Sunday, October 30, 2011

DVD Spotlight: Night of the Living Dead (Millennium Edition) (1968).

Night of the Living Dead (Millennium Edition) (1968)
DVD Release Year: 2002.
Released by: Elite Entertainment.
Region: 1.
Starring: Duane Jones; Judith O'Dea; Karl Hardman; Marilyn Eastman; Keith Wayne; Judith Ridley; Kyra Schon; Charles Craig; S. William Hinzman; George Kosana; Frank Doak; Bill 'Chilly Billy' Cardille.
Directed by: George A. Romero.
Black & White/96 Minutes/NR

A diverse group of people find themselves trapped together in a farmhouse as the recently dead come back as flesh-eating ghouls. They must pull together in order to survive the night as the undead masses continue to grow larger outside, attempting to break into the house and eat them. The real threat to their survival, however, may very well be their own differences.

And there you have it: a premise so simple and effective for a number of reasons, both intended and accidental, that it went on to spawn four sequels, remakes, and remakes of its sequels -- not to forget the countless number of films that make up the modern zombie film genre. A lot of people who have seen other zombie films before Romero's look back and wonder what's so special about this cheap, black-and-white, indie effort from a bunch of professional local filmmakers from the Pittsburgh area, who before this were mostly making television commercials. Why would the Library of Congress select this film for preservation in the National Film Registry, as a film deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant"? Because is was a bit different and it came out at a perfect time. It was gory, violent, it had some nudity. Not really new, but at the time it was pushing limits and it was shocking, and it did a lot to define what the modern horror film was to become. It was, in a way, the next step after the era of the Universal monsters all the way to Hammer's re-imaging of those classics. People went in not expecting to see walking corpses actually eating guts, and the living shooting and beating these ghouls back into death.

The combination of both professional and amature actors, the setting, and the grainy black and white (done because it was cheaper to make the film this way, not for artistic reasons), gave the film an almost pseudo-documentary feel to it. These were not the zombies of past films. These creatures were not safe or clean. These were monsters out of nightmares -- and with a strong literary influence (Richard Matheson's I Am Legend). Some aspects of this film's success critically, over the years, really only fell into the filmmakers laps...and being smart to see what they had, they ran with it. Romero and crew swear to this day that there was no grand design for the racial subtext many people would later cite as being the most significant aspect of the film. The casting of Ben as a black male lead, who was obviously an intellectual and a humanist, trying to be rational in this crisis, was more Duane Jones doing than the actual script, which had called for a traditional tough-guy (in this case a truck driver), who would take charge, beat the monsters, and get the girl. It's so obvious it was a happy accident when we see that these young, liberal, filmmakers still had the female lead (Judith O'Dea) diminished into near-insanity within the first half of the film...a traditional helpless female victim if there ever was one, although an understandable one given what she went through. There was to be no happy ending for any character in this film other than the good ol' boy hunting parties and their brute indifference, that come to the "rescue" at the end of the film. We would learn ten years later in Dawn of the Dead, that they were just as doomed as the rest of us. Romero's nihilistic vision was born here and spread its wings in several of his still-to-come films. Like it or hate it, you can not deny the impact this film had on the horror genre, generations of people, and on a culture in general.

While officially out of print, Elite's Millennium Edition is still fairly easy to get online or by special order at your local DVD seller. If you're really lucky you can find it in a cheap bin or second hand. After the countless horrible DVD and VHS versions that have been released over the years, this is nothing short of being one of the best DVD releases outside of most of Criterion's output. Forget the colourized versions, the censored versions, and the horrible re-cut and musically abused 30th Anniversary edition. This is what you want and this is what you must own if you're a fan. You get the best possible picture and sound you could hope for. You get all the standard production and promotional-related bells and whistles. The two commentary tracks alone, both fun and casual, also provide everything one could ever hope to know about how the film came to be, how it was made, and what happened behind the scenes between the people involved. It's really eye-opening to realize just how damn good this little movie really is when Romero and crew point out every little error they made, which you've probably missed during the many times you've seen the film. The real gem in the extras is the Duane Jones interview. While audio only, it sheds some light on just why the late actor's role in the film was so effective: because so much of this man was put into what was originally a one-dimensional character. He became real. And, of course, at the time you didn't really see a strong black lead in a film that didn't pander to some sort of stereotype. Romero would catch on and use this to great effect in his next two zombie films as well. There's a lot to take-in here, and a lot to drool over.

DVD Information:

Video: 1.33:1.
Audio: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), English (Dolby Digital 5.1).
Subtitles: None.
--Trailers/TV Spots.
--Dual Commentary Tracks featuring creator/director George Romero and the entire cast.
--Film Parody Night of the Living Bread.
--Still Photo Gallery, featuring rare colour photos.
--The history of Romero's company -- The Latent Image.
--Scenes from the “lost” George Romero film, There’s Always Vanilla.
--Video interview with Night of the Living Dead's Judy Ridley.
--Final interview by star Duane Jones.
--Foreign and Domestic posters and collectibles.
--Original props.
--The entire original shooting script.
--Cast members’ personal scrapbooks.
--George Romero directed TV spots and short films.
--Full colour insert featuring liner notes by Stephen King.

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