Night of the Living Dead (1968) (Millenium Edition) Review

Whilst this review compares the original Elite Edition with the new Elite Millennium Edition you can also read Michael Brooke’s excellent review of the original Elite Edition here.

The Film
There is nothing like nailing your colours to the mast early on so I’m going to do just that. Night of the Living Dead is a bona-fide classic and that’s all there is to it. It sits easily amongst other genre defining horror films such as Dracula, Frankenstein, Evil Dead and Halloween. Shot on a budget of just $114,000 this black and white film launched a new era in horror films and at the same time gave independent films a real boost.

Before anyone accuses me of rose-tinted glasses I must point out that I’m not that old. Theoretically I belong more to the MTV generation for whom horror should consist of in-jokes and big-breasted women getting stabbed repeatedly. I wasn’t even born when this was first released and my first experience of it was on Channel 4 in 1992 when it simply blew me away.

I guess I’d better calm down and provide a plot synopsis… Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother are visiting a family plot in a graveyard in the middle of nowhere. A shambling man attacks them and Barbra escapes to a nearby farmhouse. It is soon obvious that there are more of these shambling figures and they of course turn out to be the recently risen dead. Ben (Duane Jones) soon appears to help Barbra and she certainly needs it. Others soon join the cause as they attempt to barricade themselves in and prevent the undead breaking in. The rest of the film is full of surprises, shocks and poignant moments so I shan’t say anymore.

The brilliance of this film is down to the fact that it does several ingenious things rather than having just one gimmick. The first is that you start the film following Barbra and horror film rules dictate that she is either the heroine or an early victim. The film of course surprises you, as she fulfils neither of these roles. The “hero” is fairly heroic but fatally dim, his main decision in the film is patently wrong. It was at this point that I realised that this film not only broke the rulebook it rewrote it.

Romero also very cleverly uses average people as his zombies. Here we don’t see loads of 30-something stuntmen we see mothers, fathers, grandmothers and children as the recently returned. This gives you an emotional attachment to the poor shambling wretches. Finally the ending has to be seen to be believed. It is now obvious that the ending is just “very Romero” but at the time it was unbelievable that a film could end in this way. Any other big studio would have ruined this film; only a true independent could have done it Romero’s way. Unfortunately throughout his career Romero has hit this brick wall and as it becomes more difficult to make truly independent films with reasonable budgets he has found himself marginalized.

The direction and imagery used throughout is evocative and stunning. Certain set pieces are as shocking today as they were 34 years ago. The camerawork is assured throughout, the use of close-up and very quick intercutting is unnerving and helps to drive the action along even though very little seems to happen for long stretches.

To me the film has no real flaws. People will point to the occasional substandard acting (Duane Jones is easily the best actor on the screen) and the dodgy special effects but I don’t feel these detract from the film that much. The script, direction and plotting is superlative throughout and this overcomes any technical shortcomings the film may have.

Overall if you are a horror fan and you haven’t watched this film you should be ashamed of yourself. If you aren’t a horror fan you should still give this a try as it may well surprise you.

The Disc
Well as mentioned earlier I am going to compare this new Elite Millennium Edition (Known as ME from now on) and the original Elite Edition (EE from now on). Some may ask for a comparison to the multitude of other releases but there really is no point. Anchor Bay’s release only contains a hacked version of the film (Either visually or aurally) and the other versions have no extras and very poor transfers.

Firstly it should be said that this ME now gives us all of the extras from the Elite Laserdisc release. Some may ask why they weren’t on the original EE DVD release. Well the reason seems to be that back in 1997 when the EE was released dual layer discs were not commonplace. As a result to keep the video quality high some of the extras had to be removed.

Packaging & Menus
Well the cover of the EE is notoriously awful and whilst the ME is an improvement it still seems a little too “glossy” for the film. The original EE had no chapter card of any sort and had 31 chapters. The ME does have a single sheet insert but this time we only get 12 chapters, which is an odd decision. The card also contains a short introduction piece by Stephen King. The menus on the ME are a vast improvement over the EE menus. They look very understated and appropriate.

Well the EE is well known for it’s fantastic print and transfer. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 4:3 this is a stunning transfer given the film’s budget. The contrast and shadow detail are excellent and the black level is solid. There is surprisingly little print damage and I’ve rarely seen a better black and white picture. The transfer is pretty accomplished although there is some minor artefacting here and there which is a pity.

For the ME you may as well read the previous paragraph. The print used seems identical to the first release. Despite an increase in bitrate from 5.47mb/sec to 7.31mb/sec I think the differences in transfer are negligible. There is slightly less artefacting but there is still some present. Others have complained of a sepia tone to the opening sequence but I have to say this is very minor. Overall there is nothing to pick between the releases here although those with large screens may notice more of a difference.

Also please note that the “joke” opening with the awful sub-VHS quality print is sadly missing from the ME.

The EE has the original mono track, which isn’t the best track I’ve heard. The sound is a little muddy and muffled in places and this means that whilst the dialogue is audible the dynamic range seems to be lacking.

The ME also has the exact same mono track. In addition it has a new 5.1 mix. Before the remix junkies get too excited I must point out that this is the one of the subtlest 5.1 remixes I have heard. The rears are reserved purely for the occasional music cue and the channel separation is subtle to the point of non-existence. Some people will complain about this but I feel that if you are going to remix a classic you should do it carefully and subtly. The quality of the 5.1 mix is slightly better than the mono track as the sound doesn’t seem quite so muffled and it does sound more dynamic.

Since all of the EE extras are on the ME I will start by reviewing the shared extras before going onto the extras specific to the ME.

There are two commentaries on both discs, one entitled Zombie Masters and one entitled Zombie Party. Zombie Masters is the more sober piece and has Romero, John Russo, Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman. They cover a lot of serious information about the film, its origins and the history of the Latent Image company. Saying that it is still light, entertaining and full of fascinating facts. The Zombie Party track has Judith O’Dea, Bill Hinzman, Keith Wayne, Kyra Schon, Russell Streiner and Vince Survinski. This is a more irreverent piece with lots of funny anecdotes being told by the actors and some memories of Duane Jones revealed. Both tracks have their strong points and both are worth listening to more than once.

The Night of the Living Bread short is nothing to do with Romero or his crew. This is a simple student short film that parodies Night of the Living Dead. Again it is a curiosity but nothing special or particularly funny.

Next up are some adverts, which were produced by the Latent Image before and during production of Night of the Living Dead. These curiosities show very little of Romero’s potential but they are nice to have nonetheless. Please note these are presented on the ME as part of the section called Beginnings.

Finally we have two trailers that are shown one after another rather than split as they are on the ME. They are both interesting as they contain most of the shock value shots in the film. As a result there are more than a few spoilers here.

Extras Specific to the ME…

The best “new” extra on the ME is the last interview with Duane Jones (Ben). This is a 16-minute audio only interview with accompanying stills from the film. Duane Jones is an eloquent and quietly spoken interviewee and it is obvious he has great memories of making the film. He seems bemused by the fuss surrounding it and it is a pleasant surprise to hear an actor who sounds down to earth and “normal”. There are some very funny and heartwarming moments in this interview.

The second extra interview is with Judith Ridley (Tom’s girlfriend Judy in the film). This time it is a 10-minute interview with audio and visual. This is a fairly bland interview that doesn’t really provide any new information. It would have been much more interesting if it had been Judith O’Dea (Barbra) but you can’t have everything I suppose. To add insult to injury this interview is technically weak. It seems the cameraman is drunk as the camera sways about disconcertingly for a couple of minutes until it decides to settle on one spot.

The last video based extra is some scenes from Romero’s “lost” film “There’s always Vanilla” starring Judith Ridley. This is a fascinating little section of the film, which shows a lot of Romero’s style. However as it only runs for 5-minutes it is little more than a curio. Also there are a handful of stills and posters from this film.

Next is the Original Script/Treatment. This is all text and starts out with a short essay detailing how the project developed and changes that were made during pre-production. It is interesting to note that the first idea for the film made it sound more like a 50’s B-movie rather than the Horror classic we have today. After this there is the original script. This is very long and I doubt many would sit down to read an entire script on a screen, but it is there if you want to.

Next is Marilyn Eastman’s Scrapbook. This contains pages and pages of stills showing bills, letters of complaint, publicity shots and reviews. There is a lot of fascinating trivia to be gleaned here and it all adds to this comprehensive package.

The next section called Beginnings is where we learn all about the Latent Image. This starts out with a text essay introducing us to the Latent Image and its work in advertising whilst building funds to make a film. This is followed by the adverts that are included in the EE (See above). Next there is a very short (one and a half minutes) piece of silent footage from a short they made called the Derelict. Finally there is another text essay detailing the Latent Image leaving commercials behind. Overall this section gives a great overview of the company and how Night of the Living Dead slotted into its history.

Finally there is a THX Optimiser section. This is always useful for calibration but hardly a reason for upgrading.

Well I have praised the film enough already. Anyone who vaguely likes horror should own a copy of this film and this is the only version to own. The real quandary is for people who already own the excellent Elite Edition. The Millennium Edition has a marginally better picture (and it is very marginal) and a slightly better soundtrack (again only slight). The extras are a formidable package, which carry everything from the Laserdisc release. Unfortunately I’m not convinced there are enough new extras here to warrant an upgrade purchase. The Duane Jones interview made it worthwhile for me but then I’m obsessive. As for new purchasers this is the ONLY edition to buy.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 17:54:12

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