George Romero’s landmark horror gets resurrected on UltraHD

Back in 1969, George Romero didn’t just put a stamp on the horror films, he spawned an entire sub-genre. Bringing a group of colleagues and friends to the outskirts of Pittsburgh, and armed with just over $100K, he crafted a film that is the true epitome of indie cinema. A film that would go on to gross over $30 million, and have an immeasurable impact on ever film of it’s ilk that followed. A simple story, but imbued with layers and nuance, where a group of strangers are thrown together in a farmhouse. Outside, a slow moving horde of flesh-eating monsters. Inside, social clashes, prejudice, and fear, fuel tensions between these people, who try to hang on until rescue arrives.

Over 50 years later, NOTLD remains a potent work. The opening, an unnerving trip through a cemetery sets the tone, building to an attack on a man, forcing his sister Barbra (Judith O’Dea) to seek sanctuary in a nearby house, that soon becomes refuge to a motley collections of folks. A young African American man named Ben (Duane Jones) seems the only one able to mount a practical response to the escalating situation, as these “ghouls” outside increase in number, and frequency of attacks. Its a situation that brings to mind a line once uttered by Tommy Lee Jones, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it”. Conflict and selfishness erodes the small amount of trust that exists between these disparate people, who have all brought their own prejudice and presumption with them. Romero’s focus is on the monsters within not those outside. Ramping up the pressure, exposing faults, and deepening them. There are obvious themes of racial prejudice, but Romero sets his sights wider than that. Flaws in human nature, the cultural/societal issues that plague America, a country in decline that is tilting into consumerism/consumption. Aspects Romero continued to explore in his sequels. The bare essentials of making film are evident, but the stripped down production adds to the air of authenticity. The choice of using black and white is startlingly effective, adding an eerie air. But the stark way the film is shot, drives home a tangible realness. NOTLD’s staying power speaks to how insightful and prescient Romero was, and perhaps how little progress we’ve actually made. The latter is more unsettling than any zombie.

The Package

The release offers a UHD presentation of Criterion’s previous 4K restoration of Night of the Living Dead, one supervised by director George A. Romero, co-screenwriter John A. Russo, sound engineer Gary R. Streiner, and producer Russell W. Streiner. The step up from the previous (and impressive) Blu-ray is noticeable. The picture fluidity and stability is improved, detail in darker sequences (of which there are many) is superb, contrast and depth of image also lend to a pristine image.

Night of the Living Dead was restored by the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Celeste Bartos Preservation Fund.

Extra Features:

  • In the 4K UHD edition: One 4K UHD disc of the film and two Blu-rays with the film and special features
  • Night of Anubis, a work-print edit of the film: Some alternate edits, unfinished footage, and a portion of a reel missing, but an interesting watch to see an early vision for how the film might unfold
  • Program featuring filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez: running just over 20 minutes, it features interviews with these notable gene directors to discuss the film’s impact, and ongoing legacy
  • Sixteen-millimeter dailies reel: Silent footage from the original shoot
  • Program featuring Russo on the commercial and industrial-film production company where key Night of the Living Dead participants got their starts: The business partner of Romero talks about how their collaboration began, the specific problems shooting the film, and some of the schemes and projects that helped get the film funded and made
  • Two audio commentaries from 1994 featuring Romero, Russo, producer Karl Hardman, actor Judith O’Dea, and others: Both do much to immerse the listener in the on set experience of making the film, with plenty of tales about the production issues, cast and crew stories, and more
  • Archival interviews with Romero and actors Duane Jones and Judith Ridley: Archival interviews in which each of the actors talk about getting the role, personal experiences from the shoot, and the reception upon release
  • Limitations Into Virtues: Showcases some of the distinct visuals of the film, and shot choices, accompanied by the voice-over commentary of filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos
  • Higher Learning: Just over 45 minutes, this is an archival interview with Romeo from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival in 2012. It provides a nice history of the films production, release, and reception, and also allows the director to clarify some of the interpretations of the films themes and creative choices
  • Tomorrow: Segments from NBC’s Tomorrow Show in 1979, whee Tom Snyder interviewed George Romero and Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep, Phantasm) about the horror genre and its popularity in the 70s
  • Tones of Terror: Producer Jim Cirronella chats about the effective score recorded for Night of the Living Dead
  • Walking Like the Dead: A new featurette with some of the cast members who portrayed zombies in the film
  • Newsreels from 1967: Another silent piece of footage, this from a behind the scenes recording of the shoot, used on a local news channel
  • Trailer, radio spots, and TV spots: Multiple of each, making most of the promotional materials originally made for the film
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Stuart Klawans: In the liner notes, which also contains info on the films 4K presentation

The Bottom Line

Night of the Living Dead is a landmark of horror, from one of the seminal filmmakers of the genre. Criterion’s 4K release gives a new lease of life to this zombie movie, and back it up with a horde of extra features to celebrate it’s legacy.

Night of the Living Dead 4K-UHD is available via Criterion now

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