Night of the Living Dead Review

Please Note: The film review of Night of the Living Dead below has been copied from Michael Brooke’s excellent review of the old Elite Special Collector’s Edition R0US DVD. I have presented it on this page to encourage readers to read/revisit the review, and I personally have reviewed the Blu-ray disc itself, comparing it to the Optimum Region B UK BD release which John White has previously reviewed for the site here.

When Kim Newman wrote his seminal (and unreservedly recommended) Nightmare Movies, he deliberately started his survey of late 20th-century horror films in 1968. There were many reasons for picking that particular year, not least the fact that most other serious studies of the genre at the time he was writing his book stopped round about then, but the main one was that that was the year when Night of the Living Dead was first released.

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So many films, especially these days, get hyped as being genuinely groundbreaking milestones that one has to remember that films that actually deserve that acclaim can be counted on the fingers of one hand (this is particularly true of the horror genre, where plagiarism of earlier films is so common it's pretty much the norm). And, much like The Blair Witch Project thirty years later, not much was expected of an ultra low-budget black-and-white zombie flick made by a bunch of advertising filmmakers out in Pittsburgh whose reputation up to then had been entirely local.

And on the face of it, it doesn't seem to have much going for it: it's in black and white (even in 1968, colour films were overwhelmingly the norm), the film-makers were obviously strapped for cash in terms of production values, the special effects are often laughable (and extreme entrail-spilling gore wasn't new either: Herschell Gordon Lewis had pioneered that five years earlier), the acting ranges from competent to awful (many of the cast were non-professionals), the music was taken from copyright-free (i.e. cheap) library recordings, the plot was blatantly lifted from Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, and Variety's much-quoted review slammed the film for its "amateurism".

But the film was a genuine phenomenon - slow to catch fire initially, but it caused a sensation in American drive-ins, and quickly built up a massive cult following, and even a solid body of critical support (Sight and Sound named it one of the year's ten best films). More importantly, its influence seeped out across the whole horror genre, to the extent that it's virtually impossible to think of a contemporary horror film that doesn't owe at least part of its existence to George A Romero's film.

The basic situation is a blend of the classic "old dark house" plot with the Rio Bravo-style siege (which John Carpenter would later draw on for Assault on Precinct 13), together with echoes of distinctly Cronenbergian sci-fi (made at a time when Cronenberg was still at university). After an encounter with a zombie in a cemetery that leaves her brother dead, Barbara (Judith O'Dea) winds up in a house in the middle of nowhere in which she and a group of survivors of similar ordeals try to keep alive and come to terms with what appears to be a global phenomenon: the dead are coming back to life, and not only killing but eating their victims.

Where it was genuinely new is that the characters refused to fall back on stock stereotypes - there's no rugged, manly hero to save the day, no spunky heroine to fall in love with him, no twisted villain with plans to take over the world. Instead, they behave exactly like normal people: they're scared, they're indecisive, they have petty squabbles - indeed, Barbara, the character we assume will be the female lead (if only because she's the main character in the first twenty minutes) spends much of the rest of the film in a state of catatonic shock.

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Some of the film's historical fascination is admittedly accidental. Much has been made of the fact that in the year of Martin Luther King's assassination, here was a film with a black protagonist whose colour not only wasn't a dramatic issue, it wasn't even mentioned once, but this was purely because the part had been written with a white actor in mind and Duane Jones turned out to be the best of those who auditioned (that said, Romero's subsequent zombie films went on to have noticeably multi-racial casts). But even leaving the racial element out of it, he's far from a heroic figure - in fact, the film's central irony is that while Ben may win his arguments with Harry, he's ultimately wrong about the most sensible course of action.

The apocalyptically open ending is familiar from the likes of Hitchcock's The Birds (Romero is obviously a Hitchcock fan - the stuffed animals on the wall are a clear nod to Psycho), but the bleak coda is a perfect Romero touch, adding a touch of ironic satire that would later find full expression in Dawn of the Dead, the official - but very different - sequel that he would make a decade later.

All in all, Night of the Living Dead more than deserves its exalted status. Despite the limited resources, it's an expertly-staged, genuinely gripping piece of work from beginning to end. Despite its gargantuan influence (on everything from slasher movies to apocalyptic sci-fi to David Cronenberg), it still has plenty of surprises up its sleeve, even to those who have seen it umpteen times before.

And if it isn't the single most important horror film of the last forty years, it ranks right up there with the other contenders: Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween. No horror fan worth his salt should miss it - but given that there are at least six DVD versions (not counting discs containing the surprisingly good 1990 remake), which one should true Night of the Living Dead fans go for?

- Film reviewed by Michael Brooke

Presentation

The previous Blu-ray release from Optimum was incredibly frustrating for fans of Night of the Living Dead because the transfer had been impressively remastered and demonstrated more naturalistic contrast, and a level of clarity that had not been seen before on the digital format. However these benefits were effectively ruined by horrendous framing issues that saw heavy-duty cropping of all four sides of the image as the film progressed. It was so very nearly the definitive edition fans had been hoping for, but with its flaws self-evident we now look to this new release from Network with the hope that it redresses the balance. Well, the good news is that Network’s effort doesn’t appear to suffer from the cropping issues that neutered the Optimum, the bad news is that Network haven’t really bothered to do any clean up on their prints, so the transfer and audio are rough as old houses.

Network BDOptimum BD

Just about every single aspect of the image other than the framing is far superior on the Optimum release, contrast is much better balanced, the image is sharper and the print impressively cleaned up. The Network BD in comparison is riddled with all manner of print damage; from frequent lines running down the screen to scratches, nicks, pops, and what look like burn or wear marks that appear occasionally towards the top of the frame. Checking in Photoshop greys appear fractionally “greener” than the “warmer” Optimum transfer; but the greyscale isn’t nearly as expressive, with contrast and brightness levels appearing much too high. Whites in particular come with more bloom than Orlando Bloom in Bloomingdales buying Bloomers for Granny Bloom on a Bloomin’ Sunday, and these excessively hot whites blow lots of detail out of the image. Blacks also appear clipped compared to the Optimum, and shadow detail is noticeably poorer – how much of this is down to how the film was shot is hard to say, it’s certainly possible (and likely) that Optimum has corrected any over-exposure in the original photography.

Image detail on the Network is unsurprisingly inconsistent; for the most part it’s not too far behind the Optimum and therefore offers a jump up from DVD, but there are also times when a scene looks almost blurry next to the Optimum, which is understandable for a seemingly untouched print of a low budget 1968 production. Edge Enhancements are present in the image at times, more noticeably so than the Optimum, and grain is much more poorly defined in the Network transfer; appearing as a very light layer. Compression isn’t too shabby though despite having a low AVC bitrate, so there’s not really any distracting blocking to report and banding is pretty minor.

Network BDOptimum BD

The comparison grabs above & below should hopefully highlight all of these issues. As you can see from looking at the first two grabs (counting the top comparison grab on this page as the first, and the bottom most comparison grab on this page as the last) the cropping on the Optimum disc isn’t as excessive in the opening act of the film, but looking at the rest of the grabs shows how bad the cropping is later on in the film; with the 7th grab in particular showing a significant difference in framing. Pretty much all of the grabs provide good examples of the Network’s overblown contrast, highlights are so blown out and whites clipped that you may struggle to read the “Mercer Municipal Building” subtitles shown in the 8th comparison grab - and the formless glow of flames in the 9th grab show a specific ring of flames in the Optimum transfer. The second grab also shows how much detail can be lost to bloom. As for print damage, the 3rd and 4th comparison grabs demonstrate how battered the Network’s image is.

Much like the transfer, the LPCM 2.0 audio track on the Network BD is extremely raw and in desperate need of restoration, with constant loud hiss, crackle and the occasional hum present throughout the film. Dialogue is very scratchy and tears harshly whenever anyone raises their voice – as does the overtly dramatic score, which tears apart in the louder movements. Treble response is poor so the general sound is piercing, and bass is slightly deep but soft as a marshmallow, there also isn’t a tremendous amount of clarity to the audio as louder sounds drown out the more subtle effects. The audio on the Optimum BD has been impressively remastered – in particular the audio dynamics are excellent given the film’s origins and dialogue sounds very clean and clear, also background noise is kept to a minimum. Treble and bass could be better and there is a little tearing in places, but these are only minor issues.

Network BDOptimum BD

If you are one of the many fans of the film who cannot tolerate the severe cropping of the Optimum, the Network BD has another problem that is far more serious than poor A/V, and that is the edit present on this disc possibly has tiny chunks missing from the print. I noticed when scouring the two BD releases for comparison grabs that the Optimum release was getting progressively further and further behind the Network release. Furthermore if you compare the running times for when the film starts and ends on the Network to the Optimum, there is an obvious discrepancy:

Network: Film Starts at 00m:01s. Last shot of film (the bonfire) ends at 95m:08s
Optimum: Film Starts at 00m:04s. Last shot of film (the bonfire) ends at 95m:46s

(Note: The Optimum release has a “The End” title card after the end credits, so the disc eventually stops playing at 95m:52s, the Network doesn’t have this title card at all, so that stops playing at 95m:08 at the end of the last shot.)

Bearing in mind that it takes 03seconds longer for the first shot of the film to appear on the Optimum BD, this means that Night of the Living Dead runs 35seconds shorter on the Network BD. Sadly, I did notice one scene that was missing approximately 07seconds of footage on the Network release. It occurs at 76m:54s into the film (77m:21s on the Optimum BD), when Ben is grilling the Coopers on the whereabouts of their car. Here’s a transcript of the dialogue leading up to the cuts, with the missing footage marked in red:

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS!!

Ben: Do you know anything about this area at all? I mean, is Willard the nearest town?
Helen: I don’t know... We were *sigh*... just trying to get to a motel before dark
Ben: You said those things turned your car over. You think we can get it back on its wheels and drive it. Where is it?
Helen: Seems like it was pretty far away... Seems like we ran
Harry: Forget it; it’s at least a mile
Barbra: Johnny has the keys
Harry: You’re gonna carry that child a mile? Through that army of things out there?
Ben: I can carry the kid. What’s wrong with her? How’d she get hurt?
Helen: One of those things grabbed her
Harry: Bit her on the arm
Ben: *sigh*
Helen: What’s wrong?
Ben: Who knows what kind of disease those things carry. Is she conscious?
Helen: Barely
Harry: She can’t walk, she’s too weak
Ben: Well, one of us could try to get to the car!
Harry: You’re gonna turn it over by yourself?
Barbra: You can’t start the car, Johnny has the keys!

Ben: You have a car? Where? Where is it?
Barbra: You won’t be able to start it...
Ben: Yeah, yeah I know! But where is it?


As mentioned the excised footage runs for roughly 07seconds, so there’s still 28seconds missing in the Network BD that are unaccounted for. It’s possible this could be mostly down to missing frames here and there in the Network print, but it’s also quite possible that there are more tiny snippets of footage missing elsewhere in the film which I just didn’t notice during regular playback (I watched both Blu-rays on consecutive nights rather than back-to-back on the same day).

It might also be worth pointing out that this release from Network is rated 18 (if my information is correct) and the Optimum BD was rated 15. I can’t find any information regarding any Network release over at the film’s BBFC page, so in theory they should have just used a previously submitted print/edit, which potentially may not be the case if there is missing footage exclusive to this particular release – no matter how slight. It’s strange that Network would choose to slap an 18 certificate on the box when there is a previous release on Blu-ray of the same film that’s been passed at 15.

Extras

Extra Features on the Network BD? A single Theatrical Trailer shown in 1080p AVC. The Optimum release has a feature-length retrospective and the majority of the DVD releases have a whole myriad of extra features between them, so that’s another big black mark for this release.

Overall

I know that the non-existent rights issue surrounding Night of the Living Dead ensures any company can try and make an easy buck by churning out a cut-price edition of this film, but I really don’t see why Network bothered trying to cash in on that when they weren’t even prepared to make sure the print they were using was uncut! Also, while it’s true that their release doesn’t suffer from the extremely nasty cropping of the Optimum BD, all other aspects of the Audiovisual presentation are so poor that it hardly feels like a worthwhile alternative - especially considering the Optimum release is easily available at a budget price online. The search for a definitive release of this seminal film in High Definition continues, hopefully some U.S outfit is planning something special later down the line.

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Film
10 out of 10
Video
4 out of 10
Audio
4 out of 10
Extras
1 out of 10
Overall

4

out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 18:26:10

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