GORE IN THE STORE
INTERVIEWS FILM BLU-RAY DVD & BOOK REVIEWS
Directed by George A. Romero. Staring Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Judith Ridley, Keith Wayne. 96mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK by Criterion on Blu-ray on 19th February.
When George A. Romero passed away last year at the age of 77, it prompted many to discuss his lifetime of work and re-visit some of the classic horror films he created during his distinguished and influential career. Central to that was his 1968 breakout hit NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD which, with its undertones of racial tension in America and social commentary on the country, feels as relevant now as it did 50 years ago.
It transpires that one of Romero’s last acts as a filmmaker was to oversee a 4k digital restoration of his masterpiece alongside co-writer John A. Russo, producer Russell W. Streiner and, crucially, sound engineer Gary R. Streiner. That restoration is now available in a comprehensive and in-depth Blu-Ray package from Criterion, to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary.
From the very opening, we can see what care and attention has been paid to the print, with the opening shots feeling more akin to high quality modern day black and white photography than an independent film from the 60’s. It’s on a par with Roger Deakins work on the Coen brothers noirish THE MAN WHO WASN’T THESE with only the opening credit font serving as a reminder of when the film was made. Presented in it original 1.37:1 ratio, the American flag which flies very prominently at the beginning tells us the location so vital to the themes which become apparent later on.
George a Romero discusses his choice of black-and-white cinematography over colour for his 1968 breakout hit NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
The low budget aesthetic is still apparent, particularly with Johnnie’s demise which feels oddly muted, some slightly shaky camera work and Barbara’s car crash, which is more effect than effects. Yet these are not factors for criticism but serve to remind us of what Romero and his team were working with way back when. The shoestring budget is part of the charm.
When Barbara finds her way into the farmhouse, the restoration really shines through with the shades of black, white and grey shadows creating the imposing sense of dread and uncertainty. The first shot of a dead body still jolts, and lays any fears of possible problems with the print to rest. Practical effects don’t date nearly as quickly as CGI, while the black and white photography preserves those self-same effects in a way that colour perhaps would not. Scenes of the zombies eating human flesh remain disturbing rather than comical while the fire that scares them burns brightly in 4K. That many of the ‘killings’ actually occur out of frame is helpful too, demonstrating one of the smart techniques Romero employed to utilise his (lack of) budget and suggesting rather than showing some of the actual violence for which the film became notorious. Like when Marion Crane died in the shower around the same time, you see far less than you imagine. Less is more. Power of suggestion.
And then, we have the sound design. As mentioned earlier, sound engineer Gary Streiner also oversaw the restoration which includes an uncompressed version of the films monaural soundtrack. As with all horror films, sound is crucial, here utilised through the radio and television broadcasts that work as exposition, telling the country-wide story while the characters we are shut in with are living it very personally. Equally, the haunting music box and the outside birdsong (the only sound we can hear when the ghouls – they’re never referred to as zombies – are circling), enriches the experience even further.
If there’s anything to nit-pick at, it’s that the opening shot of the approaching helicopter leading in to the memorable final act does still appear slightly grainy, but it’s a moot point.
For this is overall a truly fine restoration of an influential, important and still relevant horror masterpiece. Even for those who already own a version of the film may well wish to fork out on the package. For the two-disc edition also includes new programmes, original audio commentaries from 1994, archival interviews, new interviews, trailers and T.V. spots. On top of that, the actual cover artwork is impressive and includes a disturbing character poster on the reverse an essay by Stuart Klawans. And for those who don’t? A real treat awaits. For 50 years after it initially shocked shocked the world, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a film that, appropriately, continues to rise up again and again.
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