01st Feb2018

‘Night of the Living Dead’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

 Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Keith Wayne, Russell Streiner | Written by George A. Romero, John A. Russo | Directed by George A. Romero

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For many of us, Night of the Living Dead is a film we first experienced on late-night TV – some grizzled old print squashed onto a tiny CRT. Now, 50 years after its miraculous inception, Criterion have brought George A. Romero’s small, scary, seminal movie into the gleaming new world of 4K. Night is a public domain movie, mostly to its detriment – but now we have the essential version.

It’s the simplest of stories: a group of people bickering in a farmhouse while a zombie (sorry, “ghoul”) apocalypse closes in. It seems basic now – clichéd even – but nothing like this had been seen at the time. Audiences (including traumatised children at the matinee showings) were appalled and delighted. 1980s splatter had been born a decade premature, with nary a VHS in sight.

With its queasy blend of high melodrama – all theatrical acting and orchestral blarp – combined with lo-fi grubby effects and documentary realism, Night of the Living Dead is the transition point between classical and modern horror. There’s an allusion to the ghoul virus’s “Venus probe” source, harking back to the sci-fi B-movies of the ‘50s; from the present we get a black hero and a subversive narrative that speaks to the racism and Cold War paranoia of the period; and looking to the future, many of the horror tropes which would be standardised over the following decades are seeded.

Like Hitchcock’s Psycho, the story opens with a woman who will not be our hero. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (producer Russell Streiner) visit their mother’s grave. They are attacked by a ghoul. Barbra panics and runs to a farmhouse, but the owner is dead. As Barbra turns to flee, Ben (Duane Jones) arrives. His plan is to lock down the house and fight off the horde. Barbra is herself in lockdown, turned to stone by fear.

There are other survivors in the cellar: young lovers Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Riley), and an argumentative married couple called Harry (producer Karl Hardman) and Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman). The Coopers’ daughter is sick – and we all know what that means in a zombie movie.

Romero and co-writer John Russo are brilliant with their characterisation, gravitating the drama around the alpha male struggle between Harry and Ben. Cooper is determined to make an Alamo of the cellar, but Ben insists on staying mobile upstairs. “I’m boss up here,” Ben warns Cooper (an impactful line on many levels). We cheer for Ben – even if, by the end, Cooper’s plan might actually have meant they all survived.

These performances are key. Ben was written as a simple blue collar man, but theatre actor Jones upgrades him, bringing poetry and intelligence to his part. Ben is the loose, ever-moving counterpoint to Cooper’s coiled spring, whose middle-aged muscles are always tense. While Cooper just wants to hide his eyes from the horror, Ben keeps busy to keep sane. Harry and Helen are stuck in their ways: he trying to cling to the status quo and she resigned to submitting to his plans. In the face of the apocalypse they’re the last bastion of white middle class domesticity, and Harry is damned if he’s going to give it up.

Black heroes are a rarity even today, which makes this an apt re-release in the year Get Out is nominated for Best Picture. There’s no explicit racism in Night of the Living Dead. No one refers to Ben’s blackness, so it never turns into an “issue” film. But it remains an allegorical one. There’s undoubtedly something here about the treatment of African-Americans in history: the generations of people who built for, cared for and fought for the very whites who would oppress them. For what? A head shot and a meat hook. Like an animal.

Romero’s film is very efficient at explaining the now-normalised rules of the zombie genre. Remarkably convincing news reports explain that the dead are returning to life, and that they’re cannibalistic. Ben shoots the ghouls in the chest, but realises he can only take them down with a blow to the head. Seen from the perspective of an audience for whom such rules were not yet established, this is a chilling introduction to a new enemy.

Subsequent cinematic influences spread far and wide, from Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead to Frank Darabont’s The Mist. But there are less obvious echoes also. I can’t help thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs in the way the news reports imply a world in chaos, but the chaos we witness is strictly local. Moreover, the realist quality of those news reports pre-dates the found footage subgenre, long before Ruggero Deodato dragged us to the jungle in Cannibal Holocaust. And listen carefully to the opening music and then watch Dallas’s death scene in Ridley Scott’s AlienNight of the Living Dead is embedded in the subconscious of horror cinema.

It might be dated in its depiction of women, who are either hysterical or maternal (thankfully, Barbra would get her chance to kick ass in Tom Savini’s 1990 remake), but otherwise this exceptional film holds up remarkably well. Newcomers will discover a tight, intense and surprisingly brutal classic, while Romero aficionados can delight once again in its foundation-building vitality, on the finest print it’s ever had.

In terms of extras, Criterion have thrown in the kitchen sink. Sharing the first disc with the movie are two commentaries from 1994, the first with Romero, Hardman, Eastman and (co-writer) John Russo, and the second with producer-actor Streiner, production manager Vincent Survinsky and actors O’Dea, Wayne, S. William Hinzman and Kyra Schon. There’s also “Night of Anubis”, an alternative 16mm work print of the film.

Disc 2 is a treasure trove. “Light in the Darkness” sees Frank Darabont, Guillermo Del Toro and Robert Rodriguez discussing Night of the Living Dead’s influence. “Learning from Scratch” is a piece about Latent Image, the indie production company Romero established to get the film made. There’s dailies footage, alternative takes and even some rare, 16mm behind-the-scenes footage. In “Walking Like the Dead”, ten of the original ghouls discuss their experiences. “Tones of Terror” has John Cirronella talking about the use of library music in the film. And “Limitations into Virtues” is a discussion between filmmakers Tony Zhan and Taylor Ramos about Night’s art direction.

There are also several legacy pieces: excerpts from a 1979 interview with Romero and Don “Phantasm” Coscarelli; interviews with Duane Jones and Judith Ridley from 1987 and 1994 respectively; and Romero remembers the film at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012. Finally, we get trailers, radio and TV spots, plus a neat bonus: a 1967 newsreel about the real “Venus probe”, Mariner 5.

Night of the Living Dead is out on Blu-ray from Criterion on 26th February 2018.

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