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Barbra and her brother Johnny arrive at a Pennsylvania cemetery to pay their respects to their deceased father. Things take a weird turn when they are attacked by a crazed man, Barbra getting the f*ck out of Dodge to a farmhouse. There she meets up with a group of people in the same boat as her, forced to fend off the approaching zombie horde, and eventually each other. They really are coming to get you.
What can I say about this film that hasn't already been said? Seriously, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is not only the zombie film that brought zombies and zombie films into modern pop-culture, not only was it deemed "historically, culturally or aesthetically important" that it was registered it to the National Film Registry in 1999, but it was one of those films that was truly ahead of its time, especially in 1968.
How far was it ahead? Putting an African-American as a main character, for starters. Duane Jones, despite the fact that George Romero denies casting Jones because he was black, was the sole heroic character in the film, and his eventual fate in the film echoed the then-recent events involving prominent African-American figures Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD also explored the theme of being disillusioned with government, and the flaws in media, local and federal government agencies and the entire concept of civil defense. Romero himself said that the film was designed to reflect the tensions at that time, given the Vietnam War was still going on.
But for those not looking for the whole underlying message under all the celluloid, there's still a damn fine film here. Gory and controversial for its time, a lot of the effects still hold up today. The zombies aren't the rotting corpses of future Romero films, but are still quite scary as unrelenting hordes of people who were once friends and family with those still living. Similar to the themes explored in DAY OF THE DEAD, NOTLD also displays internal struggle with the group of survivors, as Ben and Harry butt heads more than a few times.
If there was anything negative about the film, I would have to say that the female characters are lacking, in particular Barbra, who goes into a sort of catatonic state once she gets to the farmhouse. Now, I have nothing against women or the idea that yes, she was probably in shock, but it annoyed the shite out of me that she just stood there while Ben had to hold his own at the start. Dammit, if only she'd taken a cue from Gaylen Ross ten years later...
Even with the one minor complaint, you can't deny the gem that Romero gave horror fans with this his first effort. Suspenseful, shocking and provocative all at the same time, you can't call yourself a true fan of zombie films if you haven't seen this film sometime in your life. This truly is a Sunday School picnic for fans of the genre.
Video: Of all the versions of the film released over the years, the now out-of-print Millennium Edition DVD was the one to beat, and it some respects, it still is (more on that later). This transfer by the Weinstein Company is a significant improvement over the Elite transfer. Presented in the Romero-preferred 1.33:1 fullscreen, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is sharper and cleaner than before. A lot of the print damage, dirt and so on from previous transfers have also been taken care of. The one complaint? The Weinsteins took it upon themselves to digitally zoom in on certain shots, changing the framing in what probably can be seen as removing the boom mic from those shots. Some purists will obviously be pissed, but it's nothing of the George Lucas proportions.
Audio: Despite the packaging stating Dolby Digital 5.1, it's obviously for something other than the film, since all that's here is the Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track, which is still great. Much cleaner than previous editions, a lot of the background noise has been nixed with this disc. Dialogue is clear for the most part (given that this is a low budget film shot over 40 years ago), and works well with the transfer.
Those who bought the Elite disc will find some of the significant extras have been ported over. First up are the two commentaries, one by director George Romero, producer/actor Karl Hardman, actress Marilyn Eastman and co-writer John A. Russo, the other by producer Russell Streiner, production manager Vince Survinski and cast members Bill Hinzman, Judith O'Dea, Kyra Schon and Keith Wayne. The first commentary slows a bit here and ther, but overall it's an informative and light discussion that covers pretty much everything. There's some overlap in the second commentary, and isn't quite as jovial as the first one, but it covers everything from a second point of view, which is always a neat thing to have.
Next up is one of the main reasons to shell out for this release: the new feature-length 1 hour and 23 minute doc One For The Fire. If you hadn't had your fill from the commentaries, this will give you that extra something. This feature includes on-camera interviews with almost everyone associated with the film (except for those who have passed away, obviously). Besides everyone from the commentaries, crewmembers like Regis Survinski and Gary Streiner, and fans like Alice Cooper, Max Brooks, Greg Nicotero and more are interviewed. In addition to modern day visits to the locations from the film and a tour of The Latent Image's building (Romero's company that did the film work), there's also coverage of how the film lapsed into public domain (Walter Reade, who neglected to put a copyright indication on the prints, effectively ripped Romero off).
If that documentary wasn't enough, Speak Of The Dead (the packaging mistakenly identifies it as Speak To The Dead), a 16-minute Q&A with George Romero at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on August 26th, 2007, is included. In this, Romero discusses his career, starting with NOTLD, and covers some of the same material as the other features, but it's a fun watch with Romero making things interesting.
Another carry-over from the Elite release is Ben Speaks, a 17-minute audio interview with the late Duane Jones in 1987. This is unfortunately the only real in-depth interview Jones ever gave about NOTLD, which is a shame since it's clear he enjoyed doing it and had some great insight into the film and it's place in pop culture.
Finally, we get the theatrical trailer in all its cheesy glory ('Night *duh duh duh duh* Of The Living Dead!'), a still gallery of 68 production photos and artwork and the original script in DVD-ROM format. The package is topped off with a sleek slipcover and one of those annoying clamshell cases with the clasps on the side, and some startup trailers for other Dimension releases.
Now, for those wondering, yes, not all of the Elite extras were ported over, as this release misses the NIGHT OF THE LIVING BREAD parody film, an interview with actress Judith Ridley (who played Judy), that elusive Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, Romero-directed TV spots and shorts and a scene from Romero's film THERE'S ALWAYS VANILLA.
Those of you wanting the extras from Anchor Bay's horrid 30th Anniversary DVD can go play in traffic.
A classic film in the genre gets another great DVD release. Those of you completists should hang onto your Elite ME disc (and those who don't have it should find it anyway), but those who are don't have the Elite edition (why not?!) should be elated with this release's transfer and bounty of extras. This one is an obvious no-brainer to get, so get mowing that lawn/hooking/pimping/whatever.