I’ve never been a big fan of zombie movies. To me, zombies are just vampires without sex appeal. Yet Night of the Living Dead is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. There are others with bigger death counts, or ones dripping with more blood. Many are funnier – intentionally or not. But in George A. Romero’s first feature, the terror and suspense never lets up. There’s absolutely no room for a happy ending.
The 4K UHD version of Night of the Living Dead is already on sale.
The slow, nearly unstoppable ghouls were shockingly gruesome in 1968. (No one in Living Dead ever calls them zombies; that moniker came with later movies.) After countless imitations, the shock is gone. But the dread and fear haven’t gone away.
Romero shot the movie in black and white to save money, and I’m glad he did. As I pointed out in Black and White Films in a Color World, gruesome imagery delivers a greater emotional punch when you can’t see the red. We react to gushers of blood as gory spectacle. But when the blood is gray, the emotions go deeper.
Night of the Living Dead accidentally broke the color line. At a time when only Sidney Poitier got major roles, Romero cast an unknown African American actor, Duane Jones, to play the protagonist. He got the part simply because he was the best actor who came to the auditions. Romero always insisted that he didn’t change the script to match the color of the hero’s skin. But when white actor Karl Hardman gets in the hero’s face, you get a large dose of white privilege.
On the other hand, when waves of hungry corpses start eating the living, skin color is rarely a major topic.
Here’s the contents of the package:
The paper foldout
Criterion packages always contain a booklet or foldout. Night of the Living Dead has a foldout. Here’s what you can read about the movie:
- Essay by Stuart Klawans: This article covers Romero’s dislike of the whole zombie thing that he accidentally created. It also discusses race issues.
- Credits of the movie and the restoration.
- Poster: Turn over the foldout and you’ll get a poster to scare kiddies away on Halloween.
Disc 1: 4K UHD
How the Movie Looks
This is probably the best-looking digital version of Night of the Living Dead, but that’s not saying much. Shot in 35mm on a very thin shoestring, this is not a beautiful film. But it’s good enough to be very gruesome. This 4K digital restoration was supervised by director George A. Romero, co-screenwriter John A. Russo, sound engineer Gary R. Streiner, and producer Russell W. Streiner.
The film is presented in the 1.37×1 aspect ratio, which is strange, because when the film was made, that ratio had been dead for years. Most theaters couldn’t even project it. (The only time I saw it theatrically, it was in the more common 1.85×1.) And yet when I watched it on this disc, it was clearly shot for 1.37…but the credits are clearly designed for 1.85.
How it sounds
The original mono soundtrack is reproduced digitally and uncompressed. It sounds as it should. There is some echo, but that’s a problem from the original soundtrack.
- Commentary 1: Romero, along with screenwriter John A. Russo, producer Karl Hardman, and actor Marilyn Eastman, talk about the film. The discussion was recorded in 1994. It’s okay, but not that interesting.
- Commentary 2: Also recorded in 1994, this track was clearly for a Laserdisc release. It sounds like a bunch of old friends enjoying home movies and telling us who and when members of the cast stopped smoking.
Disc 2: Blu-ray
You get everything on Disc 2 except image quality. You must look very closely to see the difference – and have a big screen. The audio is exactly as that on Disc 1.
You even get the same two same commentaries.
Night of Anubis: A 16mm work print of an earlier cut. I watched the first 30 minutes. The only differences I noticed were a softer image and a different title.
Russell Streiner provides a seven-minute introduction, where he talks mostly about editing in the old days. He also gives you a funny story about the film’s many titles.
Disc 3: Blu-ray 2
And there’s the collection of extras:
- Light in the Darkness (24 minutes): Frank Darabont, Robert Rodriguez, and others discuss the movie. Interesting, but it didn’t provide me with any new insights.
- Dailies: (18 minutes): A silent 16mm reel of raw footage and alternate takes. The best scenes are in the house, where people pretend to fall and fight.
- Learning from Scratch: (12 minutes) An interview with John Russo. He talks about getting into the business. Interesting.
- TV Newsreel: (3 minutes): Blurry video (no sound) of people, mostly extras, talking to each other.
- Walking Like the Dead (13 minutes): Some of the people who played ghouls tell us how fun it was to put on heavy makeup and pretend they’re ghouls. A lot of fun.
- Tones of Terror (11 minutes): An interesting short about library music (a way to get cheap background music), and how well Romero used it.
- Limitations into Virtues (12 minutes): Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos talk about how the thin budget forced Romero to use rare or original tricks, creating a very unusual film.
- Tomorrow (18 minutes): Tom Snyder discusses horror with Romero and Don Coscarelli. The interview was done in 1979. Interesting, but not exceptional.
- Higher Learning (46 minutes): Colin Geddes and Romero attend a discussion at a 2012 Toronto Film festival event. We get the story of how Romero lost the film’s copyright. We also discover that some theaters refused to show a movie with an African American star. They also talk about the word zombie.
- Duane Jones (22 minutes): A 1987 audio interview with the film’s star. Moderately interesting. I would have preferred something more biographical.
- Judith Ridley (11 minutes): A 1994 interview with one of the actresses. It’s not particularly interesting.
- Venus Probe (less than a minute): A 1967 newsreel that’s vaguely connected to the movie’s plot.
- Trailers from 1958 & 2017
- TV Spots: 20 seconds and sixty seconds
- Radio Spots: five of them from 1968 and 1770s