George A. Romero’s savage and thought-provoking horror film works on a multitude of levels. It can be read as a straightforward and grim exercise in unrelenting terror (well, maybe not these days). Or, it can be taken as a deadly serious slice of social commentary; depicting the turbulent American culture through blood-tinted glasses. And that’s probably why it’s so iconic – both the horror theatrics and subtext work so well together, that it has the power to disturb and beguile simultaneously. It’s a powerful piece that many have wrongly thrown aside as silly trash. Yes, it’s populated by flesh-eating zombies, but Night of the Living Dead (released way back in 1968) is one of the few American horror films to have something going on beneath the surface – you can sit back and enjoy the ride, but spare a thought for the true horror beneath…
Whenever a critic mentions Romero’s debut, there’s always a paragraph or two about the civil rights metaphor; probably the most prominent in the picture. It was emphasized by the casting of Duane Jones. The African-American actor was supposedly cast due to his talents as a thespian, but it certainly gives the film an interesting slant. In ’68, it was hardly common to see a black man in a lead role. But the film runs into much-deeper themes than that; jumbling America’s fears into the same macabre melting pot. Class and interracial struggles combine. Children are corrupted. Society teeters on the brink of destruction. And the government’s answer to the situation is no different to Vietnam or the current fighting in Iraq. Fire is fought with fire, which leads to Night of the Living Dead’s devastating conclusion.
But I know what you’re thinking. This is a horror film, right? Where’s the flesh-munching?! There’s plenty of that too…
The trailers for Land of the Dead have called it Romero’s “ultimate masterpiece”. You’ve got to love subtle marketing campaigns. Unfortunately, the director’s true masterpiece has been around for decades now; 37 years in fact. I’m sure some fans will be outraged when I call Night the best chapter in Romero’s Living Dead cycle. Yes, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead was the most successful – critically, at least – but the original provides the biggest gut-punch. Ultra low budget, and shot in grainy black and white, it’s a true classic of the genre; which transcended its technical limitations to become something seminal. In most respects, Night of the Living Dead’s impact on underground filmmaking has never been in doubt – the rough, documentary-style has been copied to death, the story and monsters are often lampooned, and it has been released in a hundred different forms since it first appeared. But most importantly, filmmakers everywhere have paid homage to this quintessential slice of B-movie schlock; inspiring them to make their own demented art. It’s ingrained in American pop-culture, and nearly 40 years later, it refuses to go away…
While it no longer scares the bee Jesus out of audiences, Night’s grim vigour still unsettles. Romero and co-screenwriter John A. Russo don’t waste any time in setting up the action – from the first scene onward, it’s a nightmarish movie which slowly ratchets up the suspense. The opening cemetery attack is probably my favourite sequence, if only for its startling, and sudden jolt to the system. The picture begins in rather mundane fashion, introducing “heroine” Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner), who are visiting their parent’s grave. He jokes about the cemetery scaring her as a child (cue the infamous “they’re coming to get you Barbara!”) while a storm erupts; a must for any film of this kind. Then, from the back of the frame, lumbers a seemingly-harmless old man. Without warning, the ghoul lunges at Johnny, killing him with a blow to the head. Naturally, Babs gets away, coming across a deserted farmhouse out in the Pittsburgh countryside.
Going comatose inside the farmhouse, the distraught Barbara is later found by the resourceful Ben (Jones), who attempts to fortify the house from the rampaging undead (a nice metaphor for interracial couples shielding themselves from the outside world). But, as the night wears on, the battle to keep the ghouls at bay becomes increasingly difficult, especially when Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) and his family enter the fray. Tempers in the house rise, and with flesh-eaters surrounding them, it’s unclear who will finish them off first – the ghouls, or themselves…
Romero has never made the reason for the zombie outbreak clear. There’s an inclination in Night that a weird phenomena from space is to blame, but a genuine cause for the event was never confirmed. It doesn’t really matter, of course – it’s scarier to think that the dead just got up, and a scientific answer would probably dilute the terror somewhat. While zombies were nothing new in 1968, it was Romero who brought them onto American turf successfully; pushing the voodoo aspects out of the framework. They are suitably creepy here. Blank, emotionless, and insatiable, the dead stink-up the film with their rotting bodies. In a good way, of course.
The make-up in the film is easily the weakest in the series, which is pretty much a given, considering the films tight $114,000 budget. It’s a million miles away from the perverse, and undeniably brilliant prosthetic work by Tom Savini in the sequels. That said, the original ghouls disturb in a way that those in Dawn and Day of the Dead don’t. The black and white photography helps, giving them a morbid elegance. However, those watching the film for the first time might be disappointed in its relative lack of gore. Night of the Living Dead rarely gets nasty, although Romero managed to throw in a shot of ghouls feasting on someone’s intestines, and the famous “matricide death” is truly shocking. Most of the violence is either seen partially, or occurs off-camera, but the director manages to make an impact; using the power of suggestion for much of the run-time. It works.
On a technical level, the film is very impressive for an amateur effort - especially by 60’s standards. Romero handled the camera himself, and his composition is carefully controlled. With help from Streiner and Hardman (who formed their company Image Ten), the picture just about covers over those filmic cracks; never drawing attention to the crew’s lack of experience (although the use of library music for the “score”, reveals the absurd low-budget). Romero also possesses a gift for effective editing, giving the film a stark immediacy. While it didn’t win any awards for filmmaking skill, Night of the Living Dead was, and still is, heads above most films of its ilk. The reason is simple: the filmmakers took the material seriously…
The most successful element of Night, in my eyes at least, is the tightly-woven screenplay. It’s a perfect example of economical storytelling. The set-up is quick and disarmingly simple - all Romero has to do, is lock his characters within the principle location, and let them duke it out, while hell rages on outside. It’s a common thread in any disaster picture (and lets face it, the end of the world is certainly a ‘disaster’), with Romero and Russo taking great pleasure in showing the tensions and differences between their core protagonists. It provides the heart and soul of the film. The zombies are almost an afterthought; the emphasis is placed on Ben and his comrades from the out-set. In most respects, it allows the director to show the nature of human beings on a primal level (comparing them to the ghouls). When the shit hits the fan, you can always rely on people to look after number 1. Here, the clashes between Ben and Cooper provide most of the friction, allowing the audience to read any racial connotations they please. Jones dominates the film as Ben. He’s strong-willed and commanding, making you believe in Ben’s determination. The rest of the cast is decidedly weak - especially Keith Wayne as the well-meaning Tom, although O’Dea is convincing as the terrified Barbara (a character trait that would be altered in Tom Savini’s 1990 remake).
Yet, the picture really shines when depicting the reaction to such an event. The news footage in Night is very realistic, adding to the sense of rising dread. It’s Romero’s only chance to show how the government is handling the situation, and it’s typically gritty; depicting the local authorities as gung-ho rednecks who have been itching to use their rifles. It’s easily Romero’s finest work as a screenwriter. In my opinion, his subsequent work hasn’t matched the skill on show here. Russo, meanwhile, has failed to make a name for himself, and the fans still haven’t forgiven him for that 30th Anniversary debacle. But after seeing the movie, it’s the conclusion that leaves the lasting impression, and critics never tire of dissecting its relevance.
After fighting off the ghouls, Ben had retreated to the basement. Emerging from the dark, he cautiously steps into the house….only to be gunned-down by a redneck; mistaken for one of the living dead. This is shocking in itself - how often does the leading man get killed? - yet the closing still shots of Ben’s body being treated like a piece of meat, as it gets thrown onto a raging fire, is chilling. Romero is clearly stating that man is just as bad as the zombies, and naturally, the dead are mirrors of ourselves (the director neatly referred to them as “the new society”, who “devour the old”). Society is changing. Crumbling. And we’ve only got ourselves to blame. The same bleak message would be repeated in Dawn, and again in Day. Are we building our own demise as a race? Romero seems to think so.
Ultimately, I can’t express my love for this film anymore than I have. Night of the Living Dead is a peerless horror picture - a classic of the genre, that provides potent food for thought. The mountains of praise it has received is certainly warranted, and I can only hope that Romero will continue to entertain audiences with the same twisted vision. For now, his “ultimate zombie masterpiece” is a good place to start…
When Contender announced this release, there were hopes that finally, after all this time, the UK would get a definitive edition of Living Dead. It pains me to say, that the resulting disc isn’t worth the wait - Elite’s famous “Millennium Edition” is still the one to own. So, what did Contender get wrong?
The Look and Sound
When the box art and advertising states that a film is “extensively restored and remastered”, you’d be forgiven for expecting a reference-quality transfer. Unfortunately, this is pretty far removed from Elite’s gorgeous THX-certified release. Contender have provided the film in its original full-frame presentation, and it’s not the doozie I was expecting. It’s not awful (if fact, it passes muster), but it’s full of problems. The sharpness of Elite’s disc is largely absent - the picture is soft, with noticeable grain from beginning to end. While print flaws have always been evident with Night, they standout a lot more on this release; although the blacks are pleasing, if not solid. For the most part, it’s never hard to see what’s going on, but there’s no vibrancy to the image - if you’ve seen Elite’s presentation, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Disappointing, indeed.
The audio fares better. Contender present the film in either Dolby Digital 5.1, or the original Mono. As ever for a film this old, the surround track is a little superfluous, but it’s a solid and clear remix (and is very similar to the ME track). Naturally, there isn’t much in the way of surround activity, with much of the action projected from the centre-stage. However, it was a wise move on the distributor’s part to include Mono too. For the purists, this is probably the best option, and it’s good to have it here for posterity.
These are fully-animated (unlike the ME), but they are also rather cheesy; depicting an unconvincing graveyard location, that doesn’t really suit the style of the film. That said, they are perfectly functional - although I’ll admit Elite’s menus were much better.
This will be the biggest draw for many shoppers, since Contender have ported over extras from the “Millennium Edition”. It’s easily the best disc to have appeared in the UK to date, although, for whatever reasons, Contender didn’t acquire the hilarious Night of the Living Bread short, or Stephen King’s liner notes. Also missing, is a host of shorts and commercials directed by Romero at Image Ten. Apart from these, the extras are identical.
There are two of these; the first with Romero, John Russo, Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman. Much of the commentary is technical, especially the problems of shooting on such a crippling budget. The group also go into fair detail on the formation of Image Ten, and how they got the film off the ground in the first place. Plenty of facts are covered, and Romero is very vocal about the pros and cons of his feature debut. The second track includes Judith O’Dea, Bill Hinzman, Keith Wayne, Kyra Schon, Russell Streiner and the late Vince Survinski. As you’d expect, the cast take a much more humorous look at the film - with some irreverent comments amid the facts. But they’re very proud of Living Dead, and their memories of the shoot are surprisingly clear. For fans, these tracks are golden.
The best of these, is the last interview with Duane Jones. It lasts for 16-minutes, but is only in audio form. Stills of the actor play during the run-time. Jones was a very eloquent speaker, and he seemed to appreciate the film; although he was a little bemused by its success. He goes into real depth on the project, and his opinions are insightful. The second, and last interview, is with Judith Ridley (who played Tom’s girlfriend in the film). This video-based piece lasts for 10-minutes, but it never goes into the same interesting terrain touched upon by the Jones piece. The topics raised were mostly covered elsewhere, but like everyone else, Ridley seems to look back on Night of the Living Dead fondly.
“There’s Always Vanilla”
These are scenes from Romero’s “lost” film There’s Always Vanilla (which was rumoured to be getting an Anchor Bay release, at one point). The film starred Ridley, and the footage shows a lot of Romero’s style. However, the quality of the footage is poor to say the least, so this will only be of interest to dedicated fans, and anyone curious.
These include stills from the set, including the promotional campaign, and even props from the movie. Viewers with DVD-ROM access can also read the full-length screenplay.
Rounding out the set, is a batch of US theatrical trailers and TV spots. It’s a good package, but the absence of some material may be enough to deter some collector’s from this release.
The Bottom Line
Night of the Living Dead is a wonderful horror film, and one of the finest in American cinema. Those with an interest in the genre should definitely give it a look - it’s the Citizen Kane of zombie films. As for Contender’s new disc, I was very disappointed. The video transfer isn’t up to scratch, and while it’s the best release in Britain to date, it still doesn’t trounce the all-mighty “Millennium Edition”. Serious fans should pick up the latter release, but Contender deserve some credit for presenting the film with a great platter of extras.