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NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a Beautiful Nightmare in 4K (Blu-ray Review)

I vividly remember the first time I watched Night of the Living Dead. I was 17 and it was late at night. I had turned on Syfy (née the Sci-fi Channel) just in time to watch Judith O’Dea run frantically to an abandoned house, chased by a white haired ghoul. I was rapt, leaning forward in the old armchair in our family room. The several-times duped, grainy print shown on the cable channel made it seem like something I shouldn’t be watching, even as a 17-year-old.

For most people who went on to worship George A. Romero‘s zombie films as some sort of sacred text of horror, this was the usual way Night was seen: on TV, looking sort of crappy. Because of an unfortunate error resulting from its retitling from Night of the Flesh Eaters, there was no copyright on the film and it instantaneously became public domain. Trying to find a more or less official version of it on DVD was all but impossible. Like Romero himself, the movie had been taken for granted for so long, an important document treated poorly by time and copying. But now we have Criterion’s beautiful Blu-ray of the recent 4K restoration, and finally Night of the Living Dead looks and sounds as amazing as it is.

Late last year, I reviewed Arrow’s box set of Romero’s “forgotten” films between Night and Dawn (you can read that here) and, though I’d been a devotee of the Pittsburgh filmmaker since adulthood, I was struck by just how innovative and thoughtful his films could be once you took the trappings of “horror” out of them. I was also overcome by a sense that he’d been treated terribly by and large by the film industry, relegated to making horror simply out of lack of opportunity elsewhere. Watching Criterion’s release of Night has only doubled this feeling.

By now, I’m sure most people have seen Night of the Living Dead; I’ve seen it countless times since that initial cable viewing, but seeing it in 4K was like seeing it for the first time all over again. The restoration allows us to see the frenetic camera work and editing of Romero better than anyone’s ever seen it. The violence is somehow more shocking, even if the graphicness is tame by today’s standards; the themes of revolution, social upheaval, race relations, and a world in panic that people have read into the movie over the years feel as fresh and immediate as ever.

What stands out upon this re-watch is not merely how well the horrific scenes are staged or how effective the newsreel quality still is, but how well rounded and believable most of the characters are. (Not necessarily all of the acting, but the characters.) Duane Jones as flawed hero Ben is captivating and mesmerizing at every moment he’s on screen. In a rare example of colorblind casting from the 1960s, Romero cast Jones not because he was a black actor but because he was the best actor they knew, and it absolutely shows. As much as you don’t like Cooper, Karl Hardman plays him as a conflicted, unsure, but ultimately justifiably fearful father—the makings of an excellent antagonist. I still wish O’Dea’s Barbara were more than just a catatonic fool for most of the movie, but Romero certainly made amends with Fran and Sarah in Dawn and Day, respectively.

Aiding in the film’s beautiful presentation is a bevy of solid, enlightening extras found in the package. In addition to the 4K print, we also have Night of Anubis, a never-before-presented work-print edit of the film, presented by producer Russell W. Streiner (who also played Johnny in the movie). It’s interesting to see this, as it’s basically the same film—there’s a portion of a reel missing, so not complete—but it’s, as Streiner says in his interview, a good representation of what Romero and the producers were seeing during the editing process. We also have a new program of raw, silent dailies from the original shoot, introduced by sound engineer Gary R. Streiner.

The central new feature is a 25-minute appreciation of Romero and the film by Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez. They talk lovingly about what the movie means to them and about how important the film has become in the zeitgeist. My favorite interview was with co-screenwriter John A. Russo about The Latent Image, the commercial production company in Pittsburgh where they all got their start. Russo is as reverent of Romero and his talents as a peer could be, and there’s something quite soothing in seeing old 16mm color TV commercials in HD. I wish I could tell you why.

Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead

We also have a great new video essay by the former runners of Every Frame a Painting, which focuses on Romero’s camera work and editing. The film’s jump cuts and axis breaks are fairly well documented at this point, but until this essay I hadn’t quite realized that, because of the large and cumbersome equipment Romero had to use, any shot with dialogue had to be shot on a tripod whereas the action could be handheld, though recorded silent; I’ll never be able to watch the movie the same way again. There’s also a fascinating featurette about the movie’s use of library music, something which most people wouldn’t think twice about but has a long and intricate history.

To round out the extras, we have an interview package with some of the extras and day players who played the film’s memorable zombies; segments from a 1979 episode of Tom Snyder’s show featuring Romero and Phantasm director Don Coscarelli; newsreels from 1967; trailers and tv spots; and audio commentaries from a 1994 laserdisc release featuring Romero and the cast and crew.

Criterion has always been the best venue for classic and contemporary films, but I love how much they embrace genre fare, and in the case of Night of the Living Dead (and Carnival of Souls a couple of years ago), movies that are written off by most people because of their often crappy preservation. Public domain movies can almost never find this degree of love, and it warms my zombie-loving heart to know Romero and his seminal, genre-defining masterpiece have been this well taken care of.

Images: Criterion/Image Ten

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He is the writer of 200 reviews of weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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