Monday, February 12, 2018

Night of the Living Dead

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 13, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Watching George Romero's “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) for the … I dunno, 43rd time, 51st time, whatever... I'm now most impressed by the quality and tenor of the television newscasts staged for the film. Sitting at a very plain desk in an equally plain office (OK, it's a low budget movie), a newscaster calmly reads incoming bulletins informing the public that the “unburied dead (are) coming back to life” and “eating their victims.”

No pulsating “Breaking News” graphics, no dramatic musical cues, no insta-commentary from dueling in-house experts, and not even a shred of the hyperbole or exploitation that defines the modern news cycle. Advice to burn the bodies of any loved ones who die so they won't return to eat you is delivered with a rationality and responsibility our modern cable news stations can't muster when covering an impending rainstorm or the revelation (BREAKING NEWS!) that the president wore a tan suit today.

Even live cutaways to reporters in the field promote the sense that everything will sort itself out in due time. A rural sheriff leading a posse of zombie hunter (the film never uses the word zombie, but, yeah, they're zombies) answers a reporter's question with the film's funniest line, “Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up.” Just a touch of the sly Romero satirical wit that would define his reputation once the “Dead” films became a full-blown franchise. We've got this whole mass-murdering cannibal thing under control.

The news reports don't provide even a hint of an explanation for the undead outbreak until nearly two-thirds of the way through the film (maybe it has to do with an irradiated space probe returning from Venus), a reminder of another of the film's greatest strengths. When Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (co-producer Russel Streiner) are attacked by the first zombie, the creature is just briefly glimpsed lumbering in the distant background, and his assault occurs right out of the blue. No exposition, no backstory, no explanation, none of the terrible things that terrible viewers want from their dumb, terrible movies. Zombies just happen, during daylight, right in rural Pittsburgh. They're coming to get you, Barbra, so don't ask why, just run!

Another brilliant flourish in a film as packed with them is the introduction of the film's eventual protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones). A terrified Barbra occupies the screen alone for almost ten minutes after the opening attack as she races for shelter to the house that will contain most of the film's action. Already rattled by seeing her brother's likely death, she's further unnerved by hoary horror cliches like the shock cuts showing the leering stuffed animal heads adorning the living room.

Ben then materializes out of the night, from a pair of hazy headlights, in a similar shock cut, a black man in a film otherwise consisting almost entirely of white characters, both living (for now) and dead. And with that scary intro, Ben instantly displaces the previous protagonist (Barbra) and never relinquishes the lead role, though frequently challenged by other survivors, including the cowardly Mr. Cooper (co-producer Karl Hardman). Racism is never explicitly discussed, even in passing, but racial tensions underscore many scenes, particularly Ben's thumping beatdown of Cooper.

Duane Jones's performance has been oft-praised, and for good reason. Ben is the film's most proactive character by far, the boldest, a mind and body constantly at work as he shoulders almost the entire burden of the group's survival against the massing, shambling hordes. Yet, Romero and co-screenwriter John A. Russo are too savvy to turn even Ben into a saint. His big escape plan goes awry almost instantly, and he winds up taking refuge in the very hiding place he argued so vociferously against for most of the movie – in fact, the selfish, reprehensible Cooper might actually be the one who was right all along. All of which combines to makes the ending, one of the most desolate and despairing in all of cinema, so unforgettable.

Anyway, even after a 53rd or maybe 65th viewing, “Night of the Living Dead” remains as potent and terrifying as ever, and seemingly eternally relevant to whatever the current political and cultural climate may be. No film in the genre Romero single-handedly created has ever topped or even matched it. Except maybe for Romero's next “Dead” film. And maybe the one after that. 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio.

“Night of the Living Dead” lapsed into public domain a long time ago, which means that versions of the film in many formats have been both plentiful and usually substandard, though some quality releases exist. This Criterion release provides the film in the best version in which I have ever seen it. From the booklet, “This restoration by the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation, was undertaken from a new digital transfer created in 4K resolution on Cineric's wet-gate film scanner, primarily from the 35 mm original camera negative.” A few shots required the use of a 35 mm fine-grain positive.

The image quality is sharp with particularly strong black-and-white contrast, and not a single noteworthy blemish in sight. The transfer doesn't look quite as grainy as you might expect or want for this gritty low-budget B&W film, but this transfer is simply excellent overall, really shining with the detail visible in some of the darker shots.

The film is presented with an LPCM mono audio track which sounds appropriately sparse and hollow. Romero and crew used both synchronized sound and post-production sound, so the quality of the dialogue varies, but that's endemic to the source, and it's all just fine. The soundtrack consists entirely of library music that was cheaply available at the time, and sounds good enough on this mix. Optional SDH English subtitles support the audio.

Criterion's two-disc Blu-ray release arrives absolutely jam packed with extras, some old, and some new. I will try to keep it as brief as possible.

Disc One includes the feature film, which is accompanied by two full-length commentary tracks, both recorded way back in 1994. The first track features George Romero, producer-actor Karl Hardman, actress Marilyn Eastman, and co-writer John Russo. The second track brings together producer-actor Russell Streiner, production director Vincent Survinski, and several cast members.

Disc One also includes “Night of Anubis” (1968, 85 min.), an uncorrected 16mm work print of “Living Dead” under an earlier title, with some different credits, and also missing several scenes. There's nothing much new here, so it's basically just a chance to watch a lower-quality, incomplete version of the movie. Producer-actor Russell Streiner provides a short introduction.

Disc Two kicks off with “Light in the Darkness” (2017, 24 min.), a new feature that mixes together interviews with directors Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Frank Darabont.

We also get 18 minutes worth of “Dailies”, some listed as never being seen before. This is a reel of silent footage from the film's production, mostly takes not used in the movie. You can also watch an introduction to the Dailies by sound engineer Gary Streiner.

“Learning from Scratch” (2017, 12 min.) is a new interview with co-writer John Russo who mostly discusses his years with Latent Image, the film company co-founded by a young George Romero, where he and his crew honed their craft working on commercials. Russo argues that many of the lessons they learned paid off big time in “Living Dead.”

“Limitations Into Virtues” (2017, 12 min.) is a new visual analysis by filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos. I liked this feature a lot. The central argument is that the film's dynamic feel stems from the balance between synchronized sound footage (where the camera had to be stationary on a tripod) and the footage shot without sound where the hand-held camera could roam freely.

“Walking Like the Dead” (13 min.) mixes together interviews from a 2009 documentary in which several extras discuss how they portrayed the living dead.

In “Tones of Terror” (2017, 11 min.), producer Jim Cironella discusses the film's use of library music.

In addition to this new footage, the disc includes a great deal of archival material, starting with a “TV Newsreel” recorded by Pittsburgh-area newscaster Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, who also appeared as a field reporter in the movie. According to the disc, this three-minutes of silent footage is the only “behind-the-scenes” material from the film's production. It's not exactly revelatory, but it's nice to have.

“Higher Learning” provides a lengthy (45 min.) interview with George Romero, conducted by Colin Geddes after a 2012 screening of “Living Dead” at a Toronto International Film Festival venue.

We also get excerpts (18 min.) from the July 3, 1979 episode of “Tomorrow” hosted by Tom Snyder, on which both George Romero and “Phantasm” director Don Coscarelli are interviewed about their latest films and the appeal of horror in general.

We also get an interview with actress Judith Ridley (1994, 11 min.) and an audio-only interview with star Duane Jones (1987, 22 min.). Conducted by journalist Tim Ferrante, this is one of the few interviews in which Jones spoke at any length about his involvement with the film. The disc also includes a very brief (32 sec.) and rather pointless snippet of a newsreel about the Mariner 5 space probe, a loose inspiration for one small aspect of the film.

Finally, the disc wraps up with two Trailers (one from 1968, one from 2017), and several TV and Radio Spots.

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Stuart Klawans.

Final Thoughts:
“Night of the Living Dead” barely made a tent culturally or commercially on its initial 1968 run, but became a phenomenon after its 1970 re-release. Fifty years later, it's difficult to think of a substantially more influential American film over the same period. Criterion's high-def release provides both a high-quality transfer and a bevy of extras, and will wind up as a must-own for any Romero fan.

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