Elite Entertainment // 1968 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // May 1st, 2002
"They're coming to get you, Barbara!" -- Johnny
1968 was a banner year for many reasons. I'm sure if you look in a large, dusty history book filled with impressive writing it will give many fine examples. For my money, 1968 was big for one and one reason only: George A. Romero's horror classic Night of the Living Dead was unleashed in theaters. There have been many sequels (Dawn Of The Dead, Day Of The Dead), rip-offs (Zombi), and parodies (The Return of the Living Dead series), but nothing stacks up to the power and sheer terror of Romero's original. Many versions of this film have been released on DVD (including a cruddy version by Hollywood Classics and a bastardized re-edit by Anchor Bay), but only two editions are worth seeking out: Elite's original release, and this new "Millennium Edition" DVD.
As if I even need to explain the plot for you diehard horror fans. But, due to the fact that it's my job, I'll sum it up for all your zombie virgins out there:
Night of the Living Dead opens up with Barbara (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) driving up to a cemetery in the middle of nowhere (well, Pittsburgh actually) to visit their mother's grave. Upon arrival they are accosted near her grave by a very angry looking man...wait, that's no man...that's a zombie!
Johnny ends up meeting his Maker as Barbara makes a run for it to an old abandoned farmhouse. There she meets Ben (Duane Jones), who was also attacked by the zombies in town. Through the course of the night, we also meet some other folks hiding in the house: the angry Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and her daughter, plus a young couple, Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley). A few of these people mix like oil and water, and as the night wears on the living dead close in.
Why have the dead returned to life? No one seems to know, though there is speculation that it's from a contaminated satellite probe back from outer space. Now they're up and about, eating the living and really screwing up the local mortician's job.
Soon a decision must be made: do the survivors lock themselves in the house basement, or try and barricade themselves in on the main floor? Cooper thinks the basement, Ben says the main floor. Decisions, decisions. There's also a truck outside and a gas pump nearby, but they need to find the key first. Maybe they could escape? But maybe not.
All the while, more and more zombies start circling the house like Custer's last stand. Will Ben, Barbara, and the rest of the group make it through the night? Or will they become a midnight snack for the living dead?
Do I even need to say that Night of the Living Dead is one of the greatest horror films ever made? If you haven't seen this film, run, don't walk, to your local DVD store and rent it right now. With this one stroke, George Romero paints one of the finest and most terrifying films ever shown on the silver screen.
What's so good about it? Everything. Night of the Living Dead's greatest asset is its black and white ambience. In any other situation, this would have been a color film, but the budget for Night of the Living Dead was so low that the filmmakers had to use cheaper film stock, and black and white was the obvious choice. As luck would have it, Night of the Living Dead has a creepy documentary feel to it that makes the film feel older than death. The film tends to jump around a bit with some shots out of focus. This only enhances the feel of dread and ominous peril. Though the characters of the film valiantly fight for their lives, we get the idea that this might be a lost cause. Outside the house loom rotting corpses bent on having each human as a meal; inside are seven people bent on making individual choices that all point to self destruction.
Romero has shown that he is a prolific horror director, having an excellent body of work including the Night of the Living Dead sequel Dawn of the Dead, the Stephen King adaptation The Dark Half, and the EC Comics-inspired Creepshow. Night of the Living Dead looks and feels completely different than his later work. His "Hollywood" films, and even his more independent work, has a slicker, cleaner look than Night of the Living Dead.
Romero attracted some no-name talent to the project, including Jones, O'Dea, and Hardman. All the actors do fine jobs (though Hardman as Cooper teeters on the line of overacting). Duane Jones is especially good as Ben, the Prudential rock among all these terrified characters. "Back in the day" it was rare to have a black character as a leading man. Hats off to Mr. Romero for picking a winner in Jones.
Night of the Living Dead: Millennium Edition is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (standard). Elite has surpassed every other DVD company by putting out the crispest, cleanest transfer to date (done from the original negatives). The black and white tones are very well balanced, and only the smallest grain is seen. This picture is THX certified and it certainly shows. Compared to the original Elite release there isn't much difference here -- the tones, colors, and levels are evenly balanced and very, very clear.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital Mono as well as a newly remixed Dolby 5.1 soundtrack. I was a little leery that this 5.1 remix would sound artificial or contrived, much like previous remixes on older films. I am happy to report that this is generally a good remix that uses only subtle effects in all five speakers (mainly the music score for directional sounds). However, I personally recommend the original mono soundtrack. For some odd reason it just feels more authentic. No distortion or hiss was heard in any of these soundtracks.
Elite has included some excellent extra features on this new "Millennium Edition" DVD, including a few holdovers from their previous release. The first track includes director George Romero, actor/producer John Russo, actor Carl Hardman, and actress Marilyn Eastman. This commentary track leans largely on the technical side, discussing locations, writing, lighting, and production (at one point someone says "nice F-stops"). The track is great for those of you that are interested in behind-the-scenes information and tidbits to tickle your morbid funny bone. The second commentary track includes actor Bill Hinzman (the cemetery zombie), actress Judith O'Dea, actor Keith Wayne, actress Kyra Schon (the little Cooper girl), actor Russell Streiner, and production designer Vince Survinski. This commentary is more entertaining than the first, almost reminiscing instead of providing technical information. Both commentaries are a lot of fun and worth the listen. Also included are a few trailers for the film (with some creepy voice-over work by the narrator). The last holdover from the original disc is a parody short called Night of the Living Bread by Kevin S. O'Brian, made in 1990. The short film is a funny spoof substituting killer bread for man-eating zombies. Though the short is humorous enough, its inclusion is curious, as it doesn't seem to be connected to the film or its makers in any way.
The new material varies in quality, but it is nice to have on this disc. There are two new interviews with stars Judith Ridley and Duane Jones, the latter a completely vocal interview from the radio. Ridley's interview is with Marilyn Eastman and is a basic overview of her career. The Jones interview was the last one he participated in before his death in 1988. This is one of the best new features, as it gives viewers an insight into Jones and his work in Night of the Living Dead.
Next up are a few short scenes from an apparent "lost" film by George Romero titled "There's Always Vanilla." These scenes feature Judith Ridley and aren't all that interesting. It's a good thing we never saw the final version of this film, as it looks to me like a dud. Also included on this second disc are some commercials he made for his company The Latent Image, as well as a history of the studio with outtakes from something called "The Derelict" (a short produced by the studio) and some printed info on the studio itself.
Finally there is a personal scrapbook with well over 160 posters, stills, props and more from the film; the original treatment/script of the film; some liner notes by horror guru Stephen King; and a THX Optimizer for home TVs and sound systems.
This is one instance where it's very difficult to point out any failings in the film. Some of the dialogue may be stiff by today's standards, but that's of no real consequence. This film is a time capsule and (I suspect) played as well back in the '60s as it does today. Elite is given a very hearty pat on the back for making this transfer look magically clean and crisp with a very nice audio track. Though interviews or a documentary would have been fun, this is still worth any price you find it at.
I'd also like to take a moment and warn against the Anchor Bay Night of the Living Dead 30th Anniversary Edition. By no means should this version be purchased. It's a bastardization of Romero's original concept. I was stupid enough to purchase it and was unable to get rid of it on eBay for even five dollars! My DVD player exploded when I inserted the disc into it. Buyer beware!
One of the all-time greats in the horror film field, Night of the Living Dead is not to be missed. Elite has done a fantastic job with their second release of this classic fight film. The audio and video presentations are superb, and the extra features should make any Romero fan squeal with delight!
Absolutely free to go! Check out this great disc and even greater film ASAP! Case dismissed!
Review content copyright © 2002 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Elite Entertainment
* Full Frame (Black and White)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, Remixed)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1968
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Two Commentary Tracks by the Cast and Crew
* The Entire Shooting Script
* TV Spots
* "Night Of The Living Bread" Parody
* The History Of The Latent Image Stuido
* Scenes from "There's Always Vanilla"
* Interviews with Judith Ridley and Duane Jones
* Personal Scrapbook -- Posters and Collectables Gallery
* THX Optimizer
* Liner Notes by Stephen King
* Commercials and Trailers Directed by George Romero
* Homepage of the Dead