"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, October 24, 2008

DVD of the Week: Night of the Living Dead

In recognition of its 40th anniversary, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) has been given the special edition treatment on DVD...again. Since entering the public domain, everybody and his brother has released this film on home video so the buyer has to really be careful which version they get because the quality of the film and accompanying extras (if any) varies. In 2002, the “Millennium Edition” was released and it had the best mix of quality transfer and collection of extras. So, how does this new edition hold up?
Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) are visiting their father’s grave and spot a man (S. William Hinzman) walking rather oddly among the tombstones. Johnny teases his sister with the now classic line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” scaring her. As the man comes closer, she begins to apologize and he grabs at her. Johnny intervenes and he and the man struggle. Johnny is knocked to the ground, hitting his head on a tombstone. Terrified, Barbra runs for the car and manages to escape to a nearby farmhouse.

A few minutes later, a man named Ben (Duane Jones) shows up and by now a few more shambling figures like the man in the cemetery have appeared. After boarding up the house to keep those things out, Ben tells Barbra what happened to him and how he got there. They turn on a radio and a news broadcast confirms what we’ve already suspected – the dead have come back to life to feast on the living. Pretty soon their activity causes people hiding out in the cellar to surface: a man, his wife and their young daughter, and a young couple. They decide to pool their resources and fortify the house in an effort to hold up until help arrives.

What is so striking about the film’s memorable opening sequence is the matter-of-fact way Romero introduces the first zombie. The initial shot of him looks like someone out for a stroll but as we get a better look at him, something doesn’t seem right. The zombie doesn’t talk but rather snarls like an animal. What is also interesting is how smart he is – considering he’s a zombie. He knows enough to pick up a rock and smash a car window to get at Barbra when she tries to escape. When she takes refuge in the house he has enough sense to tear down the phone line.

For a first feature, Night of the Living Dead is a remarkably assured debut for Romero as he has EC horror comics scares with film noir flourishes and a dash of social commentary, especially with the film’s shocking ending (for its time). Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is the group dynamic. Romero presents us with a group of diverse characters and then bounces them off each other, pitting Ben’s rational heroics against Harry’s (Karl Hardman) cowardly arrogance. Romero creates believable characters who act realistically to extraordinary circumstances.
Romero also provides tantalizing details about what is happening through radio and later, television news reports that do a great job of establishing the frightening new world our characters are now living in. The broadcasts also hint at a possible source for the zombie epidemic – radiation from outer space that is a nice nod to science fiction films from the 1950s. Night of the Living Dead pioneered the modern zombie film complete with its own set of rules (i.e. the dead are slow moving and have to be shot in the head) that many other films of the genre would also adhere to afterwards. Romero’s film also demonstrated the power of an independently-made horror film that did not have to play by the safe, tired rules mandated by the Hollywood studios. It also launched Romero’s career, giving us several more thought-provoking films for years to come.

Special Features:

So, what’s missing from the “Millennium Edition?” Gone is Kevin O'Brien's 8-minute student film Night of the Living Bread (1990). Also, MIA is a collection of Romero’s early commercial work. Perhaps, the most glaring omission is the 400 pages (or screens) containing the original treatment, and more than 160 still images. Finally, missing is a video interview with actress Judith Ridley.

There is an audio commentary by co-writer/director George A. Romero, producer/actor Karl Hardman, actress Marilyn Eastman, and co-writer John A. Russo. They recall the creative solutions they came up with to deal with unforeseen problems and put crew members in front of the camera in order to cut costs. They provide plenty of filming anecdotes and talk mainly about how they pulled off certain shots, make-up effects, and other technical details on this production-oriented track.

Also included is a commentary by producer Russell Streiner, production manager Vince Survinski, actors Judith O’Dea, Bill Hinzman, Kyra Schon, and Keith Wayne. Everyone laughs and jokes with each others as they reminisce about making the film. They have a lot of fun recounting the stories behind what we are watching and speak admiringly of Duane Jones. This is an engaging, anecdotal track.

The set piece of the special features is “One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead,” a feature-length retrospective documentary that opens with actors Judith O’Dea and Russell Streiner recreating their famous drive to the cemetery that started it all. They talk about how they were cast while Romero talks about his background in industrial films and how he cut his teeth on this kind of work. Screenwriter John A. Russo and Romero talk about the origins of the story. Most of the surviving cast and crew take us through the challenges of making this low-budget film in great detail. This is a fascinating, extensive look at how this landmark film came together.

“Speaking of the Dead” features an excerpt from a public appearance that Romero made in Toronto in 2007 where he talks about the influences on Night of the Living Dead. He cites EC horror comics for their content – lurid stories with lots of gore. Stylistically, he was inspired by Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Romero also talks about the downbeat ending and the angry feelings behind it. Later films, The Crazies (1973) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) are also touched upon.
“Ben Speaks” is the last, in-depth interview with Duane Jones in 1987 before he died in 1988. He has no regrets making the film despite being forever associated with it. The actor speaks very eloquently about his thoughts on the film and the fame that came with it.
Also included is the theatrical trailer.

Finally, there is a “Still Gallery” with various posters, promotional stills, and behind-the-scenes photographs.


  1. This is a film that I've always loved. I know my sister has it on DVD. Not sure why I've never bought it myself. I would have no clue which edition to get. There seems to be countless ones. Not sure which ones she's got off the top of my head. It is a film that I feel still holds up. It's still an enjoyable watch.

  2. Yeah, this is a great film - a classic to be sure. I would say get this version - it is probably the best of the bunch with a great transfer and the new, feature-length making of documentary is incredible. They really did a nice job on it.