspaper articles and reviews, props, international poster art, and other memorabilia collected by production designer Vince Survinski and actress Marilyn Eastman. This is the kind of stuff that fans rarely get to see, and it is real treasure trove of archival goodies, from letters questioning Miller Brewing Company's potential copyright infringement on Night of the Living Dead in one of their commercials, to the original typewritten budget breakdown.
The new supplements continue with two interviews. The first is a 16-minute audio-only interview with star Duane Jones, who, unlike just about everyone else associated with Night of the Living Dead, spent most of his life trying to distance himself from the movie, not because he was ashamed of his having participated in it, but because he wanted to move on and be known for other things, as well. Unfortunately, no information is given as to who conducted the interview or when it took place (although references to the film's 20th anniversary suggest that it was conducted some time in 1988, the same year Jones died). The second is a 10-minute video interview with actress Judith Ridley. Again, there is no reference to the time or place of the interview.
Another interesting inclusion is roughly five minutes of footage from George A. Romero's follow-up to Night of the Living Dead, a counterculture drama called There's Always Vanilla, which was an utter disaster when released in 1972. Shot in 16mm on color film stock, the fleeting moments included here look scattered and pretentious, and it's little wonder that the film did so poorly (as far as I know, it is currently unavailable on home video and hasn't been seen by anyone in years, hence why it is often referred to as Romero's "lost film"). Included along with the footage is a still image of the film's one-sheet and six lobby cards.
Copyright © 1999, 2002 James Kendrick