This is a really packed special edition for the film, the best Iíve yet come across, and Criterion not only adds a wealth of their own new material over the two dual-layer discs but they have also managed to carry over a lot of features from the Elite Millennium DVD edition, including the two audio commentaries found on that DVD and originally recorded in 1994 for Eliteís LaserDisc edition (Romero had also stated that LaserDisc was the first ďofficialĒ home video release of his film). As I stated earlier, my copy of the Elite DVD is now suffering from disc-rot so I canít make direct comparisons between features but from what I could sample of the tracks on that disc they are the same ones available here.
The two tracks are basically divided into crew and cast ones (sort of since duties on the film really required everyone to do multiple tasks on the film, working as both cast and crew), the first featuring Romero, John Russo, Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, and the second featuring Bill Hinzman, Judith OíDea, Keith Wayne, Kyra Schon, Russell Streiner and Vince Survinski. Rather impressively the two, despite the large collection of people between the two and both covering the film in its entirety there actually isnít that much overlap between the two tracks. Everyone shares their own tales on the learning curve involved in making the film, particularly when dealing with limited budget and resources, they joke about the mistakes made (Romero is especially horrified for not following the 180 rule when filming conversations), and both tracks feature discussion about Duane Jones, his performance, and how it was working with him. But the first track can be a bit heavier in technical details while the second track looks at it more from a performance perspective, including what it was like playing a zombie (or ďghoul,Ē there being some discussion what the proper term actually should be). I listened to both on my Elite DVD after I had initially bought it and found them entertaining, still holding up very well here.
Also found on the first discóand a rather big additionóis the rough cut of the film with the original title Night of Anubis. For those expecting a completely different version of the film you will most certainly be disappointed: other than one shot, the opening title card, and about 10-minutes of missing footage that could not be located (the sequence where Harry, Tom, and Judy come out of the cellar) this version is pretty much the same as what the finished film resembles. Because of the missing footage this cut does run shorter, at only 85-minutes.
So why bother including it if itís pretty much exactly the same as the finished film? Going through the special features it becomes apparent that Criterion is really going the extra mile here in explaining how this film was ultimately constructed. In an introduction that accompanies this version of the film, producer Russell Streiner explains that Night of Anubis is essentially the work print for the film, constructed using 16mm reductions made from the original 35mm elements to avoid heavily damaging those original elements during the editing process. Watching this work print it is obvious the elements really went through the ringer as Romero figured out the proper construction and pacing for the film, with a lot of obvious cutting, taping, and gluing of the elements. Other than the heavy damage and obvious splices this version does, for the most part, follow the finished film. Fans will be happy, though, that this version does include one shot that was removed from the finished film at the insistence of the original distributor: a day-for-night shot (that doesnít really work for night) of a large group of zombies walking across the field. This shot was mentioned in the commentaries but the participants lament that (at the time) the shot was lost and could not be located. Well, here it is now, and so that you donít have to search for it Criterion does actually properly index it here so that you can quickly jump to it. Along with the one short section that has gone missing the original audio for this cut is also gone, which I would guess missed the music and some sound effect. In its place Criterion has synched the filmís audio as best they can (there are a handful of noticeable synch issues). So, no, not a true alternate version by any means but I still found it a fascinating look at the editing process, with the added surprise of finally seeing that day-for-night shot thought to have been lost.
The remaining features are then found on the second disc. Light in the Darkness is a new interview segment with filmmakers Guillermo Del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Frank Darabont. In it the three talk about the impact the film had on them upon first seeing it and how its influences can be found in either their own work or the ďzombie genreĒ as a whole (pretty much everything Romero created in this film still holds true with zombie films today). They also offer their admiration for his the filmís look, his skillful editing, as well as his impressive use of pre-recorded ďLibraryĒ music, making the feature a rather lovely tribute to Romero and his film. It runs around 24-minutes.
In lieu of more deleted footage Criterion next presents 18-minutesí worth of dailies, which were, according to the accompanying 4-minute introduction from sound engineer Gary Streiner, discovered when they were actually looking for additional footage and scenes shot for the film. Unfortunately none of that other footage was found. Still, we get some alternate takes here including some different reveals for the corpse on the top of the stairs. The audio, though, has been lost so it is presented silent here.
Learning from Scratch is a rather entertaining discussion featuring co-writer John Russo talking about the Latent Image, a small industrial film company in which he and Romero were partners. He jokes about how ďlow-rentĒ their facilities were but they got a number of contracts from corporations in the Pittsburgh area creating commercials and promotional films, and Criterion does provide clips (I remember the Elite DVD containing these as well but I was unable to double check if itís the same as what was here, though Iím pretty sure the Dukeís Beer and Calgon ad were at least there). Whatís amusing, though, is that it sounds as though none of these guys had any formal education in filmmaking, coming into the business completely clueless, so they used their work there as their education, from shooting all the way to editing. This all helped to a great degree when they went to make Night of the Living Dead and Russo attributes Romeroís and everyone elseís experience at the company to the filmís rather polished finish. Itís a really fun 12-minute discussion.
There is then some great archival material, first with a VHS recording of a TV newsreel, taken from b-roll footage shot for a news broadcast covering the production at the time, presented here with original music by Jeff Carney. Itís the only known ďbehind-the-scenesĒ footage known to exist for the film and runs about 3-minutes. Jim Cirronella then edits together footage from 2009 shot for the documentary film Autopsy of the Dead, which he wrote and produced, about the making of Night of the Living Dead. Called Walking Like the Dead the 13-minute compilation features Ella Mae Smith, Charles Craig, Lee Hartman, Herbert Summer, William Mogush, Dave James, Regis Survinski, William Burchinal, Kyra Schon (who played Karen), and S. William Hinzman (the cemetery ghoul), all talking about their zombie performances. Itís a pretty amusing feature as the performers explain how they came to get the roles (they were simply in the area and approached in most cases), the direction they got (not that much actually), and how they came up with now iconic lurching and look (a happy coincidence). Another fun addition.
Tones of Terror is another feature put together and narrated by Cirronella, looking at Romeroís impressive use of pre-recorded Capital ďHi-QĒ Library music, which was a cheaper option than recording a new score. Cirronella explains what the Hi-Q library is and goes over the various genres the music covered. He then showcases how Romero would have had to meticulously go through its offerings, since many cues were spread out over multiple albums, and how brilliantly he edits a number of scenes to this music (like how the reveal of a gun in a closet is perfectly in synch with the music). My appreciation for the construction of the film is only enhanced with features like this oneÖ
...and the next one, an essay by Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos of Every Frame a Painting, called Limitations into Virtues. Calling the film a ďmasterpiece of working with what you have,Ē the essay looks at how the filmmakers, whether purposely or completely by accident used the technical limitations to their advantage in creating a tense horror film that still holds up remarkably well today. For example, technical limitations involving synched audio called for static camera shots and cutting between actors, picking up the pace, while sequences where sound wasnít required could be done handheld, giving the film a great flow between dialogue scenes and more action oriented scenes. This also leads to a great rhythm in editing that builds up to some of the filmís tenser moments. Itís a solid visual essay, and after this and their excellent one for The Breaking Point Iím really hoping Criterion commissions more material from them.
Digging into the NBC archives they have access to, Criterion next presents an 18-minute excerpt from a July 3rd, 1979 episode of Tomorrow, featuring host Tom Snyder interviewing directors George A. Romero and Don Coscarelli, who both had their own horror films coming out, Dawn of the Dead and Phantasm respectively. Here the three talk about the then-renaissance of horror cinema and how it was making its way more into the mainstream with more bigger studio films coming out (Alien gets mentioned). Romero and Coscarelli share their own personal thoughts on what is needed for the genre at the time, Romero saying he has to inject more humour in his work otherwise audiences donít seem to take it as seriously, before the two talk about the horror films that made an impact on them. I ended up being surprised by how academic the conversation ended up being, figuring initially that Snyder might just try to get through the interview quickly, but he asks some good questions and the guests have great answers. It also acts a great sort of time capsule giving some context to this time period (late 70s/early 80s) in horror filmmaking. A really solid find.
Higher Learning presents a 45-minute interview with Romero, recorded in 2012 at the Toronto International Film Festival, with the director even taking questions from the audience. This is a really amazing interview with the man, who is again very open and willing to talk about many aspects of Night of the Living Dead and his other work, though with a primary focus on his zombie films. He also talks about the zombie genre as it is today, sharing his thoughts on what a zombie film needs to work. But his thoughts on Night of the Living Dead are his most valuable contributions, musing over its longevity despite everything, and explaining how many of the socio-political elements people read into the film simply arenít there. In particular he comments on how Cahiers du cinema, and others, read it as a commentary on race in America because of Jones being cast in the lead, though as Romero states here (and throughout other features in this release) Jones was cast simply because he was the best actor for the role. This then segues to a rather depressing revelation: though Romero didnít actively set out to cast a black actor in the first film he mentions here that he has intentionally cast black actors in his other ďDeadĒ films since, and intended to do the same with Land of the Dead, but the studio wouldnít allow him. As I said Romero is very open and honest here, sharing lots of things like that about his work and the difficulties he runs into with both studio and independent films, and itís all incredible. Itís a very satisfying and engaging discussion and will be something fans of the director will want to check out.
An audio interview with Duane Jones that appeared on the Elite DVD also appears here, though it seems to be longer, the text notes around the feature explaining that there is more material here. I could see the interview on the Elite DVD runs over 14-minutes while this one runs 22-minutes. Unfortunately I was unable to play the feature on my DVD so canít compare whatís exclusive here. At any rate Jones talks about his experience making the film, which he does not regret at all though admits to a certain annoyance that once people realize heís in the film thatís all he wants to talk about. But he shares stories from the set that are amusing, and talks fondly of the film, admiring it on a technical level. But itís not all sun and rainbows as he shares a rather awful story about a night he was traveling through Pittsburgh. The interview was recorded in December of 1987, not too long before his death, and Iím thankful Criterion has carried it over.
Judith Ridleyís interview, recorded originally in 1994 for the Elite LaserDisc, also gets ported over. Itís a breezy 11-minutes, OíDea just sharing her experience on the film, the environment on set, and what she has been up to since.
To add some contextualization to the throwaway mention in the film of a radioactive satellite having something to do with raising the dead Criterion provides a 2-minute excerpt from a 1967 news segment on the Venus Probe. Following this is then a collection of trailers, including the original and the 2017 Janus re-release, 2 TV spots that are basically just truncated versions of the original trailer, and the 4 radio spots, two from 1968 and two for a 1970 re-release (the last one redoing one of the 1968 spots).
Disappointingly this edition doesnít receive a booklet but instead gets a poster insert. On one side of the fold out is an illustration of the iconic image of Karen zombie-fied, while an essay by Stuart Klawans appears on the other side, Klawans choosing to focus specifically on the film and not on the sub-genre that Romero pretty much created.
One thing missing is any mention of the 30th Anniversary cut. This cut, which I admittedly havenít seen, has been trashed since its release and was not approved by Romero so itís not at all a surprise there isnít anything about it here, but it may have been interesting to at least have it here in some form for posterityís sake.
At any rate, that exclusion is forgivable and Iím sure many want it to be forgotten. As it is, though, this is the most comprehensive and loving edition yet put together for the film, easily topping what the Elite edition had. This will keep fans busy for hours and the experience of going through all of this content was incredibly rewarding. 10/10