ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Night of the Living Dead (1968) Blu Ray (The Criterion Collection)
Attack of the zombies
This classic horror film opens as brother and sister Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) drive to the graveyard where their father’s soul rests. As they put the wreath on his gravestone a man is seen approaching from a distance. Johnny attempts to lighten the mood by joking that he is a member of the undead - out to get her. Unfortunately, he is proven all too right when the man turns out to be a blank-faced zombie who attacks his sister. When Johnny comes to her aid he successfully extricates her from its clutches - but ends up being killed in the process.
The panicked Barbra frantically runs for shelter, eventually coming across a seemingly empty farmhouse. However, as she wanders its eerily deserted rooms she struggles to regain her composure. As day turns to night, it becomes clear that there are far more of these zombies out there craving for a taste of human flesh.
After a while, a young black man named Ben (Duane Jones) arrives at the same house. He manages to secure it by using available pieces of wood and nails. To their surprise, they also discover that a number of other survivors have holed themselves up in the building’s basement. They manage to get the TV and radio working and learn from some news bulletins that the government has set up a number of rescue shelters.
As the group fret and bicker over what to do next it starts to become clear that they are as much of a threat to each other as the encroaching zombies are.
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An innovative horror debut
George A. Romero’s debut feature is considered seminal for at least two reasons. Firstly, it defined the modern interpretation of that horror staple “the zombie”, a term which originated from Haitian voodoo folklore. From this film onward, they became familiar as a kind of variant of the vampire - albeit craving human flesh instead of blood and lacking the latter’s cunning intelligence, posing a threat largely through sheer weight of numbers.
Secondly, it featured a black actor (Duane Jones) in the lead role - something that was hitherto pretty much unheard of in American cinema unless they (usually Sidney Poitier) were cast in some well-meaning “racial issue movie”. The character Duane plays is memorable: he’s tough, composed and veers from selfless to cold depending on when the situation depends on it. However, his skin colour is never explicitly discussed and he could have easily been played by someone of any ethnicity. Indeed, Romero had since gone on record stating that he was cast purely because he was the best actor to turn up at the audition.
The film’s graphic depictions of mutilation and flesh-eating have also been considered as pushing the envelope for this era. However, these types of scenes weren’t unprecedented; there are equally gruesome moments to be seen in the likes of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face in 1960 and Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast in 1963. However, neither of those films quite achieved the huge impact on popular culture that this one did.
Although it has now become immortalised as a horror classic, Night of the Living Dead does have a number of shortcomings which it shares with other low-budget horror films from this era. The acting (by an unknown cast) ranges from pretty good to horribly stilted. Duane Jones generally fares best as the assertive hero but Judith O’Dea really overdoes the hysterics at times. The female characters are the usual underwritten walking liabilities that typify this period in horror filmmaking (O’Dea’s character trips not once, but twice, while running from the zombie during the opening sequence). There’s way too much talk at times. There are some technically unconvincing moments such as the suddenness with which day turns to night and the intermittently weak sound effects.
Despite all of these problems, however, it remains a powerful and intelligent horror. The predominantly hand-held camerawork and heavy emphasis on Dutch angles may initially seem clunky. However, this style fits hand-in-glove with the use of mock TV and radio news reports to create an overall cinéma vérité feel. There is also a genuine talent for atmosphere and claustrophobic tension evident here. Shots involving the living struggling with the zombies are impressively framed and lit, turning a horde of thinly made-up extras into an overwhelming, suffocating presence. The imagery of the walking dead lurching through the nighttime half-light and the panic-stricken Barbra negotiating the creepily gothic house interiors are memorably nightmarish. The shots of one particular zombie almost playfully wrestling around with an unfortunate victim’s intestines is uncomfortably/hilariously sick.
Gore with added social commentary
As gruesome as it is, Night of the Living Dead has as much to do with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as it does with getting on with its B-movie horror thrills. Whereas Duane Jones’ Ben has a certain nobility and sense of decency underpinning him, he has a less appealing counterpart amongst the survivors in the shape of the arrogant, cowardly and self-serving Harry (Karl Hardman). However, he isn’t the worst that humanity has to offer here: that would be the impromptu army of gun-happy rednecks who march through the film’s finale, blithely picking off every figure seen shambling in the distance without bothering to check whether they are zombies or innocent survivors. In Romero’s universe, the good (or at least, semi-good) people who want everyone to pull together to survive are at constant threat of being thwarted by those who care only about their own.
Night of the Living Dead may be the first “modern” zombie movie but it isn’t the definitive one; that would be Dawn of the Dead (1978), the first of five sequels which George A. Romero made during his lifetime. However, it still holds up well in its own right and remains a vital part of the history of horror cinema.
Runtime: 96 mins
Dir: George A. Romero
Script: John A. Russo, George A. Romero
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon, Russell Streiner
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
This 4K restored version of the film has an absolutely pristine and finely-detailed picture. Contrast levels are virtually faultless from shot to shot. The only downside with it is that it highlights the cheaper elements of the production (such as Judith O’Dea’s laughably obvious wig) - but hey, that only adds to the charm of watching these old horror films! The sound is limited by the cheapness of the original recording but is as good as it feasibly could be.
On the flip side of the poster (depicting the child Karen from the film, played by Kyra Schon) we get an essay entitled Mere Anarchy is Loosed by Stuart Klawans. It focuses largely on the historical and political context which from the film arose - and from which its reputation was cemented. While black actor Duane Jones may have been cast for his acting abilities rather than from any desire to make a statement, the fact that Romero started showing it to distributors around the time when Martin Luther King was assassinated certainly lent it a fascinating prescience.
Director/co-writer/cinematographer/editor George A. Romero, producer/actor Karl Hardman, actress Marilyn Eastman and co-writer John A. Russo provided this engrossing commentary.
They discuss the homegrown, ultra-low-budget nature of the shoot. The car in the opening sequence belonged to producer Russell Streiner’s mother. When the same car was involved in an accident partway through the filming schedule, the filmmakers decided to make the most of its damaged state and improvise a crash scene in the film. Some of the actors had multiple roles in the film; Karl played a zombie who gets killed by a tire iron while Kyra Schon (his onscreen daughter) also played the corpse at the top of the stairs in the house. The house itself was a real farmhouse marked for demolition. While most of the interior scenes were filmed within its four walls, the cellar scenes were shot in the basement of the Pittsburgh production office. The farmhouse’s actual basement was used as a storage room for props and footage - most of which were subsequently lost when it flooded. A mock news interview scene in Washington D. C. (which features Romero himself as one of the reporters) was filmed in the capital without permission.
This second commentary features producer/actor Russell Streiner, production manager Vincent Survinski and actors Judith O’Dea, S. William Hinzman, Kyra Schon and Keith Wayne. There is a lot of overlap with the other commentary in terms of the discussion of production trivia. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the possibility was mooted of shooting an alternative ending to the rather bleak one seen in the finished film. In the end, however, they decided against it in order to avoid tempting would-be distributors to re-edit it for release.
Night of Anubis
Russell Streiner introduces this workprint version of the film. He talks about the process of editing film reels in the days before it could be done digitally as well as touching upon the various names that the film went through during the shoot. Filming commenced under the name Night of the Flesh Eaters but this was changed to Night of Anubis because another company was making a film with the title Flesh Eaters and threatened them with legal action. Needless to say, the title was ultimately changed Night of the Living Dead for fear that would-be audiences wouldn’t get the reference to the Egyptian god Anubis (who is associated with death).
Unfortunately, this version contains virtually the same footage as the original cut available on the disc bar the different title being visible during the opening credits and the presence of one alternate take of the zombies approaching the farmhouse. The visual quality on this version is rough and it’s strictly for the most dedicated of Living Dead-ophiles.
Light in the Darkness
In this enjoyable new Criterion Collection documentary, filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro and Robert Rodriguez talk about how the film. They discuss how it inspired their own ventures as well as exploring its considerable historical and cultural significance.
18 minutes’ worth of silent 16 mm raw footage, much of it hitherto unseen by the public. It is introduced by Gary Streiner, brother of producer Russell and sound engineer on the film. It’s nothing overly exciting since most of it consists of multiple alternate takes of existing scenes plus a few unedited appearances by the film crew.
Learning from Scratch
John A. Russo talks about the company The Latent Image that he co-founded with George A. Romero and Russell Streiner. Shortly after it started up, he was drafted into the military for two years to serve his tour of duty in Vietnam - during which his dreams of filmmaking kept him going. The company kept in business during its early years by making adverts for various Pittsburgh-based corporations. Some of the adverts are shown here, including a hilariously cheesy one for Calgon water softener featuring a futuristic Stingray-style submarine. He also discusses how they applied their amassed filmmaking knowhow when making their debut feature film Night of the Living Dead.
Some behind-the-scenes footage shot for Pittsburgh broadcast news.
Walking Like the Dead
Some of the original cast and crew members discuss their performances as the film’s zombies. One or two mention that they weren’t given much direction beyond “act half-dead and go after the target”. However, the results still come across remarkably effectively on screen.
Tones of Terror
Jim Cirronella - co-producer of 2009 documentary Autopsy of the Dead and the 2010 film soundtrack release They Won’t Stay Dead! - talks about the film’s memorable use of library music in this fascinating featurette. It came from a company called Capitol Hi-Q whose musical cues were also used in the Adventures of Superman TV series as well as various B-movies such as Teenagers from Outer Space (1959). As is demonstrated here, some of the exact same music queues from the latter film featured again in Night of the Living Dead!
Limitations into Virtues
An interesting new video essay from filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos takes a look at the filmmaking techniques which make Night of the Living Dead so effective as a horror film. Some of these were derived from George Romero’s experience on commercials and others necessitated by the limitations of the budget and recording equipment.
Excerpts from a 1979 episode of NBC’s programme Tomorrow featuring host Tom Snyder interviewing directors George A. Romero and Don Coscarelli. The trio discuss the appeal of the horror genre and the art of scaring audiences. It’s an interesting snapshot of the late 1970s horror heyday when even major studios were getting in on the action (Ridley Scott’s Alien came out this same year) and young adults were bringing their dates to theatres in the hope that they will be scared into jumping into their laps. Coscarelli finishes by mentioning that he wanted to depart from the horror genre and go for comedy in his next film. As it turned out, however, his subsequent film was The Beastmaster (1982), an entry in the then-popular swords and sorcery cycle.
Footage from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival featuring Romero being interviewed on stage by host Colin Geddes. Despite the sheer volume of extras here, nearly all of them add something to the wealth of information to discover in relation to the film. This one is another case in point. Romero explains how Night of the Living Dead ended up in the public domain as he forgot to put the copyright symbol on the title card. He also reveals the lamentable flip side of casting a black leading men in films: some drive-ins refused to show Night of the Living Dead back in the late 1960s for that reason. Even worse, when he made Land of the Dead in the 2000s, Universal Pictures refused to let him cast a black lead full stop. However, he partially got around this by casting a black lead zombie. He also makes some interesting comments around some of his other films - including Dawn of the Dead, Martin, Creepshow and The Dark Half.
A 1987 audio interview with the lead actor from Night of the Living Dead - just seven months before his death. It is accompanied by various stills and clips.
A 1994 interview with the actress who played Judy in the film
A brief 1967 newsreel snippet related to the real-life Mariner 5 probe that was used by NASA to examine Venus’s atmosphere. This was the space expedition that inspired the plot twist in the Night of the Living Dead film whereby a radiation-contaminated satellite is pinpointed as being the cause of the dead rising up to attack the living.
Trailers, TV and radio spots round out the extras.
Since (as I have mentioned above) Night of the Living Dead is available in the public domain and can easily be watched on YouTube for free then any commercial release of the film would have to have something special about it to attract paying customers. Thankfully, The Criterion Collection’s two-disc set succeeds admirably in this task with a stunning restoration and an incredible number of extras for fans to get their teeth into.