Dimension Films // 1968 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // June 6th, 2008
...the dead, whose haunted souls hunt the living. The living, whose bodies are the only food for these ungodly creatures...
Every five or ten years, it seems, the airwaves crackle back into life to warn of an unprecedented event -- another release of George A. Romero's 1968 zombie masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead. And just when you thought you had already purchased the last copy you'd ever need of this perennial favorite, the turning of the seasons soon indicate that there's yet another milestone to celebrate with yet another new disc. Is this latest release worth your money or would you be left feeling as if money-grubbing ghouls have yet again, descended you upon?
They're coming to get you, Barbra...
Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O'Dea) have just traveled three hours by car to replace the wreath on their long-deceased father's gravesite. As Johnny callously chides his sister for still being frightened of the cemetery, they are attacked by a marauder who pursues Barbra after having subdued her brother. Barbra finds a farmhouse and discovers the former owner, horribly mutilated at the top of the stairs. As the cemetery assailant descends upon the farmhouse, Barbra notices others like him who are similarly intent upon finding their way inside to attack her. A pickup truck arrives on the scene driven by Ben (Duane Jones), a man who is similarly confused by the sudden appearance of shambling aggressors. The two discover that their pursuers are actually the recently reanimated dead, cannibalistic and unstoppable in their lust for living human flesh.
...a night of total terror!
Sure, you've seen Night of the Living Dead so many times that you're likely to wonder why you'd need to look at it again? Simply put, even after 40 years, the film is absolutely compelling. Looking at it today, especially when juxtaposed to current genre entries including the "gorenography" films, it's clear that NOTLD maintains an unrivaled stature for its visceral and verite approach to telling its story. The opening cemetery sequence is still very gripping and engaging, fostered by arguably nuanced performances from Russell Streiner and Judith O'Dea. As the "cemetery ghoul" (Bill Hinzman) assails Johnny and pursues Barbra, we are still captivated by the unprovoked assault thanks to the excellent POV setups that put us in the car with the cringing girl and then on the run as she comes upon the abandoned farmhouse. Sure, much of the action is goofy and many of the shambling undead are less than frightening, but thanks to fine core casting of the late Duane Jones as Ben, Karl Hardman as Mr. Cooper and Marilyn Eastman as Mrs. Cooper, the picture still works and works well. The budgetary constraint that forced the production within the walls of the farmhouse and its supposed basement affects us with an increasingly panic-inducing claustrophobia right up to the shock ending. Yes, this has been a cult favorite for decades, has regularly circulated amid the midnight movie circuit and Saturday night Creature Features TV programming, but it maintains a freshness and evokes genuine fear even though we know this one practically line for line.
It has long been explained the reasoning behind why so many video tape and DVD discounters have been able to issue Night of the Living Dead in varying states of quality and completeness. An inadvertent omission of the copyright notice on the final print put the film within the public domain since its release, a matter that co-producer Russell Streiner vows to pursue with the US Copyright Office until his last gasp of breath. On home video, then, the film first appeared on VHS and Beta thanks to Media (sometimes "Meda") Home Video, then from countless other cut-rate producers. On DVD, the story has been much the same save for the "restored" and "anniversary" editions brought to us by genre stalwarts Elite Entertainment and Anchor Bay Entertainment. By the release of this latest 40th Anniversary Edition (to coincide with the release of Romero's fifth zombie flick, Diary of the Dead), we now have a collection of restored and remastered DVDs to choose from, practically rivaling the number of times the Romero-inspired The Evil Dead has clawed our wallets for multiple purchases. Technically, you won't see much improvement here over the 1997 Elite release or the 1999 Anchor Bay bow. The image is crisp and clear, with the sort of endearing graininess that reminds of late nights clutching a bowl of popcorn as the cathode ray tube flickered in front of us. The gray scale is well represented with plenty of inky blacks yet never overly dark as to obscure fun details such as the gnawing that goes on when little Karen Cooper (Kyra Schon) feasts at the shoulder nub of her dear dead dad. The audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix that is suitable and well presented to preserve the cramped and constrained mood of the picture.
As far as a "celebration" goes, this 40th Anniversary Edition DVD feels a bit like a cast and crew reunion where the mood is rather tired and without much more to add that hasn't already been said. This point is proven by the rehash of two audio commentaries that originally graced the aforementioned 1997 Elite DVD. George Romero sits down to moderate the formerly titled "zombie masters" track that teams up John Russo, Karl Hardman, and Marilyn Eastman. Then, Russell Streiner moderates the audio track formerly titled "zombie party" that includes Keith Wayne ("Tom"), Vince Survinski ("posse gunman"), Bill Hinzman, Kyra Schon, and Judith O'Dea.
The main attraction on this disc begins with the recently produced feature-length documentary, One for the Fire. This is a collection of individual interviews with surviving cast and crew as they reminisce over their low-budget endeavor some four decades ago. The piece begins with a shot-for-shot recreation of the opening drive up to the Evans City Cemetary with Johnny (Streiner) and Barbra (O'Dea) navigating a modern-day Jeep SUV. They discuss the film and walk to the various points of interest within the cemetery. Then, there are a number of talking-head interviews with the likes of co-producer Rudy Ricci, Russell Streiner, writer John Russo, TV interviewer Bill "Chilly Billy" Cardille, and others. Each speaks with affection and still-sustained humility that the film has become so iconic within its genre. Of course, director Romero himself is present and offers the usual insight and anecdotes that betray the fact he still maintains his playful "fart at the establishment" cynicism. That said, these folks seem to be a bit worn down in speaking about the film for so many years. The overall impact of the documentary, surprisingly amateurish as it appears, is pleasant but not truly revealing of anything that fans don't already know. Essentially, the celebratory champagne is still tasty but it's just a bit flat. Beyond this documentary, there are a few new tidbits to enjoy. Most significant is Ben Speaks, an audio-only interview with the late Duane Jones as he reminisces fondly and eloquently about NOTLD, this recorded in 1987 at his campus home of the College at Old Westbury, NY, less than a year before his untimely death. He speaks with erudite precision about the experience of filming NOTLD yet is clear that he had not seen Romero's subsequent installments in the then "Dead Trilogy." This is a real gem on this disc and not to be missed (sadly, it runs just a scant 17 minutes. Next up is Speak of the Dead, a 16-minute live interview with George Romero at the Bloor Cinema of Toronto, Canada in 2007. Last up are the original theatrical trailer (still a goodie) and a still gallery. And, if you're the studious type, there's DVD-ROM content that offers the original shooting script; it's an interesting read.
While it's certainly easy to argue against the numerous releases, remastered and whatnot, of NOTLD, it's difficult to argue against the film itself. While many film fans have grown weary of the triple- and quadruple-dipping of their favorite pictures on DVD, there's value to newcomers who might not have yet experienced the raw horror of Romero's crowning jewel. Although it's the same film dressed up in a new package, it's worthwhile if it works to sustain the just adulation for this "undying" genre classic.
If you're an absolute "dead head," you'll want to purchase this recent release of NOTLD for the new bonus features. The feature film image and sound quality hasn't been improved over previous releases yet it's great to see the picture again for yet another evening of ducking behind the sofa throw pillows.
They're coming for you. Look -- there comes one of them now!
Review content copyright © 2008 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1968
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio commentaries
* Documentary: "One for the Fire"
* "Speak of the Dead" interview with George Romero
* "Ben Speaks" interview with Duane Jones
* Theatrical trailer
* Still gallery
* Original Script (DVD-ROM content)
* Original DVD Verdict Review
* DVD Verdict Review - Colorized Version
* DVD Verdict Review - 30th Anniversary Edition
* DVD Verdict Review - Millennium Edition