Night of the Living Dead
Shot outside Pittsburgh on a shoestring budget, by a band of filmmakers determined to make their mark, Night of the Living Dead, directed by horror master George A. Romero, is a great story of independent cinema: a midnight hit turned box-office smash that became one of the most influential films of all time. A deceptively simple tale of a group of strangers trapped in a farmhouse who find themselves fending off a horde of recently dead, flesh-eating ghouls, Romero’s claustrophobic vision of a late-1960s America literally tearing itself apart rewrote the rules of the horror genre, combining gruesome gore with acute social commentary and quietly breaking ground by casting a Black actor (Duane Jones) in its lead role.
Night of the Living Dead was restored by the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Celeste Bartos Preservation Fund.
Geroge A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead receives a 4K UHD upgrade from The Criterion Collection, presented here in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer, BD-66 disc. Criterion also includes a standard dual-layer Blu-ray presenting a 1080p presentation of the film. That disc (along with a second standard Blu-ray containing special features) are the exact same discs found in Criterion’s previous Blu-ray edition. For the 4K presentation here Criterion is utilizing the same restoration that was the source for their previous Blu-ray. Sadly, the 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition image is presented without any form of HDR and is instead delivered in 10-bit SDR.
So, I will admit right off that I was skeptical about this release, figuring that a full 4K presentation wouldn’t offer that significant of a bump in quality over Criterion’s already impressive Blu-ray, and though I feel I was kinda correct in my assumption there is a noticeable boost to the picture, one that is a bit more obvious than I would have figured.
Right off the base restoration and presentation still looks great. The Blu-ray’s image was stellar and everything great about that one naturally feeds into this one as well. Outside of moments where the materials and/or original photography limit it the image is significantly sharper with wider contrast and a sharper grayscale, all leading to more detail, even finer ones. The restoration has cleaned things up almost impeccably and damage is not an issue.
Where the 4K upgrade further improves upon things is in the areas of the encode and the picture's dynamic range, despite the lack of HDR. Film grain was rendered decently on the Blu-ray but there was room for improvement and this presentation provides it, resolving it in a far cleaner and more natural manner. The range in the grays also looks a little wider which leads to smoother transitions of the darker grays into the shadows. Black levels even look a little stronger and I didn’t find them to crush or flatten anything out. All of this does lend the image a nicer looking film texture.
Yet as good as it does look I still feel HDR could have really pushed things and it’s a shame it isn’t here, though maybe I’m deluding myself into thinking it’s always going to be a boon for a presentation and the reality is it won’t bring much to the table for this film (though seeing how it helped Raging Bull makes me think it would still help here). But either way, yes, this presentation does look better than what the previous Blu-ray offered. Is it worth upgrading to if someone already owns the Blu-ray edition? Sure, if you’re picking it up at a half-off sale.
The film's audio is again presented in lossless single-channel PCM mono. It sounds fine, dialogue and music sounding clear despite the latter basically being canned music (it comes from a pre-recorded library). Range is limited but that isn't too big of a surprise. There's still some audible background noise but it's faint, and there is no severe damage to speak of. Despite its limitations it's still the best audio presentation I've heard for the film.
Since Criterion is literally porting over the discs from their previous Blu-ray edition to this one you get the exact same stacked collection of features found there. The 4K UHD disc does not include any special features outside of the audio commentaries originally recorded in 1994 for Elite’s LaserDisc edition (Romero had also stated that LaserDisc was the first “official” home video release of his film) and carried over to Elite’s DVD edition. I did own that DVD at one point but as I had stated in the article for Criterion’s Blu-ray edition my copy was suffering from disc-rot so I was unable to make direct comparisons between the shared features found here and on that DVD. From what I was able to sample of the tracks it does sound as though Criterion carried the tracks over intact. I have since thrown that DVD out and no longer own it.
The two tracks are divided into crew and cast ones, though it’s a loose division since duties on the film required everyone to do multiple tasks on the film, working as both cast and crew. The first track features Romero, John Russo, Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, and the second features Bill Hinzman, Judith O’Dea, Keith Wayne, Kyra Schon, Russell Streiner and Vince Survinski. Rather impressively the two tracks, despite the large collection of people between the them all talking over the film in its entirety, there isn’t that much overlap between them. 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 what it was working with him. 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 “ghoul,” discussion popping up around what the proper term should be. Both are entertaining and still hold up almost 3 decades later.
The remaining features are then spread over the two standard Blu-ray discs. The first Blu-ray presents the film in 1080p with the two optional commentaries. This first Blu-ray disc also features what I still consider the edition’s biggest inclusion, the rough cut of the film featuring the original title Night of Anubis. I’ll still forewarn, though, that those expecting a completely different version are in for a world of disappointment: 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 it’s pretty much 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 elements during the editing process. Watching this work print it is obvious that was the smart move because it’s clear the 16mm reductions 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. Other than the heavy damage and obvious splices this version does, for the most part, follow the finished film. Fans will be happy to see 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 doesn’t really work for night) of a large group of zombies walking across the field. This shot was mentioned in both commentaries but the participants lament that (at the time) the shot was lost and could not be located. Well, here it is(!), and in a nice touch Criterion does properly index it here so that you can quickly jump to it without having to search. 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 film’s finished audio as best they can, and it’s not all that bad even if there are a handful of noticeable synch issues. Still not a true alternate version by any means but I found it provides 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 Blu-ray disc. Light in the Darkness is a new interview segment with filmmakers Guillermo Del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Frank Darabont. In it the three discuss 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 “zombie genre” 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 film’s look, his skillful editing, and his impressive use of pre-recorded “Library” music. The program ends up being a rather lovely tribute to Romero and his film. It runs around 24-minutes.
In lieu of more deleted footage Criterion next presents 18-minutes’ worth of dailies, which were, according to the accompanying 4-minute introduction from sound engineer Gary Streiner, discovered when they were looking for additional footage and scenes shot for the film. Unfortunately, none of that other footage was found. What we get instead are alternate takes for a handful of scenes, including some different reveals for the corpse on the top of the stairs. Unsurprisingly, the audio for this material has also been lost and it is presented in silence here.
Learning from Scratch is a rather entertaining inclusion 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 “low-rent” their facilities were but they got a number of contracts from corporations in the Pittsburgh area to create 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 it’s the same as what was here. I’m pretty sure the Duke’s Beer and Calgon ad were at least there.) Amusingly it sounds as though none of these guys had any formal education in filmmaking and came 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 Romero’s and everyone else’s experience at the company to the film’s surprisingly polished finish. It’s a really fun 12-minute feature.
Some great archival material has also been included, first being a VHS recording of a TV newsreel taken from the b-roll footage shot for a news broadcast covering the production at the time, presented here with original music by Jeff Carney. It’s the only known “behind-the-scenes” footage 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. It’s an amusing feature with the performers explaining how they came to get the roles (they were simply in the area and approached in most cases), the direction they received from Romero (not that much actually), and how they came up with now iconic lurching and look (through a happy coincidence). Another fun addition that also reminds just how many tropes around the genre were really born here.
Tones of Terror is another feature put together and narrated by Cirronella, offering a deep look into Romero’s impressive use of pre-recorded Capital “Hi-Q” Library music, always the cheaper option compared to 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 everything since many cues used in the film were spread out over multiple albums. He also looks at how brilliantly Romero edits many scenes to this music, including how the reveal of a gun in a closet is perfectly synched with the music. My appreciation for the construction of the film is only enhanced with features like this one…
...and the next one, which is an essay by Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos of Every Frame a Painting. Called Limitations into Virtues, the essay (that starts out by calling the film a “masterpiece of working with what you have”) 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, the technical limitations they experienced around synched audio called for static camera shots and cutting between actors, in turn picking up the pace of the film, while sequences where synched-sound (or any sound really) wasn’t 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 film’s tenser moments. It’s a solid visual essay, and I’m disappointed they haven’t gone to these guys more.
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, both of whom had their own horror films coming out at the same time, Dawn of the Dead and Phantasm respectively. Here the three discuss the then-renaissance of horror cinema and how it was making its way into the mainstream more, mentioning the 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 feeling he has to inject more humor in his work for audiences to take it more seriously. I ended up being surprised by the academic approach to the conversation since initially figured Snyder would just try to get through the interview quickly, yet he asks some great questions and the guests have great answers. The interview also acts as a great sort of time capsule in offering up some context to this time period (late 70s/early 80s) in horror filmmaking. It’s an incredibly solid find.
Higher Learning presents a 45-minute interview with Romero, recorded in 2012 at the Toronto International Film Festival, with the director taking questions from the audience. This is an 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 the focus does end up directed mostly towards hi zombie films. He also talks about the zombie genre as it is today, sharing his thoughts on what a zombie film needs to be 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 aren’t 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 didn’t 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 “Dead” films since and intended to do the same with Land of the Dead. Yet the studio wouldn’t allow him, which he sounds to have been shocked by. 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 it’s all incredible. It’s 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 appears to be longer with the text notes around the feature indicating 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, when I was going through the Criterion’s original Blu-ray I was unable to play the feature on my old DVD so couldn’t compare what’s exclusive here. At any rate Jones talks about his experience making the film, which he does not regret at all even though he admits a certain annoyance around how once people realize he’s in the film that’s all they want 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 it’s not all sun and rainbows since 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 I’m thankful Criterion has carried it over.
Judith Ridley’s interview, recorded originally in 1994 for the Elite LaserDisc, also gets ported over. It’s a breezy 11-minutes, O’Dea just sharing her experience on the film, the environment on set, and what she has been up to since.
To add some context to the throwaway line within the film about a radioactive satellite possibly leading to the raising of 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 then 4 radio spots, two from 1968 and two for a 1970 re-release (the last one redoing one of the 1968 spots).
As with the previous Blu-ray edition this one (disappointingly) doesn’t receive a booklet, instead getting another poster insert with an essay on one side and an illustration of the iconic image of a zombie-fied Karen. The biggest disappointment, at least for me, may be that Criterion dropped the sharp looking Digipak packaging for the Blu-ray and replaced it with a standard 3-disc Scanavo case. The essay included is still the same one by Stuart Klawans, who chooses to focus specifically on the film and not on the sub-genre that Romero pretty much created.
Despite the lack of the slick packaging this is still one hell of an edition that has been created for both the film's and and genre's fans, and those interested the creative process behind low-budget genre films.
Still a terrific special edition but the 4K boost, despite leading to a fantastic looking end presentation, probably isn’t as significant as some may have hoped.