Night of the Living Dead (1968) (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Tim Salmons
  • Review Date: Oct 11, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Night of the Living Dead (1968) (4K UHD Review)

Director

George A. Romero

Release Date(s)

1968 (October 4, 2022)

Studio(s)

Walter Reade Organization/Continental Distributing (The Criterion Collection – Spine #909)
  • Film/Program Grade: A+
  • Video Grade: A+
  • Audio Grade: A+
  • Extras Grade: A+

Night of the Living Dead (4K UHD)

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Review

Night of the Living Dead is, unquestionably, one of the most important horror films ever made, and more so, one of the most important independent films ever made. While George A. Romero was initially reticent to return to the genre upon the film's unexpected success, he thankfully did, making more films in the Dead series, as well as other genre ventures. However, for certain fans and critics, Night of the Living Dead is George at his purest. A simple story about zombies (or ghouls as they were then known) coming back to life and surrounding a farmhouse full of mixed personalities also served as a metaphor for human society, up to and including its gut punch of an ending. Eventually, Night of the Living Dead transformed into a full-blown sociopolitical statement masquerading as a horror film, but from a small, local group of amateur filmmakers.

By modern standards, Night of the Living Dead is somewhat tame compared to what the zombie film and TV landscape ultimately became. But, for an 8-year-old who popped in a Media Home Entertainment VHS copy of the film, consequently having the wits scared out of him, I can safely say that the film affected me in a deep, personal way, as it did many others. The inability of the film's human inhabitants to get along with each other and survive the night without being consumed is distressing, but not far from real life. Not everyone manages to get along during a crisis, especially one in which they must work together closely. In this way, Night of the Living Dead serves an allegorical purpose as the outside force, in this case flesh-eating zombies, is eager to take us over and literally devour us piece by piece, but not before we devour each other in the interim.

Night of the Living Dead is also considered one of the original “midnight movies”, along with films like Eraserhead, El Topo, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, among others. You can certainly poke holes in the performances and the low-tech nature of the special effects, but there's no denying how effective the film for an audience. George would go on to soften the initial concept a little in Dawn of the Dead (subsequently reversing that softness in Day of the Dead), but Night of the Living Dead stands as an example of a fledgling filmmaker with something on his mind that was fully capable of realizing it in both an artistic and commercial way outside of the Hollywood system.

Night of the Living Dead was shot by George A. Romero on 35 mm black-and-white film using Arriflex 35 IIC cameras and spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The Criterion Collection brings the film to 4K Ultra HD for the first time with the Museum of Modern Art’s recent 4K restoration of the original camera negative, substituting certain sections with scans from a 35 mm fine grain print, which was personally supervised by George (before his passing), co-writer John Russo, sound engineer Gary Streiner, and producer Russell Streiner. The results were previously released on Blu-ray in 2018 (which we also reviewed). No grades for high dynamic range have been performed, but this is a film that wouldn’t necessarily benefit from them. The previous Criterion Blu-ray was stellar, a revelation even, for a film that’s been primarily seen in bottom-of-the-barrel presentations over the years by any number of home video companies, large and small, not to mention TV and streaming. It’s the same excellent picture quality, now with even more depth thanks to the increase in pixels. Shadows benefit the most, and everything is slightly clearer with added dimension. As with the Blu-ray release, it features even and well-resolved grain (even tighter now than before), revealing high levels of fine detail previously hidden in substandard presentations. It's organic and film-like with deep, inky blacks, perfect grayscale, and superior levels of contrast and brightness. The image is also stable and clean. It’s the definitive presentation of the film, to be sure.

The audio is of the same caliber, which is presented in the film's original uncompressed English mono soundtrack with optional subtitles in English SDH. This track was also supervised by Romero and Gary Streiner. It's an obviously narrow but extremely clean soundtrack with excellent dialogue reproduction and well-separated score and sound effects, leaving no leftover distortions. It's also much clearer and cleaner than ever before with very good ambient activity, but no major hiss, crackle, or dropout issues whatsoever.

Night of the Living Dead on 4K Ultra HD sits in a clear amaray case featuring an insert with artwork by Sean Phillips; a Blu-ray of the film in 1080p containing the same restoration (as well as the Night of Anubis workprint of the film); and a second Blu-ray containing a large amount of bonus materials. Also included in this package is a fold-out insert with a poster on one side and the film essay Mere Anarchy Is Loosed by critic Stuart Klawans on the other side, as well as restoration details. The following extras are included on each disc:

DISC ONE: UHD (FILM)

  • Audio Commentary with George A. Romero, John Russo, Karl Hardman, and Marilyn Eastman
  • Audio Commentary with Bill Hinzman, Judith O'Dea, Keith Wayne, Kyra Schon, Russell Streiner, and Vince Survinski

DISC TWO: BD (FILM)

  • Audio Commentary with George A. Romero, John Russo, Karl Hardman, and Marilyn Eastman
  • Audio Commentary with Bill Hinzman, Judith O'Dea, Keith Wayne, Kyra Schon, Russell Streiner, and Vince Survinski
  • Night of Anubis Workprint (HD – 85:09)
  • Hands-On Horror: The Night of Anubis Workprint (HD – 7:17)

DISC THREE: BD (EXTRAS)

  • Light in the Darkness: The Impact of Night of the Living Dead (HD – 23:41)
  • Dailies:
    • Dead Relics: Introduction with Gary Streiner (HD – 3:41)
    • The Dailies (HD – 18:04)
  • Learning from Scratch: The Latent Image and Night of the Living Dead (11:58)
  • 1967 Behind-the-Scenes Newsreels (SD – 2:48)
  • Walking Like the Dead (SD – 13:04)
  • Tones of Terror: The Night of the Living Dead Score Narrated by Jim Cirronella (HD – 11:15)
  • Limitations Into Virtues: The Image Ten Style (HD – 11:57)
  • Tomorrow with Tom Snyder Excerpts (SD – 18:20)
  • Higher Learning (SD – 45:30)
  • Duane Jones Audio Interview (HD – 21:56)
  • Zombies, My Love (SD – 10:42)
  • Venus Probe 1967 Newsreel (HD – :32)
  • Trailer (1968) (HD – 1:49)
  • Trailer (2017) (HD – 1:13)
  • TV Spot #1 (Twenty Seconds) (HD – :22)
  • TV Spot #2 (Sixty Seconds) (HD – 1:02)
  • Radio Spot #1 (1968 – Thirty Seconds) (HD – :30)
  • Radio Spot #2 (1968 – Sixty Seconds) (HD – :59)
  • Radio Spot #3 (1970 – Re-Release One) (HD – 1:03)
  • Radio Spot #4 (1970 – Re-Release Two) (HD – 1:00)
  • Radio Spot #5 (1970 – Re-Release Three) (HD – 1:01)

For the extras selection, Criterion have done themselves proud. Not only does this release draw upon many of the film's previous LaserDisc and DVD releases, but it also includes previously-thought lost material as well.

On Discs One and Two, which contain the film itself, there are two audio commentaries, both recorded in 1994. One features Romero, co-writer/producer Karl Hardman, actor Marilyn Eastman, and co-writer John Russo. The other features producer/actor Russell Streiner, production manager Vincent Survinski, and actors Judith O'Dea, S. William Hinzman, Kyra Schon, and Keith Wayne.

Disc Two also includes Night of Anubis, which is a 16 mm workprint of the film, featuring an alternate opening title and a day-for-night ghoul shot that wound up being removed in the final cut. While it's missing its second reel and is full of damage due to tape and cement splices on every cut (not to mention being presented with unrestored sound), it's a fascinating artifact that gives one a minor peek behind the curtain at how close the film was to its final version, even in this form. To compliment this is Hands-On-Horror: The Night of Anubis Workprint, which is an introduction to and history of this version by Russell Streiner.

On Disc Three, the bulk of the extra material can be found. This includes Light in the Darkness, a video piece featuring filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez discussing the importance of the film and its influence; yet another revelation, which is a set of silent 16 mm dailies from the film, including some alternate takes, with an introduction by sound engineer Gary Streiner; Learning from Scratch, an interview with co-writer John Russo about the early days of the company and his experiences on the film; a VHS recording of silent, B-roll 16 mm film shot for Pittsburgh broadcast news, which was saved by newscaster and actor Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, and is the only behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the film known to exist; Walking Like the Dead, a set of interviews that were shot for the 2009 documentary Autopsy of the Dead with cast and crew members Ella Mae Smith, Charles Craig, Lee Hartman, Herbert Summer, William Mogush, Dave James, Regis Survinski, William Burchinal, Kyra Schon, and S. William Hinzman; Tones of Terror, a video essay narrated by Jim Cirronella, which delves into the film's use of library music; Limitations Into Virtues, an excellent video essay by filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos from Every Frame a Painting; excerpts from the 1979 episode of Tomorrow with Tom Snyder featuring an interview with George and Don Coscarelli about the state of horror films at the time; Higher Learning, a discussion about the film with George from a 2012 Toronto International Film Festival event, hosted and moderated by Colin Geddes; a previously available but extended 22-minute audio interview with Duane Jones that took place in 1987 and was conducted by journalist Tim Ferrante; an interview with Judith Ridley that was produced by Elite Entertainment in 1994; and a brief snippet of a 1967 newsreel detailing the Mariner 5 Venus probe spacecraft in Venus' atmosphere, which prefigures the radiation-contaminated satellite that causes the dead to rise in the film.

Obviously Criterion was not able to license every piece of bonus material from the film's previous home video releases, but there are some notable absences. Missing from the Elite Entertainment LaserDisc and DVD releases is the film's original script, all of the Latent Image commercials, an outtake from The Derelict featuring Karl Hardman, the parody film Night of the Living Bread, and an insert that featured liner notes by Stephen King. This release also contained a variety of stills from the production itself, advertising, posters, and props, though some of them (along with the commercials) are used in Criterion's various video essays, featurettes, and interviews. Missing from the Dimension/Genius Products DVD release is Michael Felsher’s long-form documentary One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead; Speak to the Dead, a Q&A with George from 2007 at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, Canada, hosted by Stuart Andrews of Rue Morgue Radio; and an additional still gallery. Missing from the Umbrella Entertainment Blu-ray release is the Reflections of the Living Dead 80-minute documentary. And just for posterity, all of the extras from the fairly useless 1998 30th Anniversary DVD release which primarily apply to that version of the film and not the original aren't included either. There's also various DVD and Blu-ray releases from all over the world that seem to contain some exclusive extras, including other additional featurettes, a CD soundtrack, the colorized version of the film, and movie riffing audio commentaries. If you own any of these previous releases, you may want to hang onto them.

It's kind of remarkable that a group of people who primarily made commercials for a living were able to pull off a film that, not only worked, but changed a part of the horror film landscape in general. Night of the Living Dead isn't a flawless film by any stretch of the imagination, but it has inspired many of us throughout our lives, whether we make films, write about them, or simply watch them. Sorely in need of royal treatment on home video for years, Criterion's release is a home run if ever there was one. This is an essential purchase. Highly recommended.

- Tim Salmons

(You can follow Tim on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook. And be sure to subscribe to his YouTube channel here.)

 

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