It all began with two characters in a cemetery and the now-immortal line, "They're coming to get you, Barbara." Having just driven three hours for the annual trip to visit their father's grave, siblings Johnny and Barbara are interrupted by a strange man shambling across the lawn toward them. Even though it's broad daylight, Barbara is a little creeped out by the setting. Johnny makes fun of her. But there's something decidedly not right about the man with a pale drooping face and ratty suit. And then he attacks. Thus starts, with elegant simplicity, the first and most important in a new genre of horror films, the original 'Night of the Living Dead'.
The concept of the reanimated dead had of course appeared on film prior to 1968, at least as far back as Bela Lugosi's 1932 'White Zombie'. However, with this movie, George A. Romero managed to create a whole new mythology for the monsters. His is the first modern zombie movie, without ever actually using the z-word. Romero set all the rules for (almost) every picture in the genre to follow. His lumbering horrors slowly swarm their victims, intent on eating human flesh. They're unstoppable, except by a bullet or a blow to the head. "Kill the brain and you kill the ghoul." Why they have awakened from the dead is unknown. Radiation from outer space is speculated to be the cause, but scientists can't seem to agree. They are everywhere, and spreading. If they bite, the victim will inevitably contract the disease and become a monster themselves. No one is immune. No one is safe. They just keep coming.
There isn't much plot to the film, and there doesn't need to be. After the initial attack, Barbara flees to a nearby farmhouse, where she holes up with a small group of other survivors. They barricade themselves in as best they can, but the house is soon surrounded. Tensions mount. Should they stay upstairs or lock themselves in the basement, where there is no other exit? Should they try to escape, and how? It's a simple idea, told in minimalist fashion and all the more effective for it. The movie has a small cast, few settings, and very simplistic use of makeup and gore effects. It's artistically shot, but not pretentiously so. The stark black & white imagery is effectively eerie. In a decision that was quite subversive for the time, the main hero is a black man, who even slaps a white woman and beats up another white man. The movie's nihilistic ending is uncompromising.
Fortunately, the story and direction are both tight enough to overcome some aspects of the movie that haven't aged so well. The dialogue is often stiff, and some of the acting is quite amateurish. The guy playing Harry the uptight father is awful (as even the actor will admit), and Tom the teenage bonehead is laughably, dinner-theater-reject bad. Continuity flubs are apparent, like the "dead" zombie whose eyes are still looking around. The script also has some contradictions, such as the fact that the first zombie to appear is rather energetic and smart enough to pick up a rock to use as a weapon.
Any flaws are entirely forgivable in light of the film's other achievements. Despite several sequels, quasi-sequels, a remake, and countless knock-offs, the original 'Night of the Living Dead' remains an effective chiller that has cemented its status as a horror classic.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Due to a copyright mishap, 'Night of the Living Dead' has been in Public Domain hell for decades. Numerous DVD editions have been released by numerous studios in the United States, the most recent from The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. Weinstein had at one point indicated plans to release the film on Blu-ray, but the title mysteriously disappeared from their release calendar. In the meantime, Optimum Home Entertainment in the UK has taken up the cause with their own Blu-ray edition.
Unfortunately, the Optimum disc is locked to Region B and will require a compatible player to operate. The disc will not function in a standard American Blu-ray player without a region code modification.
The Blu-ray (thankfully) contains the original 1968 theatrical cut of the film, not the abhorrent 30th Anniversary Edition re-edited version that is really better forgotten.
The 'Night of the Living Dead' Blu-ray is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, pillarboxed in the center of the 16:9 HD frame. Some 35mm theatrical releases of the film may have been matted to 1.85:1, but George A. Romero is on record as preferring the 4:3 ratio for this movie, and the composition looks accurate.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is quite soft, especially the credit text. That may be the result of the old-fashioned optical effect used for the titles, or may be some overzealous Digital Noise Reduction. I'll be honest that there were long stretches during the movie where I doubted that I was watching a true High Definition image. Yet at other points, detail looks pretty decent. Facial features typically don't exhibit much distinction in skin complexion, but clothing and hair sometimes resolve a reasonable clarity in subtle textures.
It must be remembered that 'Night of the Living Dead' was a low-budget production and was probably not shot with the sharpest of lenses, so the softness may be (at least partially) accurate to the source. If DNR was applied, it hasn't totally wiped away film grain by any means. There's an (appropriate) thin veneer of grain through much of the movie, but the grain itself is a little noisy, as if it hasn't been digitized or compressed adequately.
The movie's black & white photography is rendered with excellent gray scale and fair contrast. The picture is surprisingly bright, which looks great during the daylight scenes but is probably too bright during the nighttime scenes. The source elements have a small amount of print damage, but nothing serious.
All things considered, 'Night of the Living Dead' doesn't look too bad for a low-budget movie from 1968. The Blu-ray isn't perfect, but is a relatively satisfying presentation for the film
Optimum has preserved the original monaural soundtrack in both Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono. There has been no attempt to remix the track into 5.1 surround sound, and frankly this movie makes a strong case for the artistic merit in a good mono mix. The single-channel directionality takes on a focused intensity that really enhances the claustrophobic atmosphere.
The soundtrack is dated, but still pretty effective. The music is damned eerie. If anything, the Master Audio track is perhaps too faithful to the source. It makes the poorly-recorded dialogue and often muffled sound effects all the more obvious. There are a couple stretches where dialogue intelligibility is just awful, as though the microphones were aiming to the wrong side of the room. Piercing highs in the score are also a little shrill.
The Blu-ray has only one bonus feature, but it's pretty impressive.
'Night of the Living Dead' is a true horror classic. The UK Blu-ray isn't perfect, but is a decent presentation for a movie of this vintage. It also includes a pretty interesting documentary. Unfortunately, the studio has locked the disc to Region B, which will limit the number of viewers in North America able to import it. For those with compatible hardware, the Blu-ray is worth a look.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.