This review was first written on September 25, 2017 when Mill Creek Entertainment’s 2K blu came out. It’s been updated as of February 19, 2018 to include a review of Criterion’s new 4K blu-ray
The one, main problem with being a forty-eight year old genre buff is that most of the horror directors that influenced and/or scared the piss out of me when I was a kid… let’s put it this way, if I’m forty-eight that means they’ve reached old age and are either beginning to die off, or have been put in forced retirement because no one will fund their movies. Cases in point, we lost Wes Craven back in 2015, and we just lost George Romero and Tobe Hooper this past summer. The former in July and the latter in August. Both were in their mid-to-late seventies and where as Hooper seemed to actually be in forced retirement, Romero was in the process of cranking out another Dead movie. Like Craven he was working right up to when he died.
Every once in a great while we get a film that redefines the genre (i.e. Alien, Halloween), but with George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968) a new zombie sub-genre was actually created, one that’s still influencing movie-goers and filmmakers to this day. Before discovering the existence of George’s movie the only zombie films I was peripherally aware of were White Zombie (1932) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943), and the dead in them were a far cry from what Romero decided to reinvent them as.
By the time I was born Romero’s original was already making its mark. I can’t remember the first time I heard about it, I think I was more aware of his first sequel, Dawn Of The Dead (1979), thanks to a friend I had in grade school who’s father took him to all the latest horror films. I also credit Rob in getting me into Fangoria, and have a vivid memory of him coming up to my house one Saturday and telling me about Dawn as we swung around on the gymset I had in the backyard. Zombie movies, and zombies in general, were never my favorite monsters, so much so I steered clear of them when I was a kid, something about undead cannibals exceeds my gore threshold. To date they still aren’t a favorite, but over the intervening decades I have found a small clutch that have appealed to me I’ve collected, but Romero’s original four films weren’t them, I’m sad to say. I ended up being a lover of Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of the original and Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead. So far they still haven’t done a remake of Romero’s third Dead film I’ve liked. There have been only two, I should stress. That’s right, people, there’s a new one on the way titled, Day Of The Dead: Bloodline (2017).
Timed perfectly (unintentionally so) with this blu-ray, and more intentionally, I suspect, with the coming of next year, since October 2018 marks the film’s fiftieth anniversary, is this new magazine from newborn Fantasm. This first one covers all six of Romero’s Dead movies, and according to Chris Alexander’s remembrance of the man that opens the magazine they’re already prepping issue #2, which will cover all his other films. Pictured below are the cover, the contents page, and random collectible cards you get when you buy it.
Great first issue, co-workers, friends and colleagues are interviewed including the guy who played the zombie who gets the top of his head sheared off by a helicopter blade in Dawn of The Dead It’s a mixture of interviews done before and after he died, and the ones after made me feel sad, especially the two from Trevor Parker, a fan who wrote about visiting Romero’s public memorial, and Peter Grunwald, a longtime friend and producing partner that ends the magazine. This issue gave me a good sense of the man. Let’s put it this way, I never met him, but after reading this mag I wish I had.
Okay, here’s my “secret shame,” I have never seen Romero’s original all the way through. I’ve seen pieces of it, but never the whole movie, and my sole reason for wanting to review Mill Creek’s blu is to rectify that sin. I’m so used to seeing the 1990 remake over and over again it was strange seeing how it all originally happened. For the most part Savini was incredibly faithful to Romero’s original, deviating only a little bit here and there.
So, here, we go. . .
Both Night Of The Living Dead movies start off focusing on sister and brother, Barbara and Johnny, (Judith O’Dea and Russell Streiner in the original), who are arriving at a cemetery during an annual pilgrimage they make to visit their father’s grave. They are unaware of what’s been happening in the world around them, that the dead have been coming back to life and attacking the living to feed on them, but they soon get a taste (pun intended) of the transpiring horror when they’re attacked and Johnny is accidentally killed after getting his head cracked on a gravestone. Barbara flees and comes across an abandoned farmhouse where the rest of the film plays out.
Ben (Duane Jones), the movie’s hero, shows up a short time later, with a horrible story of random attacks happening by people who appear to have gone crazy. Hiding in the basement is the rest of the cast, husband and wife, Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen (Marilyn Eastman) Cooper, their fatally injured daughter, Karen (Kyra Schon)—she was bitten by one of these crazies—and young, local couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley). We watch as they arm themselves, board the windows up, bicker, and desperately try to figure out a way to get to a working vehicle, because those windows ain’t gonna hold forever.
Everything they slowly learn about what’s happening is from the news on the TV they find, and in Romero’s original there’s a clear cut cause, radiation from a returning probe from Venus NASA sent up. In Savini’s remake there is no clear cut cause and I liked that better. The ambiguity is more terrifying.
There’s animosity between Ben and Cooper, and from the outset you can tell Cooper is a douche, caring for himself first, his family second, and all others last. This version of the man, however, is not as high strung and mean as the ’90 version. The ‘90s Cooper is more entertaining to watch in his emotional meltdown. One of the other biggest differences in this version is Barbara, here she’s so traumatized by the attack that happened to her and her brother it’s pretty much crippled her sanity, forcing her character to fade into the background until the final act when the dead break in and there’s her brother, now a reanimated corpse, pulling her out into the shambling mass to be eaten. Her ‘90s version does suffer that same trauma, but she quickly gets her shit together and becomes the movie’s heroine. Romero’s original has no heroine. On the other hand, I prefer, ’68 Judy to ‘90’s Judy. The girl from Savini’s movie came off too hysterical at times.
Below are a few rare, behind-the-scenes photos . . . in color!
Another big deviation is amount of survivors, Romero’s movie has none, where as Savini’s has Barbara. Ben and Cooper die in both versions except in different ways. ’68 Ben actually survived by hiding in the basement when the dead broke in, but in a sad twist is shot dead the next morning when he hears people outside the house. There are groups of armed men walking the countryside killing any walking dead they see, and once close to the farmhouse they vaguely see someone lurking inside coming ever closer to the window. Assuming it’s a walking corpse this guy shoots the vaguely seen figure killing Ben on the spot. Ben and Cooper in the ‘90s flick have a small shootout in the house where they’re both fatally wounded, Coop holes up in the attic, Ben holes up in the basement. When Barbara comes back with the armed men, hoping to find Ben alive she finds zombie Ben coming out of the basement instead and shoots him dead. Coop on the other hand lived and is still human, and when she finds him she’s so pissed he survived, and Ben didn’t, she shoots him dead on the spot too.
The death of Cooper’s wife and daughter are fairly the same. The daughter dies, returns as a zombie and kills the mother in the basement, but zombie daughter gets out and joins the roaming mass of shamblers in the house. In the 90 film, Ben shoots her dead in the basement. And the deaths of Tom and Judy are the same in both films too, if not played out a little longer in the ’68 version. Both die in an explosion when the pick-up they’re driving goes up. It’s instantaneous in the 1990 movie, but slower in the ’68 version as we see Judy’s coat is stuck and she can’t get out. Tom stays to help, then the explosion happens.
It’s interesting to note not one person in Romero’s original refer to the roaming dead as zombies. The newscasters refer to them either as “ghouls” or “flesheaters.” Actually, I don’t think the term “zombie” is used in the ’90 version either. And shooting them in the head as the only means to kill them was another Romero creation that’s still being used in modern day zombie movies.
I suppose when this movie was first released the “gore” was shocking, looking at it from the year 2017, not so much. The only “gory” moment is after the truck explodes and the dead pull out the bodies and devour what they can find. There’s a partial arm munched on and some intestines, but it’s all so tame compared to the insane levels of gore on display in Dawn and Day Of The Dead. In fact the gore in Day even outdoes Dead.
Of course you can’t really think about Romero’s movies without considering the impact Dan O’Bannon’s Return Of The Living Dead (1985) had on the sub-genre too. O’Bannon added two major tweaks to the mythology, which is also still used in modern day zombie flicks: 1), zombies feed mostly on the brains of the living, and, 2), they don’t necessarily have to shamble about, they can move as fast as any human and still be just as dangerous, if not more so, thus the eternal debate began, are you a fan of slow-moving zombies or fast-moving ones? I have favorites in both.
Video/Audio/Subtitles (Mill Creek 2K Blu): 1080p 1.37:1 high definition full frame—2.0 English LPCM Mono—English subs only
Extras included . . .
- None, but you get a digital copy, w/audio commentary by Patrick McCabe
Video/Audio/Subtitles (Criterion 4K Blu): 1080p 1.37:1 high definition full frame—1.0 English LPCM Mono—English SDH subs only
Video/Audio/Subtitles (Workprint): 1080p 1.37:1 high definition full frame—1.0 English Dolby Digital—No subs
It’s obvious now, as I always presumed it would be, the 4K transfer is the one that boasts the better picture! And to add even more icing to the cake, just take a look at all those extras! You even get the never-before-seen workprint! I proclaim Criterion’s blu-ray to be the definitive version of George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead! Never forget that.
Extras Included On Disc #1 . . .
- 1994 Audio Commentary With Co-writer/Director/Editor George Romero, Producer/Actor Karl Hardman, Actor Marylyn Eastman, And Co-writer John Russo
- 1994 Audio Commentary With Producer/Actor Russell Streiner, Production Manager Vincent Survinski, Actors Judith O’Dea, S. William Hinzman, Kyra Schon And Keith Wayne
- Night Of Anubis (original title) (uncorrected 16mm workprint)
Extras Included On Disc #2 . . .
- Light Into Darkness (23:40) (NEW)
- Dailies (18:04) (NEW)
- Learning From Scratch (11:58) (NEW)
- TV Newsreel (2:48)
- Walking Like The Dead (13:04) (NEW)
- Tones Of Terror (11:15) (NEW)
- Limitations Into Virtues (11:57) (NEW)
- Tomorrow (18:20)
- Higher Learning (45:30)
- Duane Jones (21:56)
- Judith Ridley (10:42)
- Venus Probe (:32)
- TV Spots
- Radio Spots
Leaflet/Poster with Stuart Klawans’ essay “Mere Anarchy is Loosed”
I wasn’t overwhelmed by this movie, but I did like the fact it was this little, black and white “homemade” flick that felt of it’s time, and I sensed a modicum of potential that it could grow on me. I can’t say just yet whether I’ll add it to my collection. I’m going to wait until Criterion’s comes out to make that decision, because if I do, it would make tons of sense to add their 4K extra laden one.
FINAL VERDICT (UPDATE 2/19/18): I can say I undoubtedly love this film now, and having the 4K transfer and extras helped me come to that inevitable conclusion. My recommendation, if you’ve never seen this movie, take the Mill Creek blu out for a spin, it’s cheap enough to allow for that, and if you find you love it, then go buy the Criterion version for long term ownership.