50 years later, Night of the Living Dead is still is worth its weight in corpses, although by today's standards, the movie falls far more into the "thriller" category than it does pure "horror". This new 4K restoration is the best the movie has ever looked, and with enough bonus features (both new and old) to keep you busy long after the film is over, this Criterion release is nothing less than a Must Own on Blu-ray.
Night of the Living Dead isn't the first movie about zombies or even the first film that depicted cannibals. But it was probably the first to combine the two ideas and, hence, re-invent the idea of what a zombie was for the next 50 years (and probably the next 50 to come). Ironically, the word "zombie" is never uttered in Romero's film, primarily because he didn't think of his creations as "zombies" (which before this point in movie history were infected humans...but humans that were still very much alive). Romero just saw his creations as "dead neighbors" (his words) who dined on the flesh of the living.
This review of the movie - now restored in 4K (albeit only 1080p here) for the Criterion Collection – makes the assumption that the reader has seen the movie at least once in his/her lifetime. Not that I'm going to give away any plot spoilers here, but you'll probably need to know the movie itself to understand what is talked about below. For the few out there who haven't seen the film, the dead come back to life and eat people. That's pretty much all you need to know.
I have a soft spot in my heart (forgive the horrible pun) for this film for a number of reasons. First, it was shot in and around my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, although several years before I was born (I guess you could say, I was "undead" at the time). Recently, the movie has taken on some additional meaning for me, as I'm about to marry a gal whose cousin is the widow of Bill Hinzman, the graveyard zombie who is the first one we see in the movie, which I guess makes me a sort of unofficial member of the Living Dead family...or at least that's the line I'm using at parties.
Prior to my viewing of this release, it has probably been a good decade since I've sat down and watched the film from beginning to end, and I found myself most impressed this time with how well-directed it is. Despite his less-than-stellar budget and the use of a lot of local and/or amateur actors (although, as star Duane Jones reminds us in the audio interview on this release – he was an established New York actor when he took the part), director George Romeo invokes a really notable style, with some impressive framing of shots and pacing and editing the movie in such a way as to amp up the scares while actually showing very little (again, primarily because of budget).
The acting is probably better than you remember as well. The aforementioned Jones is good – really good – in his role as the "hero" here, and even though Romero stated throughout his life that Jones was hired not because of his skin color but because he was the best actor he could get, the fact that the lead in arguably one of the best horror films of all time is an African American shouldn't be lost on us. I've always wondered if Romero's comments about hiring Jones were less about the actual truth and more about the lesson he was trying to get across: that the race (or sex, as the second featured role is a woman) of a character shouldn't matter in a movie.
Night of the Living Dead, of course, doesn't have the impact in terms of horror that it did 50 years ago. In fact, many newcomers to the movie may not find it scary at all and wonder what all the fuss over this movie is about. But in terms of paving the way for what was to come, the film is groundbreaking. It's as influential a movie for its genre as you'll find, and the basis for pretty much every zombie title that followed. It's also still pretty fun in it's own right and something every serious collector will want to own, particularly now that there's this definitive home video release.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Night of the Living Dead is coming to get you with this 2-disc release from the Criterion Collection. The two 50GB Blu-rays are inside a cardboard holder that opens to reveal the discs held on one of those dual plastic hubs where the discs slightly overlap each other, with Disc 2 on the bottom hub and Disc 1 on the top hub. This holder slides inside a sturdy cardboard slipcase. The sole insert in the set is a fold-out poster, with artwork of young zombie Karen Cooper on one side and info about the film plus an essay by Stuart Klawans on the flip side.
Neither of the Blu-rays are front-loaded with any trailers, and both feature the standard look for a Criterion menu, with selections vertically down the left side of the screen, which open up into more info about each selection and the "play" option, where applicable.
The Blu-rays in this release are Region A locked.
Night of the Living Dead was shot in black and white on 35mm film using two Arriflex 35 cameras (including attaching one of them to a blimp, so director George Romero could capture some of those impressive "looking down from the sky" shots). It is presented on Blu-ray in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1.
This new 4K digital restoration (of course, only seen here in 1080p, although one hopes Criterion will eventually get into the 4K game) of the movie was done by the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, through funding by both The George Lucas Family Foundation and the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation. All but about 1% of the new restoration was taken from the original 35mm camera negative, and this final version was supervised by both George Romero (before his passing in July 2017), co-writer John Russo, sound engineer Gary Streiner, and producer Russell Streiner.
The image here looks spectacular, maintaining the look of 35mm film (grain is still evident in every shot, but never obtrusive) while offering a level of detail that I've not seen in any prior release. While those who have seen this movie far more times than I have may note some other technical errors, I only picked up on one glitch in the print – a few frames missing from a shot where Harry and Helen Cooper make the decision to return upstairs from the basement of the house (whether these frames have always been missing or if they are exclusive to this release is a question for someone that is more of an expert on this film than myself).
This is the umpteenth version of this movie to hit home video, including a number of Blu-ray releases. As many of you are aware, Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain, thanks to a mistake that prevented a copyright notice to be placed on the original release. However, this 4K restoration has been copyrighted, meaning (currently) this Criterion release is the only place you'll be able to own this restored version.
The only audio option here is an English mono track, but it too is part of a new restoration in which was taken from the original mix masters and supervised by George Romero and Gary Streiner. Despite the audio only coming from the front center speaker (although one can arrange their home theater output to come from multiple speakers, although the audio will be identical from each), the sound here is surprisingly crisp and free from any obvious muddiness. I also didn't detect any popping between scenes or any hissing throughout. As mono tracks go – particularly for a movie such as this one – the audio here is nicely done.
Subtitles are available in English SDH.
Commentary One – This release features a pair of archival audio commentary tracks, this first one from 1994 and featuring director George Romero, producer/actor Karl Hardman, actress Marilyn Eastman (who plays Helen Cooper), and co-writer John Russo.
Commentary Two – This second commentary track – also from 1994 – features producer/actor John Streiner, production designer Vincent Survinski, and actors Judith O'Dea (Barbra), S. William Hinzman (the graveyard zombie), Kyra Schon (Karen Cooper), and Keith Wayne (Tom).
Night of Anubus (HD 1:25:09) – This is the original work print version of the movie, which contains some slightly different footage but is also missing a part of the second reel. It's in rough form (both from age and from the fact it was a work print), but it gives a look at how the filmmakers originally envisioned the movie. Also included here is an optional introduction by producer Russell Streiner (HD 7:17).
Light in the Darkness (HD 23:41) – This is a brand-new featurette in which directors Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Frank Darabont (all individually) comment on the legacy and ongoing impact of Night of the Living Dead.
Dailies (HD 18:04) – This is a 16mm reel of (silent) footage and outtakes from the original shoot. Also included here is an optional introduction from Gary Streiner (HD 3:41).
Learning From Scratch (HD 11:58) – This is a brand-new interview with co-writer John Russo, who talks about the production company he ran with George Romero.
TV Newsreel (HD 2:48) – This is a 16mm reel of (silent) behind-the-scenes footage from the movie that was shot for use on the local Pittsburgh news .
Walking Like the Dead (HD 13:04) – This is a brand-new featurette, but it contains comments originally shot for the 2009 documentary Autopsy of the Dead, in which cast and crew members talk about their experience working on Night of the Living Dead.
Tones of Terror (HD 11:15) – This is a brand-new featurette in which Jim Cirronella narrates a look at the musical soundtrack of Night of the Living Dead.
Limitations Into Virtues (HD 11:57) – This is a brand-new video essay in which filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos (via voiceover) discuss the look and shooting style of Night of the Living Dead.
Tomorrow (HD 18:20) – This is my favorite archival bonus feature on this release: excerpts from the NBC late-night talk show Tomorrow in which host Tom Snyder interviews George Romero and Don Coscarelli (who directed Phantasm) about the horror genre. This interview took place on July 3, 1979.
Higher Learning (HD 45:30) – This is an interview with George Romero from the 2012 Toronto Film Festival moderated by Colin Geddes.
Duane Jones (HD 21:56) – This is an audio interview with the actor from 1987 (a year before his death) conducted by journalist Tim Ferrante. During the audio, stills and clips play alongside the audio that are applicable to what is being discussed.
Judith Ridley (HD 10:42) – This is a 1994 interview with the actress in which she discusses her role in Night of the Living Dead.
Venus Probe (HD 0:32) – This is a real 1967 newsreel about the Mariner 5 voyage to Saturn, which – of course – is an idea that George Romero incorporated into his movie as an explanation of how the zombies came to be.
Trailers – The original 1968 trailer for the movie (HD 1:49), plus the 2017 trailer (HD 1:13) celebrating its 50th anniversary 4K restoration.
TV Spots – A 20-second TV spot (HD 0:22) and a 60-second TV spot (HD 1:02) for the movie.
Radio Spots – A collection of five radio spots for the movie, consisting of: 1968, Thirty Seconds (0:30); 1968, Sixty Seconds (0:59); 1970 Rerelease One (1:03); 1970 Rerelease Two (1:00); and 1970 Rerelease Three (1:01).
Night of the Living Dead finally gets a release worthy of its place in horror history thanks to the folks at Criterion. With a new 4K restoration, a remastering of the monaural track, and some great bonus materials, this release is now the definitive home video version of the movie that every zombie fan is going to want to put on their shelf. This one's a Must Own.