Note: This will not be a traditional review of George Romero’s classic “Night of the Living Dead,” since there are already countless books/reviews plumbing the depths of this groundbreaking movie (more about those below). This is a review of the Criterion BluRay of the film.
In the Darkest “Night”
In an age where, sadly, physical media (DVDs, BluRays, etc) seems to be on the wane, some companies like Criterion, Shout Factory, Kino Lorber and Arrow Video still rise to the challenge of restoring movies to their full luster for BluRay/4K releases. In 2018, the Criterion label issued an all-new remaster of “Night of the Living Dead,” a movie that has been terrifying me since I first saw it on TV at age ten.
I’ve watched “Night of the Living Dead” countless times, and have owned it on various formats (VHS, laserdisc). Until the 2000s, I’ve always assumed it was shot with in crude black & white photography. Over the decades I’ve watched the movie, it’s usually presented in scratched, popping, grainy, high-contrast prints. On the plus side, the movie’s poor look also added to its mystique. These grainy, low-yield, public domain airings on local TV stations made the film look like a documentary. In that way, it feels like the mother of the ‘found footage’ trend that permeated horror films from the late 1990s through the early 2010s (such as 1999’s overrated “The Blair Witch Project”). Even director George Romero (1940-2017) took a stab at this found footage subgenre with his 2007 quasi-reboot, “Diary of the Dead.” “Diary…” was but one in Romero’s many “Dead” movies, which began with “Night…” and included “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), “Day of the Dead” (1985), “Land of the Dead” (2005), “Diary…” (2007) and “Survival of the Dead” (2009).
For most of the times I’ve seen it, “Night of the Living Dead” always looked like a battered reel of film found in an abandoned cellar after a zombie apocalypse. Fitting, if a bit frustrating…
New Life for the “Living Dead”
I remember seeing a better-than-average print of the film once on AMC’s “MonsterVision” Halloween movie marathon, and it was impressive. I could make out better detail in the actors’ faces and in the Pennsylvania farmhouse interiors. About a dozen or more years ago, I bought Elite’s remastered DVD of the film, and it looked on a par with the AMC presentation. I then got wind of the Criterion release in 2018, and was curious. However, it wasn’t until a year ago that I finally broke down and bought the BluRay during a Barnes and Noble 50% off Criterion sale. For years, I struggled to justify buying the movie yet again, after already buying the Elite DVD. After watching the new BluRay, I can only say this 2018 Criterion release is revelatory.
Note: For full disclosure, I am not paid to endorse the Criterion Collection in any way, nor was my copy of the movie complementary. I write this column as nothing more than a humble fan of their marvelous restoration work, as I did previously with their restoration of 1953’s “War of the Worlds.”
This black and white movie is still presented in its original camera negative aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the old “Academy Aperture” adopted by TV broadcasts up until the early 2000s (the BluRay is pillar-boxed in black on either side of the image). Even from the opening images of ‘Johnny’ (producer Russell Streiner) and his sister ‘Barbara’ (Judith O’Dea) driving up to the Pennsylvania cemetery in overcast day-for-night shots, you can clearly see this new, silvery-toned Criterion restoration of the film is much finer than any previous incarnation.
Note: Since the transfer was made from the full camera negative, you sometimes see that the image’s corners are sometimes hidden by the camera’s aperture itself. It’s these minor flaws that maintain the movie’s cinéma vérité style, despite this gorgeous new transfer. The restoration was made with the assistance of New York’s famed Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the George Lucas Family Foundation.
An added side benefit of this restoration is that you can now see pores and fine lines in the actors’ faces. The only downside to this added resolution is that the first zombie of the movie (Bill Hinzman) looks decidedly more ‘normal’ than he did in the grainer, high-contrast ghostly images from versions past. However, Hinzman’s famously shambling and occasionally speed-walking zombie is still terrifying, just from the actor’s dead-eyed pantomimic performance.
The most rewarding feature of this remastered edition is that we can now easily see finer features on the dark-skinned face of late lead actor Duane Jones (1937-1988). This is not meant in any sort of racist context, but rather a limitation of those earlier prints to capture subtle gradations of dark skin—something earlier cinematographers sometimes struggled (or neglected) to do well. Fortunately, Jones’s magnificent performance always transcended those crude, public domain prints. Still upsetting to watch is Barbara’s semi-catatonic breakdown, which is every bit as realistic today as it was in 1968. Like Jones, Judith O’Dea deserves kudos, as does the entire cast in the movie. Beginning with the commanding performance of the aforementioned Duane Jones as Ben, Karl Hardman (another producer) also delivers the goods as the thoroughly unlikable Harry Cooper; a more reactionary family man who’s just oozing with unspoken racism towards Ben.
Note: The movie quickly lapsed into the public domain after its 1968 release due to an oversight on the then-inexperienced producers’ part. The movie’s lack of a copyright was something the 1990 remake attempted to rectify. The 1990 remake—a solid movie in its own right—was directed by makeup wizard Tom Savini with Romero’s blessing, and starred Tony Todd as Ben, with Patricia Tallman as a far less helpless Barbara.
In addition to O’Dea’s standout Barbara, other women in the movie deserve praise as well. Marilyn Eastman is excellent as the long-suffering Helen Cooper, and Kyra Schron delivers a terrifying performance as the infected Karen—the young daughter of the Coopers who later chows down on her parents after her zombific transformation. Karen literally eats her parents…yeah, there is a LOT of commentary on the 1960s’ generation gap—some subtle, some not. All of it well-woven into the tight, efficient final film (97 minutes). The restoration of the movie is so clean that it’s now much easier to make out Marilyn Eastman pulling double-duty in the film (as did most everyone during the movie’s guerrilla production). In addition to playing Helen Cooper, the actress is now clearly seen (in a blonde wig with facial disfigurement makeup) as a bug-eating zombie midway during the film.
In the end, this fine-grain restoration of “Night of the Living Dead is a bit of a trade-off. Yes, the actors and quality of George Romero’s cinematography are much better served in this restoration, but it also loses some of that raw, found-footage quality the cheap, public domain prints added to the film’s overall lore. However, unlike George Lucas’ infamous tinkering with his original Star Wars trilogy, all that Criterion has done is to restore what was always there. There is nothing new added onto Romero’s masterpiece to make it any more palatable to modern audiences. The movie works well enough today without such gimmickry.
Note: I wish the George Lucas Family Foundation (and Disney) could do for the original Star Wars trilogy what they did with this untampered restoration of “Night of the Living Dead”—a full restoration of the original Star Wars movies, minus any Special Edition augmentations.
Criterion’s remaster is still the same movie I fell in love as a kid; it just looks the way it was meant to be seen, before it was copied and reprinted to death from increasingly inferior prints in the public domain—like zombies munching mindlessly on a fresh warm body. Despite the dramatic clarity of this new presentation, there is absolutely nothing changed with the film’s compositions, editing, effects, performances, script or story. This is the movie as it was meant to be seen. Full stop.
The Criterion edition of “Night of the Living Dead” is an absolute must-own for fans of the film and physical media collectors, as well as fans and/or students of the zombie movie genre.
Bonus Features of the Living Dead
As with most Criterion releases, there is a treasure trove of bonus features on this 2018 double-disc pressing. You can watch the movie in its original uncompressed monaural soundtrack, or with a choice of audio commentaries ported over from earlier laserdisc releases, with the first audio commentary delivered by George Romero, cowriter Jack Russo, producer Karl Hardman, actress Judith O’Dea and others.
The second audio commentary features Romero as well as star Duane Jones (archived before his untimely death in 1988) and actress Judith Ridley, who played Tom’s girlfriend Judy. There is also a 2018 program featuring interviews from some of the many modern filmmakers who were inspired by “Night of the Living Dead,” including Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Frank Darabont.
Note: With actresses Judith O’Dea, and Judith Ridley (playing Judy), it’s pretty obvious that Judith was a mighty common name in 1968. Then again, that was also the year of the Beatles’ popular hit song, “Hey, Jude”…
Another bonus feature on the first disc is a scratched, worn, slightly different work-print of the movie somewhat pretentiously titled “Night of Anubis.” “Night of Anubis” (which sounds like a documentary on ancient Egyptian mythology) is nearly identical to the final film save for some minor differences. Ironically, the crude work print has pops, scratches and variable sound quality, making it much closer to the way I grew up watching the movie from local TV station broadcasts. There are also multiple trailers, including TV and radio ads, promoting the original release of the movie.
Another surprise appears when you open the double-disc; you get an iconic poster of actress Kyra Schon as the zombified Karen Cooper. On the other side of the poster is a lengthy essay of the movie (and its creator George Romero) titled “Mere Anarchy Is Loosed,” by Stewart Klawans, which is well worth reading.
Note: One minor nit with this last bonus extra is that collectors have to choose whether to hang the poster or keep the essay, since they are both printed on one double-sided sheet of paper. Since I don’t have really have the wall space in my house to hang new posters, that choice was made for me.
A Little Something to Read During the Zombie Apocalypse
One final bit which is not included on the Criterion release of the movie, but which I highly recommend is Joe Kane’s excellent book “Night of the Living Dead; Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever.” Joe Kane is editor of Phantom of the Movies/Videoscope magazine.
In addition to super-rare production photos taken behind the scenes from the 1968 shoot, there is the complete original screenplay by John Russo, as well as essays on the movie’s subtext, social commentary, legacies and influences. There are also chapters which spotlight specific movie milestones in the zombie film genre. The book was published in 2010, before the debut of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (arguably “Night of the Living Dead”‘s longest lasting legacy to date) but it covers plenty of other ground to justify the softback’s $16.95 cover price.
To those who’d like to sample the riches of the Criterion Collection without going into massive debt or being stuck with a piles of DVDs and Blu-Rays? There is a Criterion streaming service. Here is the link to directly browse the Criterion Channel.
For physical media aficionados like myself, the Criterion BluRay/4K and DVD discs can be purchased via Barnes & Noble, either online or in-store (keep an eye out for their 50% off Criterion sales) or through Amazon. The movie can also be streamed as a digital rental or purchase (without the wealth of bonus content) via Amazon Prime or iTunes.
To all my readers, have a happy (and safe) Halloween!