Blu-ray Review: Night of the Living Dead | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Night of the Living Dead

Studio: Criterion

Feb 21, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Making their debut in the 1968’s landmark Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero’s shambling flesh-eaters – “ghouls,” as they were referred to during production – birthed a new monster which, after 50 years, now dominates the horror genre. For a movie that had such a hand in shaping a pop culture archetype, perhaps the most delightful thing we glean from The Criterion Collection’s exhaustive Blu-ray edition is just how much the cast and crew were winging it as they went along.

There’s a great story shared by zombie Bill Hinzman in one of the film’s bonus documentaries; Hinzman played the cemetery zombie – the first “modern” zombie to appear on cinema screens – and was having difficulty with his direction. Without supplying any detail, Romero had instructed him to kill Johnny (Russ Streiner, also the film’s producer) as his sister, Barbara (Judith O’Dea), watched in horror. Hinzman was at a loss as to how to pull this off; he reminded Romero that the ghouls were supposed to have strength in numbers, and be weak on their own. Romero thought about it for a while.

“Fuck it. Just kill ‘im.”

Hinzman’s zombie, of course, semi-tackles Johnny to the ground, where his skull is bashed against a tombstone. He then takes off, chasing Barbara to her car and even picking up a brick to smash her windows. As an admittedly traditionalist zombie fan who repeatedly swore off the “fast zombies” which briefly became the near-standard in the wake of 28 Days Later, it’s almost embarrassing how easily I could forget that film’s first zombie could have easily beaten me in a foot race. And the thought of zombies using tools? Pshaw. In hindsight, it was as if I was actively ignoring how li’l Karen – probably Romero’s most iconic zombie – at one point wields a garden trowel like she’s Michael Myers.

Truth is, when he was making Night of the Living Dead, it doesn’t sound like Romero gave much of a shit one way or another whether his zombies were fast, slow, or could arm themselves. Most of the zombies interviewed – usually crew members, or local Pittsburghers – admit that they walked with their lumbering gaits not because they’d been told to do it that way, but because they’d grown up watching Boris Karloff as Frankenstein, and that was just how they assumed dead people should walk.

Heck, Romero never even called them “zombies” at this point. They were ghouls, simple as that. (“They’re dead. They’re all messed up.”) Perhaps if he’d thought to call them zombies, he’d have had an easier time naming the film. It was initially meant to be called “Night of the Flesh Eaters,” but the owners of the 1964 Jack Curtis movie The Flesh Eaters threatened to sue. Looking for a name no one else would ever use, a workprint was assembled under the title “Night of Anubis,” named for the Egyptian god of death. (This working cut is included here, for the first time ever, on this release; it’s in rough shape, and aside from alternate shots of a few zombies, is not as interesting as some might have hoped.) The distributors, of course, recognized this title as awful, and re-christened it as Night of the Living Dead.

There are so many other things to unpack when it comes to discussing Night of the Living Dead. There’s its influence on independent filmmaking: Romero inspired so many other low-budget, local-level success stories, from Sam Raimi to Robert Rodriguez to Kevin Smith. You also need to look at Ben (Duane Jones) as one of the earliest, most prominent examples of colorblind casting, and just how daring it was to have your black lead character slapping around his white castmates in 1968. There’s also its role in ushering in the era of the splatter film, the multiple ways that social commentary can be read into it, or that it’s such a damn well-acted piece of cinema from a bunch of no-name actors. (All of this, of course, is covered on Criterion’s many, many bonus materials.) No one’s ever argued over Night of the Living Dead’s importance. What truly remarkable is how, after half a century and an uncountable number of zombie films, novels, comics, TV shows, and video games, you can watch the original Night of the Living Dead and it still feels fresh and terrifying.

The restoration work on this Blu-ray edition – courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art – is nothing less than stunning. After decades of wretched, public domain transfers (and one hideous, colorized version) it’s genuinely eye-opening to see the film’s black-and-white cinematography in a clean, high-contrast presentation. This edition includes many new interviews and featurettes, including one with filmmakers Robert Rodriguez, Guillermo Del Toro, and Frank Darabont discussing the film’s influence on their own work, as well as audio commentaries brought over from old releases. One of the best extra features, also new here, is a reel of 16mm dailies from the shoot.


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