DVD Review: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 40th Anniversary Edition

An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · May 19, 2019, 12:38 PM PDT
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NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on May 19, 2008, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

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There are some who are gonna feel really old as Night of the Living Dead marks the 40th anniversary that Dimension Extreme celebrates with the latest of several DVD special editions (not even counting all the PD discs that have popped up over the years). But for the countless horror fans who weren’t even born in 1968, George A. Romero’s film has simply always been around, a venerated classic that has inspired a string of sequels and official remakes and an unending series of knockoffs, from big-budget affairs to backyard homages. Time and imitation may have taken a bit of the edge off its scare factor when it’s viewed today, but nothing can temper the impact of Night’s raw craft, stark black-and-white images and simple, intense, claustrophobic drama, as a disparate group of people trapped in an isolated farmhouse deal with a world turned upside down by a plague of implacable, flesh-hungry ghouls.

Longtime collectors of home-video horror might feel some passage-of-time nostalgia at the realization that we’re closing in on the 15th anniversary of Night’s appearance on laserdisc. Back in 1994, that format was the domain of “highbrow” cinema and big-budget studio product—until an upstart little company called Elite Entertainment saw fit to give Romero’s landmark, long relegated to battered prints and lackluster VHS presentations, the deluxe treatment it deserved. Younger DVDevotees who spend their time on-line these days dissecting the minutest flaws of picture and sound may not remember or appreciate what a revelation that two-disc set was, with its cleaned-up image and audio that gave Night a whole new “life” and encouraged a fresh admiration of its craft. The supplements were impressive too, highlighted by a pair of commentary tracks by Romero and his cast. Elite subsequently issued this package on DVD in 1997, and then in an even more jam-packed “Millennium Edition” in 2002.

A decent portion of those extras have been ported over onto Dimension’s new disc: the commentaries, the final interview with late star Duane Jones (audio only, accompanied by photos), a still gallery including color behind-the-scenes shots and the shooting script in DVD-ROM format, supplementing a restored and remastered fullscreen transfer. The talk tracks are somewhat dated but still worth a listen for first-timers, as is the Jones chat, in which he reveals conflicted but eventually warm feelings about his association with Romero’s film. The news is similarly mixed regarding the new transfer: It boasts a crisper picture than that of the Millennium Edition, though the additional sharpness also enhances grain and flicker from time to time. A number of jumpy splices have now been fixed, but the image is cropped in, losing picture information on all four sides, at certain points; compare the two versions at the hour mark for one especially noticeable example.

New in the bonus area are the Romero interview segment Speak of the Dead and the feature-length documentary One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead. The former, a 15-minute excerpt from the filmmaker’s appearance at a Rue Morgue festival in Toronto, finds him discoursing on subjects that haven’t been done to death (pardon the pun) elsewhere. He reveals that, as opposed to his feelings back in the day, he now believes he should have rewritten Night’s script to reflect the casting of African-American Jones in the lead, and shares his thoughts on Dario Argento’s European cut of Dawn of the Dead, claiming that British censors wanted to trim far more of Argento’s version than his.

One from the Fire, directed and produced by Chris Roe and Robert L. Lucas, eschews a straight chronology in favor of themed segments (in the manner of the Texas Chainsaw doc Flesh Wounds, whose creator Michael Felsher edited this feature). Despite the subtitle, there’s just as much emphasis here on Night’s origins as on its influence, as Romero and all his surviving collaborators recall their first meetings (during which the director apparently dressed as and quoted from characters out of Cyrano de Bergerac and Viva Zapata!), the formation of their Latent Image commercials company (with clips from their ads, including the Calgon/Fantastic Voyage spot) and reminiscences of how the lines between various production positions on Night were not so much blurred as non-existent, in part because none of them had any experience with how to make a feature. One particularly candid moment finds Romero admitting that the hardest part of taking on the directing job was “having to grow up” and make hard decisions.

A number of individuals associated with Night receive their own little chapters, including a few who are no longer with us, from “jack of all trades” production director Vince Survinski to Jones himself, who apparently argued for a race-specific rewrite (Romero notes here too that he agrees today). One recurring nice touch has several of the actors revisiting the locations of their scenes, starting with Judith O’Dea and Russell Streiner in the cemetery (with introductory shots evoking those of the film itself) and continuing right through Night’s sheriff George (“beat ’em or burn ’em”) Kosana. Speaking of that graveyard, a bit with its featured zombie Bill Hinzman reveals that this opening scene was the last part of the movie to be shot, and that Romero got hit by the rock that Hinzman’s ghoul throws through the car window!

Undeniably the most poignant section is an interview with actor Karl Hardman, conducted shortly before his death, and his partner Marilyn Eastman. Hardman clearly still valued his experiences on Night, and warmly acknowledges how lucky everyone was to be a part of it, even as (later in the doc) he acknowledges that he thought his performance was lousy when he first saw it. There’s another sad moment as Streiner and co-scripter John Russo revisit their old Pittsburgh offices, specifically the basement, where the farmhouse cellar sequences were filmed—and where a flood destroyed outtakes and other invaluable Night paraphernalia. Among the lost documents: the copyright notice, as an intercut Romero recalls how the title change from Night of the Flesh Eaters led to this notation being left off the movie, plunging it into the public domain following its release.

In the “The more things change…” department, it’s disclosed that Columbia Pictures would have taken on that distribution—if the filmmakers had changed the ending. One for the Fire itself, after an hour and a half of heartfelt and funny recollections and eye-opening revelations, closes with comments about Night’s impact by a half-dozen genre professionals, including Bill Moseley, Greg Nicotero, Max Brooks and Alice Cooper, the latter of whom offers to star in a follow-up called Rock of the Dead.

A silly idea? Perhaps—but then Romero reveals that of all his excursions into the land of the undead, Night is the only one he still considers frightening: “Since then, I haven’t tried to scare,” he says at the close of One for the Fire. Bearing in mind that you won’t want to get rid of your copy of the Millennium Edition, this latest DVD is a fine evocation of how the director and his underbudgeted but devoted cohorts tried and succeeded at creating true cinematic terror.