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Senior Shackster
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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
"Night of the Living Dead" is considered one of the defining horror movies of
the sixties. I would actually classify as it as one of the creepiest films of the
fifties made in the sixties. I'll explain that later.

Because of the movie's messy distribution history and public domain status,
there are many editions of this picture out there on DVD. The only ones worth
purchasing or screening are the two Elite versions. They are identicial in terms
of the image but the Special Collector's edition contains the original mono track
and the Millennium version has a simulated 5.1 remix that is not much of an improvement.

Here's some background on the title...

Director George Romero ran a small commercials company with Karl Hardman and
Russell Streiner. The cranked out budget ads for industrial companies but were
anxious to move into features. They scraped up a tiny budget under one hundred
thousand and decided to shoot an exploitation film entitled, "Night of the Anibus"
(or "Night of the Flesh Eaters" depending on who is being interviewed).
Because color stock was so expensive, they filmed it in 35mm black and white utilizing a
farm house that was going to be demolished and local actors, many of whom weren't
professionals. The lead actor, Duane Jones, was cast as the hero and critics have
read all kinds of analogies into his character because he's black but the fact is, the
script wasn't written with any ethnicity in mind. He was one of the few participants
who had some experience and gives the only realistic performance in the movie.
The rest of the people were friends and associates of the producing team. Hardman
played (over played) the loudmouth "Harry" in the movie and his daughter was the
injured child in the basement. Judith Ridley who played "Judy" was the director's
girlfriend at the time and the zombies were played by their clients.

Given the limited funds, Romero shot much of the narrative with a hand held camera,
limited lighting and used real local newscasters for the television reporters. It gave
the appearance of a 'cinema verite' documentary. He scored the movie with ancient
fifties stock music which made it seem like it was shot a decade earlier except...the
film contained the most graphic depictions of gore and cannibalism as of 1968. In
other words it looked like a movie from 1958 that didn't hold back and really delivered
the goods without restraint.

It was released prior to the advent of MPAA classification so it was booked
without a rating and anyone could attend. The final result was a genually eerie and disturbing film. The grim ending where everyone dies is the stuff nightmares are made of. In fact, this is one of the few motion pictures to give me reoccuring nightmares since I was only fifteen when I first saw it. The idea of relatives devouring you is still one of the more horrifying images in cinema despite the crudity.

Like so many first time filmmakers, Romero and partners were naive about the
difficulties and dangers securing distribution for an independent film. Small marketing companies were not known for their integrity back then. They signed with Walter Reade which owned theaters and exhibited art films in them through their subsidiary called Continental. Why they picked up this picture is somewhat of a mystery since it's not the kind of product there were known for. Continental gave Romero a $150,000 advance which recouped his negative costs and showed a small profit to the investors. However, they didn't like his title and changed it to "Night of the Living Dead" (which was better). Unfortunately, when they altered the credits they forgot to include the copyright and the movie automatically fell into the public domain in it's first theatrical booking although this wasn't immediately apparent at the time. Continental had little regard for the movie and dumped it into grind houses, drive ins and as a second feature to other releases. I saw the film in 1972 in the strangest venue imaginable. It was the double bill with the dreadful sequel "Ben" at the Las Vegas Cinerama theater. Since "Ben" was a GP film, there were numerous families there and I never saw so many people walking out of a cinema dragging their kids when it got to the cannibalism scenes in the Romero picture. (The only other pictures that had that many walk outs were "Salo" and "Caligula")

The first batch of 35mm prints were struck directly off the camera negative and they
looked as good as possible considering the cheap cinematography which tended to be
contrasty and dark. However, the image was sharp, not too grainy and seemed
to suit the low budget atmosphere which was part of it's appeal. I saw a camera negative print at the Cinerama theater in 1.85 which was a little distorted on the deeply curved screen. However, it was quite effective at the time.

Then something happened that the Walter Reade company wasn't prepared for. The movie gradually garnered a cult following. It was covered in numerous monster fanzines including "Castle of Frankenstein" which is where I first heard of it. It even got a positive review in some counter-culture publications like "The Village Voice". Continental decided to expand bookings but they couldn't keep striking small numbers of prints directly off the camera negative without ruining it so they made the cheapest duplicate negative they could and made another run of release copies off it. This third generation negative had printed in dust and scratches and the contrast was way off. Some scenes looked bleached out and others were so dark you couldn't see detail. This is where the picture started to get a reputation as looking bad or having been shot in 16mm which was inaccurate. The cult following continued and the movie ended up grossing about
12 million for Continental which was a considerable sum at the time. Not that it helped
Romero and associates since they didn't see any of it and the distributing company folded before they were able to collect, an all too typical story. To make matters worse, a number of shady operators discovered they hadn't copyrighted the final product so they found worn duplicate negative prints and derived horrible dupe negatives from them and started circulating these dreadful dupes in theaters further degrading the camerawork. There are too many companies to list here who have released the film on DVD from one of these grainy dupes. At least Romero was able to retreive his original negative and salvage it from the distribution fiasco. Some of his partners have tried to alter the film to acquire a new copyright for it which includes adding new footage or colorizing it with terrible results. However, I cannot condemn them for trying to make a few extra bucks on it considering how poorly they were treated by Continental.

Elite made a deal with Romero to release these two standard edition DVDs with suppliments but different audio tracks from the original negative and they both look as good as this picture is capable of looking given the way it was shot. I'm not sure I'm looking forward to a blu ray of it in the future since it may make the grain more obvious. Even though the image on the Elite discs are fine there are still some inherant problems. There's a jump cut of Harry in the basement where some dialogue was clumsily removed that is now permanent in the negative. Some shots jump at the edit which should be fixed digitally since they can stabilize the image in modern transfer machines. There remain occasional scratches and dust on some shots. There are also film-making bloopers like mismatched close ups where Romero crossed the line resulting in actors looking in the wrong direction and the biggest flaw which is the quick transition from dusk to night once Barbara is inside the house. And for people who have seen the film many times you'll get a few laughs like the scene when Ben tells Barbra he's boarded up the house but there's an open window in the background. Both Elite editions are mastered in 1.33 even though the film was shown in 1.85 in all theaters.
It looks acceptable in either ratio and I'm not sure Romero really considered
that when making the movie. The square ratio is another element that makes
it seem as if it was shot in an earlier era.

As for the movie itself, it's certainly no longer shocking in it's level of graphic gore. The
effects are quite cheesy now but it has that eerie atmosphere, cynicism and documentary approach which is still scary but not as terrifying as it originally was. I like the movie in part because of it's cheapness which in this rare case, works to its advantage. The bigger budget sequels that Romero made are in color and more
action oriented. They're worth watching but are not as creepy as the black and
white original.

The suppliments give some information on how the movie was shot but I researched it
further when I did a comparison report on it and "Carnival of Souls" while attending NYU.
I later tracked down Herk Harvey and helped him restore his horror classic but that's another story for another post and as thorny as the distribution history of the Romero movie.

So I recommend either Elite edition for buffs of this movie or horror film afficianados in
general. The less you expect, the more you'll enjoy it's primitive impact.

Here's an amusing sidebar to this review...

In the mid-seventies ABC in New York broadcast the film late night on one Saturday.
Because it was off hours they aired it uncut in 16mm. It must have caused some
controversy because the next time it was shown they not only trimmed the goriest
sequences but superimposed the words "A Simulation" over the television reports about
the zombie attacks lest anyone think it was really happening like the earlier Orson Welles radio show, "War of the Worlds".

I also bought the film in Super 8 sound while I was in high school and used to project
it on a portable screen outdoors in the summer which simulated it's drive in bookings
quite effectively. The Elite disc is certainly in better shape that that particular print
but it was a fun movie to show friends as a teen.

As a final post script I thought I'd mention that while Romero is continues to make
movies (primarily sequels), a number of the other participants have passed
on including Duane Jones, Karl Hardman and Keith Wayne. You'll be comforted to
know they have not returned from the dead to wreck havoc on society.

In summary picture quality B +, sound design B-, cinematography B-, story
and screenplay A-.
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