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Night of the Living Dead: 40th Anniversary Edition (DVD)

Night of the Living Dead: 40th Anniversary Edition DVD review (click for larger image)Reviewed by Debi Moore

Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Kyra Schon, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley

Directed by George A. Romero

Distributed by Genius Products


1968. If you were living then, you know what a pivotal year it was for politics, civil rights, and social upheaval. It not, you missed one hell of a ride. The three(!) television networks pushed the envelope with shows like “Laugh-In,” “The Prisoner,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and “Peyton Place.” It was also an amazing time in the world of cinema. Groundbreaking films such as Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, and Bullitt brought people to their local theatres in droves. Superstars Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster took big career risks by appearing in the edgy The Boston Strangler and the offbeat The Swimmer, respectively. Another movie that came out that year and forever changed the way people thought of the horror genre was Night of the Living Dead, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary with, yes, yet another new DVD release. Before you say, “But I have a shelf-full of various copies of Night already,” let’s determine if it’s a must-buy or one you can skip.

First of all, the film itself is timeless, and its 40th anniversary is a milestone worthy of recognition. The print has been remastered — the process was overseen by Romero himself — and has never looked better. Do I even need to synopsize the storyline? As everyone who loves films — horror or otherwise — knows, Night of the Living Dead pulled the genre out of the Gothic realm created by the likes of Universal, Amicus, and Hammer and plunked it right in the middle of contemporary life. It also set the bar for all zombie movies that came after it. From its seemingly idyllic opening of Barbra and her brother, Johnny’s, visit to their father’s gravesite to the ending shot of Ben’s demise at the reckless hands of Sheriff McClelland, it is incredibly taut and suspenseful. It’s also surprisingly well-acted considering that many of the cast members had never appeared on camera before. Factor in plentiful gore (especially for the standards of that time) and the script’s pointed messages (whether intentional or not), and you’ve got a recipe for a bona fide classic. If for some bizarre reason you’re reading this review and have never seen Night, stop immediately, and click the link below to order this disc.

Night of the Living Dead: 40th Anniversary Edition DVD review (click for larger image)So, aside from how the film looks, what other reasons are there to double (or triple or quadruple) dip and pick up this latest version of Night? Not the commentaries, unfortunately; both can be found on Elite’s Millenium Edition. They were originally recorded for the laserdisc (remember those?) and, entertaining though they are, show their age somewhat. Too bad a different track couldn’t have been incorporated in honor of the 40th. But then again, it probably would have been rather redundant considering you can only say so much about Night before you begin repeating yourself. Also recycled here are the DVD-ROM version of the screenplay and Duane Jones’ final interview. However, with regard to the Ben Speaks featurette, I must say that it still packs a powerful punch despite being 20 years old, only 16 minutes long, and exclusively audio. Still photos accompany the dialogue, and it’s a bit unnerving listening to that familiar voice. At first Jones seems very uncaring about his participation in this celebrated work, almost hostile even, particularly where his private life is concerned, but then his tone warms and he recounts a tender story about his most vivid memory from the shoot. His eloquence and pathos sent shivers down my spine. I’m glad to see this feature make a reappearance for those who don’t yet have it in their collection.

By now you’re probably wondering if there’s anything fresh and worthwhile to be had here. I’m happy to report that yes, indeed there is. First up is Speak of the Dead, a 15-minute Q&A with Romero and Stuart Andrews of Rue Morgue Radio from August, 2007. The influence of EC Comics on both George as a youth and the creative process behind Night is discussed, as is the film’s ending. “Who the real zombies are” is, of course, touched upon, as are the newsmen who reappear at the climax. Even back then, it seems, Romero had a hard-on for the media, a target he was finally able to go after with gusto in his most recent project, Diary of the Dead (review). Andrews tries a little too hard to sound highbrow at one point, but overall this is definitely a welcome addition to the extras.

Night of the Living Dead: 40th Anniversary Edition DVD review (click for larger image)But the true crème de la crème is One for the Fire, an 84-minute documentary produced by CRJ Productions, co-written by CRJ’s principals and “Half Breed” Billy Graham, and edited by Michael Felsher’s Red Shirt Pictures. The team did an exemplary job of not only paying tribute to the film’s cast and crew but also getting the major players to provide so many behind-the-scene stories, tidbits, and anecdotes that viewers feel like they are “there” in the moment right along with them. I’ve been around Romero numerous times at conventions and similar events and always had the feeling he is quite a character, but hearing tales of him wearing a cape at one time and a sombrero at another in deference to his favorite films certainly casts him in another light! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Of special note is how Romero’s career plans evolved once he hooked up with Rudy Ricci in college. The full background of Romero and his compatriots Ricci, John Russo, brothers Russ and Gary Streiner, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, and Vince Survinski is covered with an emphasis on the formation of The Latent Image. Latent produced commercials, industrial films, and more, becoming best known for a Calgon ad. It was this endeavor that ultimately resulted in the partnership of ten individuals known as Image Ten Productions. This group of guys and gals who banded together to ensure that Night saw the light of day worked hard to make their dream come true; yet, they still found the time to be quite the party animals. But then again, we are talking about the Sixties so you can make your own assumption about what sort of “party favors” may have been fueling their escapades.

Rest assured, though, that One for the Fire is far from being just about jokes and levity regarding George and his cohorts. It reenacts Night‘s opening scene of Barbra and Johnny traveling to the cemetery; only it’s the Judy O’Dea and Russ Streiner of today returning to the site. For Judy, it was her first visit since that fateful moment 40 years ago when she fled from Bill Hinzman as Zombie #1, and the emotions that pass across her face are quite moving. As is the case later on in the doc when Russo and Streiner descend into the infamous basement where much of the action in Night takes place. (It was actually the cellar of the office building that housed Latent Image.) It had been some time since either of them had been there, and it was truly heartbreaking to hear them reminisce about all the footage, documents, and other memorabilia that were lost when a flood swept through the location. I kept hoping for Kyra Schon (Karen Cooper) to pop out, armed with a trowel, and chase the men around the room in order to lighten the mood. Unexpectedly, Russo comes off quite well in the documentary and almost redeems himself for the ignominy known as Night 30. (Don’t get carried away, people; you’ll notice I said “almost”!)

Night of the Living Dead: 40th Anniversary Edition DVD review (click for larger image)Most poignant of all are the interviews with Karl Hardman, who sadly passed away before One for the Fire was completed and to whom the project is dedicated. His recollections, along with those of his partner, Marilyn, are heartfelt and brought more than one tear to the eyes of this reviewer, particularly when they’re discussing their relationship with and memories of Duane Jones. Romero, too, has nothing but nice things to say about Jones, the most interesting of which is how the actor kept pressing the director to use his being black to make a statement in the film, but Romero put him off, instead choosing to portray the character exactly as written without letting race enter into the mix. He also paints a vivid picture of Keith Wayne, who portrayed Tom in the film. Strangely, no mention of Judith Ridley (Judy) is made by anyone involved. Oversight? Possibly. But it’s a glaring one and the main weak link of the project.

One for the Fire closes with a segment entitled “Legacy” in which six lucky people (including Dread Central’s own Uncle Creepy) speak about the impact Night of the Living Dead had on them as individuals and our society as a whole. I won’t give away everyone who’s included other than to say that, to this woman, Greg Nicotero, Bill Moseley, and UC (I admit to a bit of prejudice where he’s concerned) provide the most engaging anecdotes.

Without a doubt One for the Fire is the primary reason to add the 40th Anniversary Edition to your DVD collection. First-time producer/director Chris Roe and company have crafted a beautiful, respectful homage to this landmark film that works as a perfect companion piece. If only there was more of it! I’m well aware of the old adage “always leave them wanting more,” but surely there are hours of interviews that didn’t make the final cut. Hopefully another, longer version will eventually find its way out to the public. In the meantime, we’ll take what we’ve got as it’s both extremely informative and tremendously enjoyable.

To sum up: Film — even better than any of the previous incarnations thanks to modern technology’s ability to give it its best look and sound yet. Extras — a bit repetitive with other releases, but the new interview with Romero and One for the Fire propel this edition into must-have territory. The events that transpired in Night might not have been, as Ben says, a “Sunday School picnic,” but this DVD is a veritable feast. Make sure you don’t miss out on a single taste of its goodness. Oh, and by the way …

I knew I was right, damnit!

Special Features

  • Audio commentary by George A. Romero, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, and John A. Russo
  • Audio commentary by Russell W. Streiner, Vince Surinski, Judith O’Dea, Bill Hinzman, Kyra Schon, and Keith Wayne
  • One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead documentary
  • Speak of the Dead: A Conversation with George A. Romero Q&A
  • Ben Speaks: The Last Interview with Duane Jones (audio only)
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Still gallery
  • Original screenplay DVD-ROM

    Film:

    5 out of 5

    Special Features:

    4 1/2 out of 5

    Discuss all the Night of the Living Dead releases in our Dread Central forums!

  • Debi Moore

    I'll see you on the other side...

    17 Comments

    1. I’ll likely get this for the extras, but the shots I’ve seen from the new transfer are very disappointing, as it’s definitely cropped on all four sides, indicating that’s been zoomed ion. Why, I can’t begin to figure out. Shame, as it looks sharper then the previous Elite DVD versions.

    2. One more thing (sorry)…what’s the Stephen King essay on Elite like? I’ll probably still get this version though for the documentary.

    3. Here’s a good overview of the Millenium edition you can compare the features listed here to: http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/notldme.php

      The key difference is that it has both a parody short called “Night of the Living Bread” by Kevin S. O’Brian, made in 1990, and a few short scenes from the so-called “lost” Romero film There’s Always Vanilla. But the 40th anniversary has the new doc and a current interview with George. The commentaries are identical, and as I said before, they both have Duane’s last interview. For my money, this is the one to buy.

    4. I’d say get this one. It shares most of the features of the Millenium edition (commentaries and interview with Duane) and ups the ante with a new interview with George and the excellent One for the Fire doc. Plus, you can’t beat the remastered look and sound.

    5. As someone who doesn’t own either version (and I’m not the type to buy multiple copies), should I get this one or the Millenium Edition?

    6. I have both the rough cut with the marvelous head explosion and the temp score and the official DVD release. Honestly? I thought the rough cut was far and away the better of the two. But did you ever listen to Savini’s commentary track? When he is talking (there’s a lot of dead air) some of the ideas he had that he never got to execute for one reason or another were truly good. That’s the remake that I want to see.

    7. Heh…my first zombie movie was Return of the Living Dead. THAT one changed my life. And HELL YEAH I want to PAAARRRRRRRRRRTTTTTTTYYYYYYYY!!!!! It’s PARTY TIME! Damn I love zombie flicks.

    8. I would like a special edition NOTLD 90′. It was actually my first zombie movie and ever sense that movie I have always found big zombie men scary. If the world is ever taken over by zombies I will take them out first. Sorry. Anyway I saw the dead films with the90 remake first, then Dawn (Romeros version), Day, then finally the classic Night.

    9. I know what you mean, if I hear some douchebag proclaim “It changed my life” one more time, I’m going to bite someone.

      As for your explanation, it’s an interesting point and it makes a lot of sense. I wouldn’t mind an SE.

      Michael Ironside? Nice.

    10. The workprint I owned has splashier bullet hits and a nifty exploding head shot, but the real wealth would be a talk with Savini about what he couldn’t put in the film.

      All the things he originally had planned but was prevented from doing, like wanting to have the zombie’s point of view in black and white but people would be in color, etc.

      His storyboards regarding the movie show some very cool sequences planned but never shown or filmed.

      I saw him at a Weekend of Horrors right before he shot the movie and he was just talking about all these awesome ideas that never ultimately made it into the movie. He even mentioned how he was originally trying to get Michael Ironside as Cooper.

      That would be an extra feature worth adding to a new release, not just the usual run of the mill congratulatory circle jerk types that tell us how great a movie is that we already personally know and love.

    11. Yeah, I’d snap up a Special Director’s Cut of Notld90 in a heartbeat.

      I really enjoy that movie.

    12. This is going to be the 3rd and final time I buy NotLD. Now where’s my NotLD ’90 special edition?
      Cooper was a douche. A correct douche, but a douche none the less.

    13. Well, Ms. Moore, I’m sold. I just may buy this.

      And yes, Cooper WAS right.

      If only they’d stopped fighting long enough to survive and realize that.

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