NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: Blu-ray (Latent Image Co., 1968) Criterion Collection
A film that contemporized ‘zombie lore’, broke with traditional casting edicts and refined commando-styled film-making down to a finite science; George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) remains the ‘go-to’ horror classic for anyone aspiring to make their own indie flick, delving into oodles of social commentary, kept its reputation and that of its flesh-eating fiends popularized in American culture for now more than half a century. Co-written by Romero and John Russo, the picture departed from the common-place practice of casting a white male in the hallowed spot as our ill-fated hero. In his place, Romero ran with the actor who gave him the most intelligent audition; Duane Jones – a noted stage performer, distinguished also as a former university professor in real life. As Jones feared, he would forever be associated thereafter with the role of ‘Ben’ – the comparatively level-headed and resourceful protector of a small group of survivors, trapped in a remote Pennsylvanian farmhouse and surrounded by ominous sub-human wreckage, afflicted by a never-to-be-fully-explained radioactive plague, transforming real people into depraved and monolithic cannibalizing creatures of the night.
In 1968, Romero was strongly advised against casting Jones as his lead; the Civil Rights Movement in full swing, together with its backlash, on the cusp of lighting a powder keg of raw human emotion on both sides. Romero’s faith in Jones, and the actor’s grippingly genuine performance, however, conspired to elevate this B-grade indie flick into an iconic piece of American cinema; far and away the most visceral and disturbing representation of zombie’s ever put on the screen. Applying crude make-up to the supporting cast – all of them hired from locals in the area – Romero’s minor entourage of effects artists, together with his own ingenious use of light and shadow (almost all of the picture is photographed under the cover of night) conspired to create indelible images, mildly unnatural to downright stomach-churning and grotesque. What Romero and his troop achieved on a paltry budget of $114,000 remains impressive by most any standard; illustrating that a movie need not be expensive – but rather, inventive – to be both artistically and commercially successful; Night of the Living Dead’s $12 million domestic gross at the box office swamped by another $18 million earned internationally.
Despite the rather laisse faire approach to screen censorship throughout the 1960’s, Night of the Living Dead’s depictions of multiple murders, the devouring of ‘presumably human’ internal organs, and, the depiction of a teenage daughter (albeit, transformed into one of the un-dead) slaughtering and eating her own mother and father, were considered outlandish and morbidly shocking at the time – earning Romero as much disgust and revile as accolades and praise. It is fairly laughable herein to even suggest – as others have – Night of the Living Dead seems ‘tame’ by today’s standards. Almost from the moment the main titles have begun, following a 1967 Lemans carrying youths, callous Johnny Blair (Russell Streiner) and his more introspective sister, Barbra (Judith O’Dea) to the remote grave site of their late father (Romero using canned music cues to achieve uncanny unease), right on through to its devastating finale – Ben, the only survivor, mistakenly gunned down by a member of the posse, come to liberate the farmhouse from its zombie-takeover - Night of the Living Dead maintains its paralytic arc of morbidity and dread. This was, is and will likely always remain a terrifying movie to experience. While special effects have advanced since, as have hand-held film-making techniques, capable of achieving greater clarity and efficiency on a shoestring budget, what Romero has created herein is an American Gothic frontier fright-fest quite unlike any other; its stark B&W photography and obvious ‘stock footage’ sound effects, suggesting a haunting newsreel quality of events ‘as they actually unfolded’ rather than a glossy ‘entertainment’ in the traditional vein of horror.
Our story begins with the arrival of waspish Barbra and Johnny Blair to a rural Pennsylvanian graveyard, practically concealed by its surrounding underbrush. Johnny coldheartedly laments having to ‘waste’ a Sunday driving nearly 3 hrs. one way to place a cross of artificial flowers on the headstone of their late father at his ailing mother’s request. Evidently, Mr. Blair died long ago while Johnny and Barbra were still very young. Johnny confesses he does not even remember the man. Insidiously, he preys on his sister’s anxiety, teasing her with the now iconic line, “They’re coming to get you Barbra!” She is dismissive of his juvenile torment. Alas, the two quickly encounter the first of the undead (S. William Hinzman), lanky and lumbering, who viciously assaults both Barbra and Johnny, knocking the latter unconscious on a cement headstone. Barbra retreats back to the car, only to discover the keys are likely in Johnny’s pocket. Releasing the brake, Barbra manages a brief escape by coasting down the country road; unable to steer the vehicle, it becomes lodged against a nearby oak.
Scurrying across an open field, and still being pursued by her zombie tormentor, Barbra locks herself inside a remote farmhouse; discovering the half-eaten remains of the home owner lying at the top of the stairs. The episode leaves Barbra shell-shocked – awaiting either her imminent rescue or fate as night falls. Soon after, Barbra is stalked by another zombie. Her brief flight from the farmhouse is thwarted by the arrival of Ben, driving a truck almost out of gas. Quickly dispatching the zombie by bludgeoning it with a tire iron, Ben ushers Barbra back inside, barracking the doors and windows with any bits of wood he can break apart from the existing furniture. Barbra’s stupor gradually devolves into a nervous breakdown. Ben accounts his tale of terror, having narrowly escaped from a local diner where all the human patrons had already either been transformed into zombies or devoured by those succumbed to the plague. Discovering a radio and a television, Ben and Barbra listen and watch as a local newscaster (Charles Craig) accounts the distorted series of events that continue to startle the nation – mass murders everywhere with the victims being consumed by their assailants.
Quite by accident, Ben and Barbra are startled to discover they are not alone. Inside the farmhouse’s cellar await caustic marrieds, Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen (Marilyn Eastman) Cooper and their teenage daughter, Karen (Kyra Schon); also, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) – young unmarrieds having taken refuge along with the Coopers after learning of the outbreak. Harry is a conservative blowhard, absolutely refusing to worry about saving anyone’s skin (literally) except his own – and possibly, his family. After revealing their hiding place to Ben and Barbra, Harry reasons the only safe haven is below stairs. Ben disagrees, suggesting that if ‘those things’ get in, there is no escape for anyone from the basement. While Helen and Tom concur with Ben’s assessment of the situation, Helen is driven back to the cellar by her maternal need to care for Karen, suffering from some undisclosed malaise after being bitten by one of the zombies. Meanwhile, Tom helps Ben secure the rest of the doors and windows.
This huddled group watch the television as an emergency broadcaster reveals a theory about how the recently deceased have become reanimated and are consuming the flesh of the living, creating mass hysteria that, as one scientist suspects, is the result from a Venus space probe’s radioactive contamination. The newscaster also instructs residents to seek shelter at nearby centers set up to handle the crisis. Concerned for their daughter’s welfare, the Coopers grow more weary and impatient, prompting Ben to attempt a harrowing escape plan. While Harry hurls Molotov cocktails from an upper bedroom window to keep the ghouls at bay (they fear the intense light), Ben and Tom refuel Ben’s truck using an adjacent gas pump. They are accompanied by Judy – who fears for their safety. Regrettably, Tom accidentally spills gasoline on the truck, causing it to catch fire. Unable to drive away, the truck explodes into a hellish fireball, killing Tom and Judy, and, forcing Ben to retreat into the house as the zombies consume Tom and Judy’s charred remains.
Ben finds Harry has barricaded the door and refuses to let him in. As the zombies’ advance, Ben frantically breaks down the door and struggles to prevent them from following him inside. Disgusted by his cowardice, Ben beats Harry into submission. Now, the newscaster reports the only way to truly kill someone afflicted with the disease is either to shoot or bludgeon them in the head and then incinerate the rest of the body. But fear not: help is on the way - a posse of armed men are patrolling the countryside for survivors. Suddenly, the farmhouse is plunged into darkness; the ghouls having discovered the outside utility box and breaking through Ben’s barricades. In the ensuing panic, Harry struggles to take away the rifle Ben discovered in a hall closet. The two men grapple for the weapon and Ben accidentally shoots Harry. He collapses in the cellar where Karen, having been reincarnated as a zombie, begins to devour her father’s remains. Unaware of what has occurred, Helen rushes to the cellar, only to be stabbed to death by her own daughter, using a masonry trowel.
Barbra, who has remained wholly useless throughout this ordeal is terrorized to learn her own brother is now among the marauding zombie hoards. Dragged into their midst, Barbra presumably suffers a similar fate. Ben retreats down to the cellar as the zombies overtake the upstairs. He destroys Karen and is forced to also shoot both Harry and Helen, who have since become reanimated. Mercifully, dawn crests over the tree tops. The zombie apocalypse subsides and Ben is stirred by the sound of gunfire as the advancing human posse exterminates the retreating ghouls, one by one. Tragically, Ben is mistaken for one of the zombies, shot through the head as he emerges from the farmhouse, his body dragged to a nearby pile of corpses to be torched in an adjacent field. These last moments in Night of the Living Dead elevate the picture to an almost Shakespearean epic (everybody dies) and are eerily reminiscent of southern-styled Ku Klux Klan mob lynching’s; Romero, employing still images to depict Ben’s lifeless body being unceremoniously paraded through a crowd of gun-toting white onlookers, eager to dispose of the evidence.
Earning a profit of roughly 150 times its initial budgetary outlay, Night of the Living Dead was undeniably destined to become a cult classic. That it has since entered the popular consciousness as a cultural touchstone in zombie lore is quite something else, and likely, was unanticipated at the time Romero was preparing his opus magnum for general release. Ultimately, it inspired no less than 5 legit sequels, made by Romero between 1978 and 2010, as well as two badly botched remakes; the least offense, directed by Tom Savini in 1990. Today, Night of the Living Dead endures as a horror classic with some very unsettling subtexts and social commentary – certainly relevant during its time, yet perennially disturbing to contemporary audiences. The picture’s B-budget and C-grade visuals never sacrifice the quality of the story-telling; Night of the Living Dead, produced for The Latent Image – a company co-founded by Romero and John Russo on moneys Romero made while producing TV commercials and industrial info films. Ultimately, a partnership was created between Latent Image and Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, the president and vice president of Hardman Associates Inc.; a Pittsburgh-based industrial film firm. From here, a budget for their enterprising project was cobbled together: $6,000 invested from the ten members who made up the fledgling production house, each investing $600 for a share of the profits, and ten outside investors also coughing up $600 a pop.
Perhaps unaware of the iconography being created along the way, Romero and Russo began the writing process with a misguided first draft, entitled Monster Flick – about the misadventures of a pair of adolescent aliens who visit Earth and befriend their human teenage counterparts. By the second draft, the tone of the piece had decidedly shifted to the macabre; depicting a runaway stumbling upon a field of rotting human corpses: the food source for a small army of cannibalizing aliens. Herein, Russo contributed two sparks of genius: first, the victims were ‘fresh kills’ and second, the stalkers were ‘flesh-eaters’; concepts dangerously near to plagiarizing Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend (a decade later to be transformed into the movie, The Omega Man 1971). Romero greatly admired Matheson’s book, even going so far as to suggest Night of the Living Dead was far less homage than crude rip-off, tweaked from vampirism to zombies, with Duane Jones having his input about the character of Ben along the way. Originally crafted in a lowborn/backwoods dialect, Jones suggested the antithesis of this stereotype, playing Ben as a book-read, moral and highly intelligent man of action. For the rest, Romero encouraged improvisation; co-star, Judith O’Dea reflecting the speaking parts were pretty much left to their own ad-lib and improvisation.
Interestingly, the word ‘zombie’ is never uttered in the movie; Romero, keen to veer far from the Haitian zombies depicted in Val Lewton’s classic, I Walked with A Zombie (1944). As high-key-lit production values were entirely out of the question, Romero went in the complete opposite direction, shooting on the fly in and around Evans City, Pennsylvania, and rural Butler County. Night of the Living Dead also shot in an abandoned farm house slated for demolition. Making it more cheaply in B&W afforded Romero some convincing trickery; chocolate syrup substituted for blood and roasted ham and entrails donated by the local butcher an alternative to human flesh and entrails. Mortician's wax, liberally applied, suggested wounds and decaying flesh, while most of the extras wore their own clothing to play their parts. First conceived as Night of Anubis, and then, Night of the Flesh Eaters, Night of the Living Dead’s guerrilla-style film-making took on the flavor of a wartime newsreel.
Night of the Living Dead premiered on October 1, 1968 – billed as a matinee fit for pre-teens and adolescents used to enjoying a modest and cheap fright from the latest ‘horror movie’. What they received instead was an unabashed assault on their senses, plunged into a visceral and alarming spectacle of the grotesque. Night of the Living Dead transgressed from enjoyably creepy to unanticipatedly cruel and bone-chilling. Outraged critics misperceived it as ‘an orgy of sadism’ or merely dismissed it as a ‘junk movie’. This only made the paying public want to see it more and, as it turns out, more often; subjecting themselves repeatedly to its white-knuckled and perverse depiction of a society gone utterly insane. Today, removed from all its hype, Night of the Living Dead still packs a considerable wallop. Time has neither aged nor withered the picture’s intrinsic fear factor. Once seen, Night of the Living Dead’s gruesome terrors are impossible to expunge entirely from the mind; the tag line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” burrowing deep into the subconscious and refusing to let go.
When a movie becomes this big it is rife for ridicule and parody, but also, untoward tinkering, unintended by the film makers. Night of the Living Dead suffered the first indignation in 1986 with a truly ‘horrific’ attempt at colorization; later, redone in 1997, then again in 2004. Mercifully, each new bastardization failed to entirely catch on; the public preferring the original in its stead. With reverence due and paid, Criterion offers us a newly restored 4K B&W edition of Night of the Living Dead on Blu-ray; a quantum leap from all those bottom-feeding VHS and DVD incarnations. This one has been sourced from the original 35mm camera negative, with minor substitutions from a fine grain print – both meticulously restored by the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with The Film Foundation. Film grain appears indigenous to its source and contrast is bang on beautiful, with a PCM English mono soundtrack looking and sounding light years younger than its 40 years.
Extras are Criterion’s forte and this 2-disc Blu-ray comes with an onslaught of goodies; easily, the most comprehensive assemblage made available on home video. Two audio commentaries accompany the film; the first featuring Romero, co-writer/producer Karl Hardman, actor Marilyn Eastman, and co-writer John Russo; the other, producer/actor Russell Streiner, production manager Vincent Survinski, and actors Judith O’Dea, S. William Hinzman, Kyra Schon, and Keith Wayne. Both tracks were recorded in 1994. A real treat: we also get Night of Anubis, the 16mm workprint containing an alternate opening title and impressive day-for-night ghoul shot otherwise left on the cutting room floor. Night of Anubis is in fairly rough shape, but it remains a thoroughly fascinating counterpoint to the completed feature.
On Disc 2 we get Light in the Darkness, with contemporary filmmakers waxing affectionately on the picture’s importance. There is also a slew of silent 16mm dailies and alternate takes, vetted by sound engineer, Gary Streiner. Learning from Scratch features John Russo discussing his experiences on the film; plus, a 16mm B-roll shot by newscaster/actor Bill Cardille, the only known behind-the-scenes footage. Add to this a 2009 documentary, Autopsy of the Dead, and, Tones of Terror – a video essay devoted to scoring the picture, Limitations into Virtues: The Image Ten Style, and finally, excerpts from 1979’s Tomorrow with Tom Snyder. Duane Jones’ 22 min. audio only interviews follow, as does a taped interview with Judith Riley, plus 2 TV spots and an original trailer. Finally, there is George A. Romero: Higher Learning, a discussion piece shot at 2012’s TIFF. Criterion also offers us a brief essay by critic, Stuart Klawans.
There will be those who poo-poo the absence of such previously available extras as the spoof feature - Night of the Living Bread, liner notes written by Stephen King that accompanied an earlier DVD release and, most noticeably absent: One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead – a feature-length documentary from 1998. As Night of the Living Dead has enjoyed far too many substandard previous home video releases – each appearing ghastlier over the years – suffice it to state for the record, a lot of extemporaneous ‘extras’ have been omitted from this newly minted Criterion release. Bottom line: Criterion cannot license ‘everything’ – nor should they. The extras compiled herein are impressive and as comprehensive as any prized collector would want them to be. So, judge and buy accordingly. This release comes very highly recommended. Night of the Living Dead may not be Citizen Kane, but it forever changed the horror landscape with its startling frankness and gore. It holds up today – hardly tamed with the passage of the years. Creeeeeepy!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)