With the possible exception of Halloween, is there any other title we horror fans have been asked to purchase in more iterations than George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead? There were the endless VHS discount bin versions when the film fell out of copyright. There was the Hal Roach Studios colorized VHS abomination (that disc’s clueless producers made all the zombies neon green, leading first-time viewers to wonder why the human characters didn’t simply run away when they saw a bright chartreuse cannibal shambling toward them.) There was the groundbreaking and majestic Elite Entertainment laserdisc, mastered for the first time from the original camera negative. There were countless DVD versions, including the “Millenium Edition,” which was a straight port of the Elite laserdisc and its extras. There was the disappointing region-free Blu-ray disc from Network Video in the UK.
Well NOTLD fans, you can throw all of those old transfers in the garbage. The ultimate version of this film has arrived… like an undead soul at our doorstep.
AN ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: Back in the dawning days of home video, the first VHS tape I ever purchased was Night of the Living Dead. My local K-Mart sold a blandly generic series of “Film Classics” for ten dollars each; most of these were older, public domain films with lapsed copyrights: My Man Godfrey, The Battleship Potemkin, It’s A Wonderful Life, and The Birth of a Nation. They were all eyesores, but I bought every single one of them. Years later, I taught a high-school film studies class and Night of the Living Dead made the syllabus every semester for decades. I have seen this film perhaps more times than I have seen any other single film. They’re coming to get ME, Barbra!
The pair soon meets young lovers Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), plus bickering spouses Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon). Harry thinks everyone should hide in the basement until help arrives. Ben has a plan to refuel his truck and drive everyone to safety. No one can agree on which plan is best. The ghouls keep attacking the house. Is anyone safe?
Night of the Living Dead is a landmark film and has been interpreted in a variety of ways as social and political allegory. Many critics saw the film as a critique of the Cold War, a metaphor for the Vietnam War, or a commentary on racial strife in the America of the late 1960s. Director and co-writer George Romero always denied these interpretations and insisted the film was simply about the breakdown of everyday life. The people trapped in the farmhouse have such a difficult time communicating with each other and working together that they are simply no match for the real threat outside.
Okay, I made that whole last paragraph up. It’s impressive-sounding, but nonsensical, bullshit. Some people think anything can be a metaphor for everything.
For years, I used a brilliant essay on the film by Rod Bennett and Lint Hatcher as a homework assignment. I ran into these writers at a horror convention, explained that I was a high-school film teacher, and asked if I could make “about a million” Xerox copies of their piece and distribute them for free to my students. They agreed. They are great guys. You can read their essay, “Monster Fan 2000,” here.
The new Criterion disc is sourced from this Museum of Modern Art restoration, and it is an astounding transfer. I am VERY familiar with this film—yet the new transfer revealed details that I had never noticed before, including the textures of walls and perspiration on actors’ faces. This new disc likely looks appreciably better than the film looked during its original theatrical run.
Please note that although Criterion has ported over a majority of the special features on previous editions, you will still need the Elite DVD for the Night of the Living Bread parody short and the entire original shooting script and the Dimension DVD for the feature-length documentary One for the Fire: The Making of Night of the Living Dead.
OFFICIAL Night of the Living Dead THRILL-O-METER READING: 102.5%
(Honest suspense wrought the old-fashioned way.)
(This is one of the scariest films ever made. The ending alone qualifies it as such.)
(The film contains explicit gore that was unusual in the 1960s, and undead make-up that set the standard for a decade or more.)
(The film practically invented the trope of the shambling flesh eater.)