Thu, 28 Jan 2021

Night of the Living Dead

Director: George A. Romero
Screenplay: John Russo and George A. Romero
Stars: Duane Jones (Ben), Judith O'Dea (Barbara), Karl Hardman (Harry), Marilyn Eastman (Helen), Keith Wayne (Tom), Judith Ridley (Judy)

MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1968
Country: U.S.
Night of the Living Dead Criterion Collection Blu-ray

They're coming to get you, Barbara.

Night of the Living Dead, a shoe-string independent movie produced outside of Pittsburgh by a group of filmmakers who had previously specialized in television commercials and industrial films, fundamentally reinvented the American horror film. Prior to its release in 1968, horror and science fiction movies were primarily filled with rubber monsters, lazy Psycho-imitation psychos, 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 film about the horrors of consumption both literal and figurative caught the country by storm with its claustrophobic intensity, graphic violence, and documentary-like aesthetic. Perhaps it was just the right film at 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, unsettled, and fearful viewers. The lumbering, ravenous, reanimated dead were a ready-made metaphor for virtually everything that was scary, whether it be the dissolution of the family, the perils of consumerism, or the simple idea of being overwhelmed by the pressures of everyday life. Whatever it was (and I would submit it was all of that and more), Night of the Living Dead was, 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 plot is deceptively simple. It takes place over one night and follows a group of disparate people who have taken refuge in an isolated farmhouse because the recently deceased have mysteriously come back to life as lumbering 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. All throughout the film, the action in and around the farmhouse is put into context by radio reports and television newscasts that tell both the characters and the viewer 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 its already intense sense realism by evoking a media-saturated society trying to cope with the ultimate news story.

In casting the lead role, Romero made the then-risky decision of choosing a black actor, Duane Jones, who was put in a place of consistent power and authority over the white characters around him. Jones's Ben is not only the most level-headed and leadership-capable member of the group, but he constantly undermines Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), a loud, boorish white patriarch who is clearly used to running the show. Although race is never explicitly mentioned, the seething stares that Harry throws at Ben suggest quite clearly that his angers derives not only from being constantly shown that he is wrong, but being shown up-both intellectually and physically-by a capable black man. Romero has given conflicting accounts over the years of how Duane Jones came to be cast in the lead-at some points he has said that Jones was simply the best actor for the role, and at other points he has said he was trying to be purposefully subversive of the old racist social order-but the effect on the film is both clear and powerful, giving it a palpable undercurrent of racial tension that comes to a head in the film's brutal final moments when order is technically reasserted, but in a grim, fanatical, possibly regressive manner. The horror is both visceral and social.

Night of the Living Dead is a fascinating exercise in style, in that it was made on an extremely low budget by a group of filmmakers who had never made a feature-length film, much less a horror film. However, they had spent years honing their craft producing commercials and industrial films, and many of the techniques they used to maintain visual interest and excitement in those formats translated quite impressively to generating and then maintaining a consistent state of suspense and tension in the film. The use of jagged expressionist shadow, low angles, constant cutting on motion, and a mix of traditional locked-down camera placement and documentary-style handheld camerawork keeps the film visual intriguing and emotionally engaging; there may have been little money to spend, but Romero and company were clearly invested in making the film look as good as possible. The same could be said for the soundtrack, which is composed entirely of prerecorded music cues from Capitol Library Services' Hi-Q music library, some of which had been previously used in B-movies like Teenagers From Outer Space (1959). Six different composers contributed cues, although the majority of them came from either Spencer Moore, who composed ethereal, otherworldly electronic tones, or George Hormel, who contributed more conventional orchestrations. Romero's mix of the two disparate styles matches the film's mix of visual styles, adding additional credence to both the extensive thought that went into the film's overall feel and the filmmakers' willingness to take chances and experiment, which helps align the film more with '60s European art cinema than '50s American drive-in schlock (it is no wonder that the Museum of Modern Art in New York scheduled it as part of its Cineprobe series in 1969).

Much has been written about Night of the Living Deadover the past five decades (has it really been half a century already?), about both its horrific potency and its cultural and political significance. The film's various social implications should come as little surprise given that Romero grew up in the era of desegregation and the civil rights movement; he was an adolescent when Marlon Brando was threatening the squares in The Wild One, rock'n'roll was being invented, and American International Pictures was supplying a steady diet of teen-driven horror and science fiction schlock to drive-ins around the country. Romero and Russo were partially inspired by 1950s gory, shock-the-adults E.C. Comics titles like Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, which featured all manner of reanimated corpses, family members turning on each other, and viciously ironic narrative twists (not surprisingly, Romero went on to make 1982's Creepshow with Stephen King, an explicit homage to the horror comics of his childhood).

What makes the film such a stark masterpiece is its effectiveness on multiple levels, as a physical, gut-wrenching horror film that leaves little to the imagination (early audiences were appalled-and fascinated-by the scenes of ghouls eagerly feasting on charred human intestines and dismembered limbs) 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 initial 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 an interpretation might be read into the film. Night of the Living Dead works because it was envisioned with such single-minded clarity. 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; its sickly ironic ending, which leaves little resolved except the perpetuation of violence, is an disturbing capper that still rattles us to our core.

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 and unsettles. By trapping the characters early in the story 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 film 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 metaphor). Yet, this is precisely what elevates Romero's film above its many, many imitators that tried to emulate the visceral horror without the corresponding understanding of the complexities of human behavior and relationships. Suffice it to say, Night of the Living Dead is gory, it is scary, and it is one of the most unrelenting, effective, and socially meaningful horror films ever made.

Night of the Living Dead Criterion Collection Two-Disc Blu-ray Set
Aspect Ratio1.37:1

  • Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish

  • Night of Anubis, a never-before-presented work-print edit of the film

  • Video interviews with filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez
  • Never-before-seen 16 mm dailies reel
  • Video interview with co-writer John Russo on the commercial and industrial-film production company where key Night of the Living Dead filmmakers got their start
  • Audio commentary from 1994 by director George A. Romero, co-writer John Russo, co-producer/make-up artist Karl Hardman, and actress Marilyn Eastman
  • Audio commentary from 1994 by co-producer Russell Streiner, production designer Vince Survinski, and actors Bill Hinzman, Judith O'Dea, Keith Wayne, and Krya Schon
  • Archival interviews with Romero and actors Duane Jones and Judith Ridley
  • New programs about the film's style and score
  • New interview program about the direction of ghouls, featuring members of the cast and crew
  • Newsreel excerpt from 1967 about the Mariner-5 spacecraft
  • Trailers, radio spots, and TV spots
  • Essay by critic Stuart Klawans
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 13, 2018

    The new 4K digital restoration of Night of the Living Dead, which was supervised by director George A. Romero, co-screenwriter John A. Russo, sound engineer Gary R. Streiner, and producer Russell W. Streiner, marks a new high point in the film's long life on home video. Romero's gritty horror classic has endured all manner of mistreatment over the years, ranging from Ted Turner's embarrassing colorization in the late 1980s, to the endless stream of bargin-bin public-domain DVDs transferred from battered old prints. Attacks on the film's supposed lackluster visual quality actually date all the way back to its theatrical release in 1968, when the venerable New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther described it as a "grainy little movie" that looked like it was shot on "20-year-old Army stock."

    Crowther may not have liked the movie, but he would have to retract his criticism of the way the it looks if he saw Criterion's new high-definition presentation, which is certainly the best the film has ever looked on home video and probably looks better than it did when it was in theatrical circulation in the late 1960s. Criterion's transfer derives from the recent 4K restoration undertaken by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Foundation. The majority of the transfer was made from the original 35mm camera negative, although a tiny fraction (less than 1%) had to be taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive to replace parts of the negative that were damaged. The result is stunning, with strong, crisp detail, great contrast, and not a sign of wear or tear to be found. There is a slight presence of grain throughout, but not nearly as much as I expected, even in the darkest scenes. The transfer as a whole appears to my eye to be a tad darker than ones I've seen in the past (including Elite Entertainment's 2001 "Millennium Edition" DVD, which until now was pretty much the standard-setter), but it looks right.

    The soundtrack is presented in its original monaural mix and was transferred and restored from multiple sources, including the original quarter-inch mix masters, quarter-inch premix audio tape, a final composite 16mm magnetic track, and the 16mm magnetic mix units under Romero and Gary Streiner's supervision. Again, the results are superb, with a noticeably better depth, range, and sonic detail. It still has a slightly flat vibe that befits the film and its era, but even so I was struck anew by the power of the film's musical score (which, ironically, was compiled entirely from 10-year-old prerecorded stock music) and some of the more grisly sound effects.

    The supplements are a mix of the old and the new, but the fact that there is an entire Blu-ray dedicated to housing most of them should tell you just how stacked this edition it. Quick note, though: You should definitely hold onto your Elite "Millennium Edition" DVD if you have it because there are a lot of great supplements included there that did not make it over here, including a bunch of Romero-directed television commercials made for the Latent Image, the original treatment and the entire original script for the film, and an extensive section of letters, telegrams, behind-the-scenes photographs, production stills, newspaper articles and reviews, props, international poster art, and other memorabilia.

    However, a number of supplements from that disc have been ported over, including not one, but two audio commentaries that were originally recorded in 1994: the first by Romero, Russo, co-producer/make-up artist Karl Hardman, and actress Marilyn Eastman, while the second features co-producer Russell Streiner, production designer Vince Survinski, and actors Bill Hinzman, Judith O'Dea, Keith Wayne, and Krya Schon. Both commentaries are laid-back and informative; they sound like Romero and company 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 film was made. Also from the Elite DVD are two interviews: a 16-minute audio-only interview with star Duane Jones from 1987, although the version included here has additional content not previously heard; the second is a 10-minute video interview with actress Judith Ridley from 1994.

    The rest of the supplements are all new to Criterion's edition, and most of it is duly impressive stuff, starting with Night of Anubis, a never-before-presented 16mm work-print edit of the film that also comes with a video introduction by Russell Streiner. Now-don't get too excited here because, unlike a lot of work-prints, this is not a significantly longer version of the film; in fact, it clocks in 11 minutes shorter. The main differences are the title sequence and a day-for-night ghoul shot that was removed at the distributor's request. Otherwise, Night of Anubis is interesting primarily as a historical curiosity, a rough draft, if you will, of the masterpiece to follow. The transfer from the 16mm print is rough and representative of what a work-print at that time would look like.

    Also new is "Light in the Darkness," a 24-minute featurette in which filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez, all of whose careers have been affected by the film in various ways, discuss its historical importance and lasting influence on the horror genre. "Learning From Scratch" is a 12-minute interview with co-writer John A. Russo about the Latent Image, the Pittsburgh-based production company in which Romero, Russo, and Russ and Gary Streiner got their starts (clips from a number of the commercials they produced are included). There are also two new pieces about the film's style and score. In "Tones of Terror" (11 min.), producer Jim Cirronella explores the film's skillful use of 40+ prerecorded music cues from Capitol Library Services' Hi-Q music library, and in "Limitations Into Virtues" (12 min.), Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos elaborate on the specifics of the film's style, much of which was influenced by Romero's work in commercials. "Walking Like the Dead" (13 min.) is a fascinating set of interviews with 10 of the people who played ghouls that were originally shot for the 2009 documentary Autopsy of the Dead.

    From the archives we get 18 minutes of recently rediscovered 16mm raw footage mostly from a few scenes at the end of the film (they're in pretty good shape, but it is all silent-the sound element has been lost) with an introduction by Gary Streiner; 18 minutes of edited excerpts from a July 3, 1979, episode of NBC's Tomorrow in which host Tom Snyder talks with Romero and director Don Coscarelli, who were promoting Dawn of the Dead and Phantasm, respectively, about the horror genre; 45 minute of footage from a 2012 Toronto International Film Festival event in which host Colin Geddes moderates a discussion with Romero about the film; a brief excerpt from a 1967 newsreel about the Mariner-5 spacecraft's findings from Venus's radioactive atmosphere; 3 minutes of silent B-roll 16mm shot for Pittsburgh Broadcast News that is the only known behind-the-scenes footage (original music by Jeff Carney has been added and the transfer has been taken from a VHS copy); and trailers from 1968 and 2017, five radio spots, and two television spots.

    Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)


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