Tuesday, February 20, 2018

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) Criterion Blu Ray Review

by John Scoleri

As a lifelong fan of George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was thrilled when the announcement was made that Criterion would be releasing the Museum of Modern Art's 4k restoration of the film on Blu Ray and DVD in time for the film's 50th anniversary. The new restoration also allowed for Image Ten (the creators of and investors in the original film) to secure a copyright to the what is now the only version of the film worth owning. I’m not going to spend a lot of time here talking about the film itself, beyond stating my opinion that it’s the greatest horror film of all time, bar none. If you’ve never seen it, rest assured there is no better time, nor edition, with which to familiarize yourself with this classic film. The purpose of this review is to provide detailed information on this new Blu Ray release, comparing how the transfer stacks up to prior releases, and detailing the numerous extras to be found on the two-disc Blu Ray set.

I almost envy those of you who have previously only seen NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in poor quality versions, as the comparison to the restoration will be revelatory. Yes, it’s cliché to say that the film has never looked this good before on home video, but it’s undeniably true. If you’re familiar with the Japanese Happinet Blu Ray (without a doubt the best release prior to this one), you’ll already know that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD can look good in HD. While at first glance you might not recognize the difference in video quality between the Japanese disc and the Criterion release (ignoring the poor quality Mill Creek 'anniversary' Blu Ray rushed out last fall to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the film's restoration and theatrical rerelease), it doesn't take long to see just how significant an improvement the new restoration is over the Japanese disc. Contrast is greatly improved—very noticeably in some of the darker basement scenes, where blacks are crushed and whites tend to bloom on the Japanese release. Additionally, prior releases were very tightly cropped, whereas the film is presented here in its 1.37:1 aspect ratio, frequently with additional information on all edges of the frame. I cannot stress enough just how much of an improvement this new edition is over every other release of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to date. And short of Criterion getting into the 4K/UHD market, this will be the only version of this film worth watching for years to come.

As if the finest presentation of the film itself were not enough, Criterion is to be praised for assembling an amazing selection of new and previously created special features to make this the ultimate edition of the film. Here are my thought on those:

NIGHT OF ANUBIS, a never-before-presented work-print edit of the film. Introduced by producer Russ Streiner.
Streiner discusses how George Romero and his colleagues at The Latent Image edited their films on 16mm reductions of 35mm footage, and this version of the film represents the cut that George assembled by hand. Despite a) some missing footage (Tom and Harry first coming upstairs from the basement, and Bill Cardille interviewing Sheriff McClelland), b) not having the original dialog track present (the audio from the release print has been married to the work print), and c) having been cut to conform with the length of the release print (meaning the portion of the basement scene cut for time that resulted in a jump cut in the finished film remains lost to the ages), the work print contains two particularly wonderful treats for fans. First, the ability to see the NIGHT OF ANUBIS title card on an actual print of the film. Until a few years ago, most fans (this one included) had no idea that any print existed with the ANUBIS title, so it was extremely cool to see that represented herein. Second, and even more exciting, is a day-for-night shot of the ghouls in the field approaching the house. This shot was replaced in the finished film with an alternate take of ghouls feasting on the remains of Tom and Judy (it can be seen right after Harry Cooper looks out the window and says, “Good Lord!”). Thankfully for us, the change didn’t require an adjustment to the dialogue track or overall running time, so the scene was not replaced when the work print was edited to conform to the release print. Criterion was kind enough to place a chapter stop right before the shot, for those not interested in viewing the work print in its entirety. Another side benefit of the inclusion of the work print is that it provides a great frame of reference with which to compare how a well-worn, 16mm reduction of the film compares to the all-new 4K restoration.

Light in the Darkness: The Impact of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
I really enjoyed listening to Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro and Robert Rodriguez discuss the film; particularly Darabont and del Toro, as their love for NIGHT really shines through as they describe the impact it had on them as horror fans and filmmakers. And kudos to Darabont for identifying some of the specific elements of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend that Romero drew upon in crafting the story.

Dead Relics - Never-before-seen 16 mm dailies reel, introduced by Gary Streiner
Any disappointment in the absence of the lost basement footage is quickly forgotten when you get to this treasure trove of dailies (a portion of which were flopped at some point, as Gary Streiner explains in his introduction). Included in the 18 minutes of footage are multiple takes of the posse and ghouls outside the house, Ben and Harry’s confrontation, Karen attacking Ben, the ghouls closing in on the cellar door, and even several takes of the zoom in to the skull at the top of the stairs.


Learning from Scratch: The Latent Image and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
John Russo provides a nice overview of Image Ten and the work the team was doing before they made the decision to mount a feature film. The featurette includes several of the Latent Image commercials they worked on, including some not released with previous editions of the film.

Limitations into Virtues
An interesting analysis of the making of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. While this type of thing can easily come off as scholarly and pretentious, and some of the suggestions made seem to be a bit o a stretch, there’s still plenty of interesting food for thought here.

 
Tones of Terror: The  NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD Score
I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there who knows more about the library music used in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD than Jim Cirronella, who in 2010 produced THEY WON’T STAY DEAD—the definitive CD collection of Capitol Hi-Q library cues used in the film (watch for an expanded vinyl release of cues from Waxworks Records later this year). Cirronella narrates this featurette, providing an excellent analysis of how Romero used the library music throughout the film, and highlights several scenes where it is clear that George was cutting the film to match the existing cues.

Walking Like the Dead
This featurette re-purposes some of the interview footage shot for Jeff Carney and Jim Cirronella’s excellent 2009 documentary AUTOPSY OF THE DEAD, enhanced herein by the inclusion of numerous rare behind the scenes photographs of ghouls. I highly recommend the full documentary if you enjoy this brief featurette.

There’s a 45m interview/Q&A with George from the Toronto International Film Festival. While I had previously seen this online, it's a welcome addition to provide a more recent interview with Romero.

A 1979 episode of Tomorrow with Tom Snyder
The episode features George and PHANTASM director Don Coscarelli as guests,  talking about their newly released films (DAWN OF THE DEAD in George’s case). I was initially surprised that Don seemed so comfortable being paired with George; I would have expected any young horror filmmaker to defer to the master in a scenario like that. But Don comes across as very confident, and it’s easy to forget that PHANTASM was his third film, so he wasn't a brand new filmmaker at this point in his career.

A few minutes of silent footage shot when Bill Cardille and his WIIC cameraman Steve Hutsko visited the set to shoot their scenes for the film are included from the only extant VHS source. As this is the only behind the scenes footage that exists from the making of the film, it’s another welcome addition—in any quality.

An amusing Venus Probe newsreel from the period is also included.

Rounding things out are vintage and contemporary Trailers, a TV spot, and radio spots from 1968 as well as from the 70s, after the film was recognized as a horror classic.

Legacy features:
- Two audio commentaries from 1994 featuring Romero and members of the cast and crew
- 1987 audio interview with Duane Jones
- 1994 video interview with Judith Ridley
These features, several of which have appeared on multiple DVD releases throughout the years, allow fans to hear from many of the original cast and crew members who worked on the film. It's particularly nice to have those who are no longer with us represented on what is now the gold standard release of the film. I revisited several of these features for the first time since they appeared on the 1994 Elite LaserDisc release for the purpose of this review, and they all held up well. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the Duane Jones interview contained material not included in earlier presentations, along with several great photos of Duane. So don’t skip it just because you think you’ve heard it all before!

IN SUMMARY

A bare bones HD release of this restoration would have earned a must-buy recommendation from me. Considering the wealth of supplementary materials that are included, there's no excuse not to add this two-disc set to your library.

With NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD now in the Criterion Collection, those who might have previously written it off as just a cult film can no longer deny it the classic status it so richly deserves.

4 comments:

quatermass said...

I couldn't agree more!!!

Christine said...

Great review! I feel like I've just seen this movie for the first time. I didn't think it was possible that it could be more terrifying, but having such a sharp image and clear audio has really intensified the level of fear it induces. I appreciate the details you've provided on the special features. I haven't gotten to those yet, but it will help me decide what I want to check out first. This is definitely more than a cult film. The question is, will DAWN OF THE DEAD follow?

John Scoleri said...

I expect that Criterion would be interested - the issue lies with Richard Rubinstein, who owns the rights to DAWN. Several years ago he dropped $6 million to do a 3D conversion that outside a handful of theatrical screenings remains unreleased. And 3D home entertainment is a rapidly shrinking market. I hope someone is able to dangle enough cash in front of him to acquire the license...

Tim@showboxbuzz said...

I love the black and white cinematography and the matricide scene, to me, is far more disturbing than the infamous shower scene in Psycho. But, agreed, probably tough thing to watch for a young kid.