This is one of the true cult classics and one of the scariest movies of all time. The dead are walking and hunger for human flesh. A group of panicked survivors are barricaded in a deserted farmhouse while the army of flesh eating zombies hovers outside their door.
The term "genre-defining" feels like it is bandied about too loosely. In the strictest terms, it means a work of art - a comic book event, a novel, or film that so firmly places its signature on a particular genre or sub-genre that it influences everything that comes after. While George Romero's 1968 independently produced classic, 'Night of the Living Dead' wasn't the first "Zombie" movie, it took the convention of a seemingly lifeless, murderous inhuman being and turned it on its head by literally bringing the dead back to life and reduced them to their base instincts. While for some it rings as a cheesy black and white B-Horror picture, for others - like myself - 'Night of the Living Dead' as a film that ushered in the modern era no holds barred of horror cinema.
It was just like any other Sunday afternoon; tranquil and peaceful. All Johnny (Russell Streiner) and his sister Barbra (Judith O'Dea) wanted to do was place a wreath on their father's grave for their mother who was too old and frail to make the journey. While Johnny bemoans losing an hour of sleep because of the time change and the long drive back and forth, Barbra is there to pay her respects. As soon as Barbra take a knee at her father's grave, Johnny can't resist his big brotherly nature and begins needling her, pulling on the young woman's old fears of the cemetery. When he sees another person visiting the cemetery, a tall man down a few rows, Johnny lets out a coy "They're coming to get you, Barbra." What starts out as a tease turns deadly accurate when the tall man attacks the siblings.
When the tall man attacks Barbra, Johnny does what he can to rescue her but ends up hitting his head on a gravestone. Panicked and not knowing whether her brother was alive or dead, Barbra runs back to the car - only Johnny has the keys! When the crazed man breaks through the passenger window, Barbra is able to pull the parking brake and the car starts rolling away. In the fleeting moment of safety Barbara is able to get away from the man, but only just so far. When the car crashes into a tree, Barbra is forced to flee on foot, and the only place she can go for shelter is a run down farm house. As the man pursues her all the way there, the only safety from this murderous creature is a bunch of thin windows and rotted doors.
Out of nowhere a man drives up in a truck as more of these strange, mindless, violent people lumber their way towards the farmhouse. The man introduces himself as Ben (Duane Jones) and quickly sets about securing the house. With the truck out of gas, the only hope they have to is to wait for help to come for them. When a group of people that were hiding in the basement reveal themselves, Ben and Barbara have new allies - or potential new enemies - as they attempt to figure out how to reach safety. The bull-headed Harry (Karl Hardman) along with his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) and the young couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) further complicate issues. Do they take Ben's suggestion and try to reach the locked gas pump and flee in the truck? Or do they take Harry's suggestion and hide in the barricaded basement and hope for the best? Whatever this band of survivors decides to do, they'll have to face the cannibal flesh-eating monsters outside.
I'll just cut to the chase and say that I love George Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead'; it sits alongside John Milius' 'Conan The Barbarian', as one of my favorite films and the primary reason my interest in film school was piqued during my formative years. Sure, numerous shots in 'Night of the Living Dead' don't match. Yeah, the acting is of an amateur local playhouse quality and the script may be a bit slim in places but damn it all, that's part of the charm of this movie. It has a terrifying premise where the recently deceased bodies of your friends and loved ones could come back from beyond to kill and eat you! It may not be the greatest horror film of all time, but it's difficult to deny its influence on the genre.
Where this movie holds a special place in my heart is because how I came to see it. I didn't get to catch it at a theater or a drive-in, heck I didn't even rent it from my local video store - I was channel surfing one night, stopped on a movie channel and there it was. I was instantly taken in by its raw photography, the intensity of that first zombie attack, but most of all it was the music that pulled me in and made me feel the dread of each scene. I later learned it was comprised of generic library film music, but that doesn't keep the creepy tunes from grabbing my attention every time I hear them - even when they're used in other films!
Once the plot kicked in and the survivors started boarding up the house's weak spots, I immediately started to look around my own house that I grew up in and began assessing its weak spots. I was so wrapped up in watching the movie that I only vaguely remember my mom's pleas for me to change the channel. I'm not sure but I think she left the room at some point because I couldn't take my eyes off the TV screen. Then the credits rolled ending with a bonfire of zombie corpses. That trick ending was like a punch to the gut - and I loved it!
Just when I thought my night of Zombie-fueled fun was over, the 1990 remake of 'Night of the Living Dead' started up! It turned out I had tuned into a Zombie movie marathon to celebrate the original film's 30th anniversary! Immediately after the 1990 remake, 'Return of the Living Dead' started and that was followed by the original 'Dawn of the Dead!' I don't think I got to bed before 4:00 in the morning when all was said and done - I just couldn't stop watching. Thankfully it wasn't a school night! So on that cold and stormy fall evening, I became a fully fledged zombie movie fan and ran down such greats as Lucio Fulci's 'Zombie,' and 'House by the Cemetery,' and Stuart Gordon's 'Re-Animator' as a result. 'Night of the Living Dead' was the film that broadened my horror movie vocabulary beyond names like Michael, Jason, and Freddy. To this day, anytime it's cloudy, rainy, and cold outside - it's Zombie Movie Weather in my book.
While the horror sub-genre of the living dead has seen its share of ups and downs, I still find it entertaining. I don't love every movie or television series that comes out, heck, I don't even love all of Romero's own zombie films, but I love knowing that the dead just can't stay dead! While 'The Walking Dead' and its spinoff 'Fear the Walking Dead' are a big ratings machine for AMC, I dig that George Romero's own comic book series 'Empire of the Dead' is making the leap to television screens. More than vampires or werewolves or any other regularly occurring cinematic monster out there, the "zombie" is one that provides a lot of opportunity for interpretation. It could be straight horror or even a romantic comedy, and somehow the material has a way of panning out. I love knowing that this one single little upstart movie made in Pittsburgh, 'Night of the living Dead' started all of that.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Night of the Living Dead' has yet to make a proper North American debut on Blu-ray. This disc is the Region Free Japanese import from Happinet. Pressed on a BD50 disc, the Blu-ray comes in a nifty black Blu-ray case. Aside from the title and the information that the film has been completely remastered for this 40th Anniversary edition, all of the relevant information is in Japanese. The disc itself loads directly to the film bypassing the main menu. There is a standard menu available, you'll just have to press the "top menu" button on your remote to access it. Otherwise, the audio, subtitle, and special features can be accessed with the pop-up menu function, bare in mind that everything is listed in Japanese so you'll just have to figure out what the extra features are by trial and error. Also of note, when the film starts playing, the first set of Japanese subtitles are automatically engaged - but you can turn them off. No English or any other language subtitles are available on this disc.
'Night of the Living Dead' wasn't made to stand the test of time. Simply put, it was a labor of love that was shot on the weekends over the course of a year so the film itself has some inherent flaws. The image quality of this film is now entirely dependent upon the condition of the negative elements available. Thankfully, I am very pleased to say that it looks like the 1.33:1 1080p transfer for this Blu-ray release used the print that was used for the 2002 "Millennium Edition" release from Elite Entertainment. Both editions exhibit the same instances of slight speckling and mild print wear - only this HD release looks strikingly better!
With fine film grain retained, this Blu-ray presentation exhibits a wonderful film-like quality to it. It's black and white image retains a strong grayscale allowing for wonderful shadow separation with deep and inky blacks. While I've long waiting for a North American release of this movie, I'd always feared what it would look like, especially after the smeary U.K. import. I'm so happy to see that this Japanese release is well worth the effort to import. Detail levels are strong all around allowing you to appreciate facial features, the ghoulish makeup effects, and yes, a boom mic shadow or two! Some shots look a bit contrasty, a little too bright, but they've always looked that way to some extent and are only a minor quibble. All around this is a very good looking HD image.
Arriving with an English LPCM 2.0 audio track, 'Night of the Living Dead' sounds better than ever - and about as good as it should. Considering the rough around the edges quality of the film itself, a truly clean and spotless DTS-HD MA track may do more harm than good - as evidenced by the U.K. Import release. While it does sound like this audio track has cleaned up a number of problem spots, it hasn't scrubbed it to the point that it doesn't retain character. The hiss and occasional pops in the audio are part of the film's charm and actually work to fill in a number of scenes where there is no dialogue and just dead air. The film's dialogue is clean and clear and is a terrific upgrade over the previous DVD releases. It actually now sounds present and personal where some other home video releases I owned over the years had a harsh tinny quality when anyone spoke. The library music used for this film also sounds pretty fantastic and works to fill the dead air in the film's many languid shots. Like I said before, it's not a perfect audio track, it can't ever be perfect since a number of the original audio elements were lost, so it sounds accurate to the print this was sourced from.
Audio Commentary: George Romero, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, John Russo, provide a lively and fun commentary track, right out of the gate John Russo gets the ball rolling saying that the reason the cemetery doesn't look the way it does is because a tornado ripped through there and unearthed nearly 200 bodies. They also make fun of the colorization of the film that had happened years earlier. It's a very entertaining commentary.
Audio Commentary: Russ Streiner, Keith Wayne, Vincent Survinski, Bill Hinzman, Kyra Schon, and Judith O'Dea are on hand for this commentary track. This one is also a lot of fun because it's primarily from the actor's perspectives and their memories of working on the film. It's also really cool to hear how genuinely amazed that they're back together for this commentary that was recorded for the 30th Anniversary Millenium Edition DVD release.
One for the Fire: The Legacy of 'Night of the Living Dead': (SD 1:23:55) This is a wonderfully in-depth retrospective hosted by on-screen siblings Judith O'Dea and Russell Streiner. Includes interviews with the rest of the cast and crew. It's a pretty solid piece of material and it's pretty great to hear about these people and how they came to work on the film as well as how the production company Latent Image came to fruition.
Final audio interview with star Duane Jones: (SD 16:46) This was an audio-only interview with the actor not long before he passed away. To keep things interesting, stills and behind the scenes shots of the film are shown on screen. The interview is fascinating and Jones has a lot to offer providing information about the shoot and his life after the film's release.
To put it simply, if you're a fan of 'Night of the Living Dead' - this is the release to own. Without a true North American special edition release on the horizon, this Japanese import will just have to do - and it ain't half bad either! This release from Happinet features a fantastic image transfer with a pretty great audio track to match. Special features are made up of previously released material so if you're after something new you're probably not going to find it here, but just the same, it's great that this material is included. All around this is a recommended Blu-ray release of 'Night of the Living Dead.'
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.