FEBRUARY 23, 2011
I still remember my first copy of Night Of The Living Dead; it was a VHS I found in a ‘dump bin’ at the local Suncoast, which means I probably got it for 4.99 at the absolute most. At the time, I didn’t know about its public domain issues (or even what public domain WAS), so I thought it was a steal – this was a classic horror movie! Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby and such all cost 19.99! Of course, the quality was awful, though not as bad as some others I’ve seen/owned (all told, I’ve probably owned eight or nine copies of the film over the years). My second copy was that 2 tape edition that Elite put out around 1997, and I remember being so blown away by the awesome ‘before and after’ example at the top of the tape showing how much work they put into the transfer.
Well this most recent “A-level” release (2008 from Dimension/Genius, released in conjunction with Diary of the Dead) is once again remastered, and it does indeed look the best I’ve ever seen. The photography is actually quite striking at times, particularly in Barbra’s hectic run from the cemetery to the house, as well as the truck “escape” later on, and previous releases never offered this much detail and strong contrast ratios. Add in the quite worthy bonus features, and this is probably the best bang for the buck release ever of this movie (though the 1999 special edition was no slouch either, and in fact I am pretty sure the commentaries on this disc were taken from that release).
The movie, of course, is a classic, and I never tire of watching it. Even Dawn, which I more or less prefer, I really need to be in the mood to watch (partially due to the length), but Night I can throw on pretty much whenever and be just as entertained as I was the first time. And since it was I believe the first time I watched it back to back with the remake (I only did it in reverse because I knew I had to see Rubber today and had to make Night "non-canon" no matter when I watched it, so it just worked out that way), it was eye opening at times with regards to certain aspects, in particular the Ben/Cooper relationship. While their dynamic is antagonistic in both films, it’s more cooperative here. Even after the two come to blows, they still talk like adults and (in their own warped way) work together to come up with a plan, and I particularly like that Ben offers to carry Cooper’s daughter. At the same time, Ben’s more of a dick in this version – he won’t even let Cooper take some food down? What the hell, man?
And as I mentioned yesterday, it’s just a truly creepy film. I can’t imagine how blown away I might have been if I saw it when it was first released, when this level of “gore” and macabre thrills hadn’t really been seen before. By the time I saw it in the mid 90s, I had already seen Dawn, plus the remake and I think even Cemetery Man, not to mention Texas Chain Saw Massacre and any number of gory slashers. But that didn’t diminish its power; those early scenes are still quite effective, and the sense of dread and world-ending doom is apparent throughout the entire film. Even when it’s just the actors yakking in the house sans any zombies, you can FEEL the isolation and general feeling of “we’re all fucked”, in a way that Savini’s remake and pretty much every other non-Romero zombie film (and even some of his, most notably Diary) ever managed. And it starts right off the bat – one of the most effective little ‘scares’ in the movie is when Johnny’s radio suddenly comes back to life, and we realize that it wasn’t off during their drive – it was just ‘down’ due to the zombie plague that had already begun. Awesome.
I also truly appreciate that it set a good precedent for future zombie movies. While I’m not saying it CAN’T be done, I always prefer when the undead still roam at the end of the picture, and I suspect that if Romero had taken that route at the end of Night, it would have been far more common to see “problem solved” endings to these things, with the “it still goes on” endings considered nihilistic, instead of the norm. Interestingly, another concept never really caught on – the fact that zombies eat animals. I’m sure there are a few others, but for whatever reason, a zombie making a snack out of a woodland creature or whatever remains quite elusive (there IS that one shark, however...).
Another thing that elevates this movie above its remake (if you didn’t read that review – in short, I like that film’s ending more than this one, and some of the other little changes, but overall I think this is the superior film) is that it doesn’t introduce Harry and Tom so quickly. I think we’re about 40 minutes into the movie before they show up here (Ben’s arrival is also delayed a bit, allowing more time with an isolated Barbra), whereas they pop up around 25-30 minutes into the remake. I always prefer smaller groups in zombie tales for whatever reason (another reason why I like Dawn more than Night), so keeping it to just Barbra and/or Ben for a longer period totally works for me. Especially since the actors aren’t all that great – the females in particular are pretty stiff (love the delivery on “Don’t be afraid – I’m Helen Cooper!”).
One thing that the remake did better is the key/gas pump scene. Here it really doesn’t make any sense, the key just doesn’t work for some reason, and then Tom starts spraying the gas around like an idiot. He still behaves like an idiot in the remake, but at least they built in some irony with the fact that the gas pump key was clearly labeled and would have been found if Cooper wasn’t such an asshole (or if Ben had just gone into the cellar to begin with). The actual gas pump key in this version remains a mystery.
Speaking of this scene, in film school we had to do a project for our sound class where we got muted clips of a movie and had to recreate the sound design, and I got this particular scene (from the moment they leave the house to right after the truck blows up). I, being a wiseass, gave all the characters “funny” voices (including the insect that buzzes past Cooper’s face when he looks out the window) and did pretty much all the sounds (intentionally poorly) with my mouth: gunshots, explosions, etc. And for the zombies, I took the moaning from Day of the Dead. If I can find it I’ll put it up on Youtube or something.
As I mentioned, this release has some great extras, including a full length retrospective documentary featuring just about everybody of significance (plus John Russo) that is still alive, and contains some great behind the scenes photos and footage, including some priceless photos in color (real color, not colorized). It’s actually sort of jarring to see Johnny and Barbra in full color, but I wouldn’t have minded some more. They cover the entire production, including thoughts on the unfortunate copyright situation (apparently Russo and Russ Streiner are still trying to correct it), and there’s a touching bit about the late Duane Jones that I quite liked. Jones’ last interview (available previously) is also included, and even though he dislikes talking about the film, he still manages to sound personable and intelligent, making it worth a listen even if he barely reflects on his experiences shooting the film. A trailer is also included, and while it’s a typically terrible trailer from the era, I will never not laugh at the voiceover guy’s booming voice when he says “A night... of total ter-ROR!!!” (I also like his overlong dramatic pause for the title: Night!!! ..................of the Living Dead!”). There’s also a brief Q&A with Romero from some Canadian screening or festival, but most of what he says is repeated elsewhere and if there was any audience participation it has been removed; only the moderator asks anything. I prefer to hear the audience questions for these things, because you get more off-the-cuff nonsense.
Another reason I wish I was alive earlier is because I never got to see the movie in a drive-in or on a late night cable broadcast. I think it would be so awesome to be 10 or 11 and staying up late to watch it on one of the local channels (with or without a horror host), or in a drive-in, where I wouldn’t mind the film’s library score and mono soundtrack coming out of my little car speakers (I was recently at a drive-in shooting a movie and was amazed to see people going to see Unstoppable or Red– yeah that DTS sound mix must sound amazing coming out of 1520 AM or whatever the frequency was there). I mean, does it even air on late night broadcasts anymore? Seems the entire late night lineup is comprised of infomercials or actual programming (repeats of CSI, Law & Order and such). One of my favorite parts of Halloween II is when the guy is just sleeping in front of it even though it just started – almost like the movie is a sort of comfort for folks who like these things, the way It’s A Wonderful Life is for Christmas, or how ID4 is almost watchable on the Fourth of July. In fact, it seems almost counter-productive to be watching it on a pristine DVD with a bunch of bells and whistles – I would actually PREFER to go back to a low-quality version, just to retain some of that low-budget feel. But however you see it, if you haven’t yet – you’re doing it wrong. This one film inspired enough material for an entire week’s worth of HMAD entries (and then some), and even on that shitty VHS I first bought, when I was barely into high school, I could recognize its power. One of the few horror films that I truly believe will never ever be forgotten.
What say you?