Night of the Living Dead (1968) Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 release of Night of the Living Dead – the film is a groundbreaking masterpiece that ranks among the most important horror films ever made, but why is this Elite DVD regarded so highly when there are six different DVD versions to choose from?

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.

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.

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?

Well, the three bare-bones ones (from Madacy, Mastertone and United American) are easy to dismiss out of hand (reputedly the Madacy one has an unspeakable transfer), and the new Tartan release doesn’t look too promising on the feature count either – which leaves the Elite and Anchor Bay discs, of which the latter (the ’30th Anniversary Edition’) is comfortably the most recent. In fact, on paper, it looks the more promising of the two.

However, this is deeply deceptive, because although the Anchor Bay disc contains two versions of the film, neither matches what you’d have seen in cinemas and drive-ins back in 1968: even the so-called “original version” has apparently had a new synthesised music score added. As a result, this disc has been slammed by fans of the film (Film Threat gave it minus five stars, their lowest rating), and for Night of the Living Dead purists, the Elite version is the only serious contender.

The DVD opens with one of the most evil practical jokes I’ve ever come across: the film starts off with a print so lousy that it defies description: badly damaged (loads of spots, scratches and jump-cut splices), barely in focus, awful sound, that distinctive tenth-generation pirate video feel, the works – and stays that way for just long enough to breed suspicion that the rest of the disc is going to be like this… and then fades out to reveal the THX logo, and the film proper starts in an infinitely better transfer, made directly from the original negative, which was framed at 4:3 – though in practice most cinemas would have cropped it to 1.85:1. After a few tests with my widescreen TV’s zoom mode, though, I found I much preferred the 4:3 framing in terms of image composition, and this also justifies the lack of an anamorphic transfer.

Visually, the transfer is excellent – in fact it’s one of the best black-and-white transfers I’ve seen to date: pin-sharp and with an impressive dynamic range. And, thankfully, the negative has been well-preserved, with hardly any on-screen blemishes, and none that are worth mentioning. The budget inevitably means there are a few visual flaws, but I can’t blame the DVD for merely reproducing them accurately! It’s certainly by far the best version of the film I’ve seen to date – previous experiences including damaged 35mm and 16mm prints and the notorious mid-1980s colorized version that thought (deeply erroneously) that turning the zombies lime green might make them scarier – listen to the first commentary for Romero’s own views on this!

Sonically, it’s inevitably less impressive – this is where a film’s low budget usually shows, and Night of the Living Dead is no exception. It is of course mono, and not especially good mono at that – the dynamic range is fairly limited, and the mix is more than somewhat crude. But this is entirely the fault of the original film, not the DVD transfer, and I find it all too easily to believe that this is about as good as you’re ever going to get.

The extras are pretty generous, especially given that this is a relatively elderly DVD, made long before the trend for everything-but-the-kitchen-sink blowouts took hold. Interestingly enough, the disc under review is double-sided, but in practice both sides turned out to be identical!

The best of the extras are the two commentaries, labelled ‘Zombie Masters’ (George Romero, writer John Russo and producer/actors Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman) and ‘Zombie Party’ (actors/zombies/crew Bill Hinzman – the original cemetery zombie – Judith O’Dea, Keith Wayne, Kyra Schon, Russell Streiner and Vince Survinski). As those headings rather give away, it’s the usual Elite diptych – the first commentary is a fairly (though not entirely) sober, fact-based run through the film, while the second is a much livelier piss-taking alternative.

Both are well worth a listen – as a long-term fan of both the film and Romero’s work, I personally got much more out of the first (which has tons of background info and plenty of juicy anecdotes – as well as retrospective chuckles at just how amateurish some of their techniques were – and indeed how surprisingly effective), but the second has a fair number of laughs, even if it never reaches the heights of Bruce Campbell’s delirious Evil Dead commentary or the ReAnimator cast get-together.

‘TV Ads’ is not at all what you’d expect – instead of being TV spots for Night of the Living Dead, it’s a selection of what Romero and colleagues did for their day jobs: making TV commercials. I loved these for two reasons – firstly, I’ve always loved old TV commercials in general (it’s hard to believe that some of them were ever made for more than kitsch reasons), and secondly, because it’s genuinely fascinating seeing Romero’s distinctive compositional and editing style applied to such mundane material. There are two car ads, a detergent ad (based on Fantastic Voyage, which would have been a very recent release) and a beer ad, most of them clearly made locally for Pittsburgh businesses: don’t expect the kind of gloss you get today!

Night of the Living Bread is last and least, being a very silly spoof of Romero’s film shot on very grainy black-and-white 16mm in which pieces of sliced white bread take on the function of zombies and start attacking people. It’s really not that funny (a couple of moments admittedly raise a chuckle), though it’s clear that director Kevin S O’Brien (who made it at Ohio University in 1990) knows Night of the Living Dead backwards: he mimics Romero’s style very well. And at under ten minutes at least he knew when to stop, unlike the makers of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, who misguidedly believed their film was worth making as a separate feature.

So don’t be fooled either by the 1997 release date or by the competition – at the time of writing (October 2000), this is the definitive (and the only Romero-approved) Night of the Living Dead DVD, and a must-buy for every horror fan on the planet. Oddly enough, despite the US label, this has actually been released in Britain as well (the only difference being the BBFC classification added to the original artwork) – and you can rest assured that it’s uncut, as the BBFC were advised that there was no possibility of making any changes to the US-based master.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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