Night of the Living Dead: 40th Anniversary Edition (DVD)
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.
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.
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"!)
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 ...
5 out of 5
4 1/2 out of 5
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