Night of the Living Dead is one of the most radical films made by an American filmmaker of the 1960s, whether that was consciously done or not. It was George A. Romero’s debut, and a quintessential cult film that basically invented a genre. While there had been “zombie” movies (such as I Walked With a Zombie), they were based on Haitian culture and folklore. The modern idea of what a zombie is, however, was a Romero creation.
It has the barest of plots possible: there is an outbreak of something that causes the dead to come alive, and a group of characters have to try to fight them off. The group is led by Ben (Duane Jones), and they are trapped in a farmhouse where they must fend off what in the film are called “flesh-eating ghouls” (the word “zombie” is never heard.) It’s an extremely lean film, although there are a couple of bad cuts in it. Other than that it’s definitely one of the greatest horror films ever.
The film came out in 1968, and Romero has said it was intentional to reflect the tensions that were around at the time. He’s been quoted as saying: “it was 1968, man, everyone had a ‘message’.” Jones is Black, and while it was colourblind casting, at some point during the film being made the filmmakers realised that this added something to the film, and the ending reflects this. Jones was a friend and the best actor they could afford, and in the original script he was a simple truck driver, but the script was being revised during the shoot. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed the night they drove the print to New York to show it, protentional distributors. It ends with Jones being the last one left alive when a group of rednecks arrives—and think he’s a zombie too. Just the notion none of the “heroes” get out alive was radical to show on film in 1968 nevermind everything else.
It was also one of the first truly independent films, and the point where indie film in the US really became a possibility. Roger Corman was already out there making small B-movies, but Night of the Living Dead was made by people outside Hollywood with no money, giving inspiration to people like John Waters and every horror film to come in it’s wake.
When it premiered, it was November 1968, and one of the most amazing things about the film is that it was mostly shown as a double bill for kids with the old Universal monster movies or similar kid-friendly B-movies! Very soon there was outrage over the fact it was being shown to an audience that was much too young. The was a massive piece in Variety condemning the film, and Vincent Canby of the New York Tomes called it a “junk movie”—although Pauline Kael, in one of the few times she ever got something right, was an early supporter. But then French critics picked up on it, and it quickly became one of the first “midnight movies.”
However, because the distributor was a moron, they removed the copyright—and once that’s been done, a film can’t be re-copyrighted unless it’s remastered. So soon it was being shown all over the place, including on television and on college campuses, without the filmmakers making a penny. Which is why they remade it in 1990 with Tom Savini directing (Savini was supposed to do the special effects for the original, but at the time he was a combat photographer in Nam).
Most importantly, this disc features a 4K restoration from an original print sourced from the Museum of Modern Art (where the film certainly belongs). It has never looked better. The images are very clear, and it adds to the claustrophobia of the film. For example, there is a scene when they’re driving up to the cemetery, and in this transfer you can see that the road sign has blood on it. I’ve probably seen the film a dozen times and had never noticed that before. There’s also a work print included, called Night of Anubis, the title that was being used between Night of the Flesheaters and Night of the Living Dead.
The specials features include commentaries from the 1994 Laserdisc, which for many viewers would have been the first time they had seen it in a decent version; a new programme with Guillermo del Toro and Robert Rodriguez discussing the film’s place as a game-changer for cinema and its influence on their work; never-before-seen 16mm dailies; and an interview with co-screenwriter John A. Russo, which mostly focuses on the process of making the film, but also the commercial/industrial film company where all the filmmakers got their start. Newsreels from 1967 are thrown in, giving a clue to where the film’s imagery came from, and there are more featurettes, a video essay, an episode of Tomorrow With Tom Snyder featuring Romero and a very young Don Toscarelli, a Q&A with Romero from the 2012 TIFF, and various trailers, radio and TV spots. Maybe the only omission is one of the feature-length documentaries that have been made on the film and Romero, but those are widely available elsewhere and fans likely already have one of them. In other words, it’s a very definitive edition and one of the greatest Blu-Rays ever compiled.