Legend Films // 2009 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // May 15th, 2009
We don't make movies...we make them funny!
Note: This review assumes that you have already seen The Night of the Living Dead. Proceed at your own risk. They are, indeed, coming to get Barbra. Also, Rosebud is a sled, Spock dies, Norman Bates is the killer, Dil's a man, and Spooner has a bionic arm. Just so you know.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 was canceled back in 1999. The resulting job search led Michael J. Nelson to the painful realization that "able to make snarky comments about bad movies" is not a particularly marketable skill. Changing "bad movies" to "Democrats" on his resume almost got him a job as a Fox News anchor until someone realized that Nelson looks terrible in short skirts, even when he shaves his legs. But that's another story. Undaunted, Nelson realized that the Internet offered a new distribution venue, and thus RiffTrax was born. The basics remain the same -- a group of people making snarky remarks about a movie. The difference is that you can purchase the commentary track, download it, and then play it along with your DVD. If you're a Battlestar Galactica fan, it's pretty much like playing one of Ron Moore's podcasts. They've been doing this for several years and are now beginning to release their own DVDs.
The new distribution method changes the dynamics considerably. For one thing, Internet distribution substantially broadens the movie options, because RiffTrax doesn't have to secure the rights to a movie; theoretically, they can record a track for any movie they want; hell, they could record a track for the new Star Trek movie, and you could go to the theater, watch the movie, and listen to their track on your iPod. But there's a flip side as well: Since the business model is built on DVDs that people already own, the gang has to pick better movies -- or at least more popular movies, else no one will own the DVD. That requirement represents a fundamental challenge, simply because poking fun at a bad movie is a lot easier than poking fun at a classic. When you're gunning for a classic, you have to work harder.
Their riff on Night of the Living Dead is a scattershot affair; it doesn't get any kind of comic momentum going until for about 20 minutes. The gang (on this particular disc, it's Nelson along with MST3K vets Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett) stumbles out of the gate with a series of lame comments about the opening shots of Johnny's (Russell Steiner) and Barbra's (Judith O'Dea) car diving along the road. During the early quiet, dramatic scenes with Ben (Duane Jones) and Barbara, the guys have to reach for material, coming up empty a bit too often. Once the Coopers (Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, and Kyra Schon), Tom (Keith Wayne), and Judy (Judith Ridley) come up from the basement, the sun goes down, and the zombies start to mass around the farmhouse, things liven up considerably, at which point jokes about being eaten become de rigeuer. They have great fun mocking some of the performances, especially, Karl Hardman, whom they see as badly channeling Edward G. Robinson. Nothing about zombies and method acting, though, which is kind of sad -- I'm sure there's a good "Daniel Day-Lewis as a zombie" joke in there somewhere. You almost have to be a little schizoid at times, because on the one hand, you're watching a gripping tale of a group of people fighting for their lives, while listening to these three guys make fun of them at every turn.
The movie can be watched with or without the RiffTrax. However, if you don't already own a copy of NotLD, don't think that getting this disc will kill two zombie birds with one stone. The video transfer is truly appalling -- murky shadows, blotchy blacks, jittery action; it's clear that they just grabbed the first public domain release they could find. The 2.0 stereo track (no Dolby) is great for the commentary, but the sound of the movie is in pretty bad shape as well, with dialogue, music, and sound effects occasionally distorted.
While amusing in spots, RiffTrax: Night of the Living Dead is sadly a pale imitation of the greatness that was MST3K. The guys still have their chops, but some movies lend themselves to this sort of treatment better than others. For instance, they could have a field day with Titanic.Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, though, not so much.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* IMDb: Night of the Living Dead
* Wikipedia: RiffTrax