Night of the Living Dead (UK - BD)
The Wilson Bros are coming to get you as they critique Romero's classic movie
The late 1960s was a turbulent period; the civil rights movement had gained momentum and still struggled even after the death of Dr Martin Luther King had won over the minds of many of those previously opposed to equal rights; the Vietnam war was still raging, with protests going on all across the country and around the world; the period may have seen the blossoming of the flower children but there were still struggles going on in America.
The movie opens with brother and sister Johnny and Barbra nearing the end of a three hundred mile trip to visit their father’s grave. Johnny’s flippant attitude toward having to make such a long journey just to please their mother spills out into the cemetery, where they encounter a shambling figure. Their offer of help is the start of a harrowing chase to a deserted farmhouse, where a band of survivors battle it out among both the living, flesh-eating dead and themselves as they try to survive the night.
The origins of Night of the Living Dead can be traced back to two commercial production companies: The Latent Image, which was headed up by George Romero, John Russo and Russell Streiner, and Hardman Associates, led by Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman. Romero had garnered quite a reputation for making commercials that were concise and humorous and Romero had been interested in making a feature film, so he persuaded Hardman Associates to come onboard and the company Image Ten was formed. Between them, they were able to raise $114,000 and began shooting as and when they were able.
Those who sniff at the premise of Night are usually those whose noses are put out of joint when you point out that their hallowed Rio Bravo utilised the same outline for a film which hasn’t been discovered by new generations in the way Romero’s film has. Still, for anyone who questions any decisions made in the script, we would happily direct them to the original treatment for the movie; the script, written by George Romero and John Russo went through numerous drafts, with the final version (which was mainly written by Romero himself), being almost completely unrecognisable from what was initially conceptualised. It was originally planned as a numb-nuts, teenage monster movie, concerning a bunch of redneck ‘kids’ who are planning a secretive party, with the alcohol for their shindig provided by stealing the beer from their local ‘boob’ policeman, the depressingly-named Sheriff Suck. It was only an injection of common sense which stopped this one narrowly derailing a classic. Usually rewrites weaken screenplays, but in this case, the opposite occurred…
It could be argued that religion and religious beliefs play a part in Night of the Living Dead—Barbra’s display of faith whilst paying respect to her late father in the cemetery saved her from the initial zombie attack and that Johnny’s irreverent attitude eventually caused his downfall, but this can be countered by Johnny coming to Barbra’s rescue when she is attacked. This can be further countered by arguing that Johnny would at least go to heaven as he redeemed himself before his untimely demise. Or ultimately, we may just be over-analyzing things whilst spouting pretentious bollocks in the process…
With Night of the Living Dead, George Romero transformed forever the general perception of zombies from the things found in Haiti and the pages of EC Comics to flesh-eating ghouls. The nearest that cinema had come to revolutionising the perception of zombies came two years previously in Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies[/i, but with the living dead presented in Romero’s black and white shocker, the zombies were malevolent and their motivation was simply to kill you and strip the flesh from your bones. It is interesting to note that the term ‘zombie’ never appears in the dialogue, nor was it used anywhere in the script (the marauding flesh-eaters are referred to as ‘those things’ or ‘ghouls’). It was after the movie was filmed that the term ‘zombie’ started being applied. The original title of the movie at the script stage was [i]Night of Anubis, but was changed to Night of the Flesheaters, before settling on the title that launched a million unofficial video and DVD releases.
Much has been made of the fact that the film had a black actor in the lead role; the truth of the matter is that Romero has gone on record to say that casting an African-American in the lead was not something he purposefully set out to do, but occurred merely because out of all the people willing to appear in the movie, Duane Jones was judged to be the best actor and was given the part of Ben. Jones comes across as naturalistic, something that can be said about most of the main cast, as they all giver performances that aren’t overly stagy and suit the almost documentary-like feel of the film.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves with varying degrees of competency; the best of the rest is Karl Hardman as the aggressive, yet cowardly, Harry Cooper, a man who tries to assert himself and take on the role of leader, but his volatile nature and sense of self-preservation at the expense of those around him undermines any suitability has for the position. Marilyn Eastman is also very good as the downtrodden housewife Helen Cooper, who looks browbeaten and broken after years of having to put up with her overbearing spouse. The chemistry between Hardman and Eastman is great and they are believable as a couple, so it comes as no surprise that the two of them would later get married and stayed together until Hardman’s death in 2007.
Judith O’Dea is also good as the traumatised Barbra and the chemistry between her and Russell Streiner as brother and sister is just great, as one can easily imagine them as bickering siblings with opposing points of view on having to make such a long journey to visit a grave. It’s a great pity that the two of them weren’t given enough screen time together, but what they have is enough to establish the characters and make the audience care about them when they are eventually put in jeopardy. O’Dea spends most of the movie traumatised, she does the best with what she is given and the very fact that she played off Streiner so well at the start of the film make us care about her character.
If the above cast members fare well in terms of performance, there are others who aren’t quite so good. Actor Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley as young lovers Tom and Judy vary wildly; Wayne is pretty poor as the young attractive male—his delivery is wooden, matching his physicality; he blinks constantly, so much so that every time he delivers a line of dialogue, it’s like he’s simultaneously sending it Morse code. Ridley copes a little better, but she still struggles; she would eventually develop a more naturalistic approach to acting, as glimpsed in Romero’s pretentious and appalling follow-up to Night, There’s Always Vanilla.
The film’s big production moment comes during a television broadcast when there is news footage taking place in Washington DC and a high-ranking official is interviewed, with Capitol Hill looming large in the background. Romero and company merely jumped into a car with all of the equipment and drove to the capitol and got out to shoot the scene. This scene provides a tantalising window to the scale of the problem, showing that the dead are rising right across the country and though there are some who would say that showing scenes outside the immediate area already established diminishes the sense of claustrophobia that has been carefully created. Speaking personally, the Washington scene adds a sense of scope and production value to the story and the movie respectively. It should be noted that a clean-shaven George Romero has a cameo in this sequence as one of the journalists trying to get some answers.
We watched Night of the Living Dead on the big screen in London about four years ago and it held up perfectly well with a contemporary audience, with Jones’ remark to Eastman about her screen daughter and husband, ‘…it‘s too bad her old man is so stupid’ getting a big laugh. Night is one of those movies which plays perfectly both with an audience and when watching alone. When seen in groups, there is a collective sense of unease, and the claustrophobic atmosphere inside the farmhouse transposes into the enclosed auditorium. Naturally, there is a different feeling when viewed alone, that of the clawing premonition that the undead might be waiting on the other side of the door, waiting to satiate their flesh-eating urges.
There who have held up Night of the Living Dead as being an allegory of racism—the fact is that, as mentioned earlier in this review, Romero did not write the character as black, but just cast the best actor in the group in the lead role. Duane Jones just happened to be black, but this turned out to be advantageous, as the ending—which sees Ben, the sole survivor of the night, being shot in the head by a posse of rednecks after being mistaken for a zombie – came about at a time when the civil rights movement was still and issue dividing America and inadvertently made a powerful statement.
At the time, there are feminists who weren’t happy about the depiction of women in Night of the Living Dead and to a certain extent, one can see their point of view. Barbra spends much of the movie in an almost catatonic traumatic daze and Helen Cooper merely seems to live in fear of her husband and there are hints that she has suffered physical abuse at his hands, but she has a little spark left in her that compels her to stand up to Harry now and again. Allegations of sexism or misogyny obviously played on Romero’s mind, as he radically altered the character of Barbra in the 1990 remake, turning her into a tough, decisive and resourceful woman—although some might use the word ‘bitch’.
Much has been made of the derogatory nature of families depicted in the film, and this is another area which Night of the Living Dead broke away from the not only the staples of the genre, but from the cloying Hollywood take on the subject. To start with, Johnny and Barbra bicker like an old married couple, with the brother teasing her until his untimely death. When the zombified Johnny breaks into the farmhouse, he commits the cold act of sororicide. The Coopers are at each others’ throats, as Harry is wracked with fatherly guilt for his daughters’ critical condition. With Helen constantly on his back almost to the point of blaming him for the zombie outbreak, he is only looking out for his family because it is expected of him, rather than through any genuine connection with his kin. The ultimate destruction of the family unit comes when young Karen stabs her mother to death and eats the flesh of her father. Romero has staked no claim for the ground being broken, just attributing it to the passage of time and having no barriers to butt up against.
What is interesting about Romero’s directorial style in Night of the Living Dead is that there are influences present here that do not really show up in his subsequent work, most notably the distinct Hitchcockian style in the film’s opening sequence, when the graveyard zombie is introduced; he appears in the distance in a manner that initially does not cause him to be seen as a threat, but as he comes closer, suspense is generated by the cutting method and the ‘they’re coming to get you, Barbra!’ dialogue from Johnny ramps up the tension and when the graveyard zombie is about to finally attack, the audience is practically screaming at the screen for Barbra and Johnny to run. There are also nods to the work of Howard Hawks, another director whom Romero admired during his younger years.
Oh dear, where to start?
Whilst it is commendable that Network has taken its transfer from a new source, the 35mm print used was in less than ideal shape. You name a type of print damage, it’s present—splices, speckles, reel change indicators, pinhole burns, the works. The damage to the print also results in some missing dialogue, usually momentary snippets are excised due to splices, but the most serious piece comes when three whole lines of dialogue are missing due to print damage, granted one of the lines is the very irritating ‘you can’t start the car, Johnny has the keys!’ from Judith O’Dea.
If you try and ignore all the imperfections in the print (which is a pretty difficult thing to do, as there are few moments during the film that look pretty impressive) there is a nice amount of image detail, as there is a scene that has Harry Cooper pulling down a board that had been nailed to the upper right hand corner of a door and on the back of the board, you can clearly read the words ‘upper right hand corner’ written in black marker pen.
This transfer of Night of the Living Dead does not have the framing issues that marred the otherwise faultless Blu-ray copy that was released by Optimum in September last year, but this Network transfer also suffers from the contrast levels being boosted to a degree that bleaches out some image detail—such as the make-up on the zombies—at times.
The bitrate of this transfer rarely rises about 23Mbps and considering that all you get in terms of additional features is just the theatrical trailer, there would have been plenty of room to present the film in a slightly better technical manner than seen here.
It should be pointed out that on this copy, a new credit has clumsily been superimposed during the opening titles, reading ‘print by Movielab’.
This is pretty much on the same par as the image quality, with pops, crackles, hiss and hum present throughout much of the film. Dialogue can be abbreviated by an unceremonious pop and the audio in general just has a very raw, unrestored quality to it that occasionally makes it unpleasant on the ears.
With the wealth of extras that previous DVD releases of Night of the Living Dead have contained, it comes as a bit of a disappointment to report that the only extra to be found here is the original theatrical trailer. You know the one: ‘Night………….. of the Living Dead!’.
This is a perfectly fine trailer, but the problem with the print of the trailer included here is that the first couple of seconds of the opening have been clipped, instead of having the voiceover announcing ‘welcome to a night of total terror!’, all you get is ‘…total terror!’. Some might view this as giving the movie a more nihilistic edge to it by just opening the trailer with the words ‘total terror’, but most purists will be annoyed by this.
Night of the Living Dead is a seminal horror movie; at the time when some of the major studios were producing big budget, grand, colour scare-fests, George Romero and company quietly unleashed a movie that was small in scale, had believable naturalistic performances, genuine tension and would go on to terrify and enthral millions of people around the world and redefine the term ‘zombie’ to the point where Romero’s name would be inextricably linked with it.
This Blu-ray release of Night of the Living Dead is the first example of a title being released on the format where the quality of the print is less than stellar. The most polite thing that you could say about this release is that it is probably the closest you will come to recreating an authentic ‘grindhouse’ screening in you own home, as there is quite a lot of image detail on screen, but the print damage will constantly remind you that you are watching a 35mm print of a movie, rather than a transfer taken directly from the negative. If you are tempted to pick this up, then please proceed with caution…
Note: The screencaps used in this review were provided by the good folks at Network.
Review by Wilson Bros
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 26th October 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Aspect: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: English 2.0 PLCM
Easter Egg: No
Director: George A Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Judith Ridley, Keith Wayne, Kyra Schon, Bill Hinzman
Length: 95 minutes
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