For those of you who might not remember, in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, there was a boom in the DVD market. Horror fans were delighted that all sorts of rare and unusual films were finally being made available in an array of special editions and extended cuts. It was glorious for a short while. Then many home video companies realized that die-hard fans wouldn’t stop at just one version of their favorite movie, and thus released multiple edition of the same movie (anyone who ever bought Army of Darkness on DVD only to find a brand new special edition issued months later knows exactly what I’m talking about).
Night of the Living Dead was one of the great horror films that seemed to be issued on DVD by just about every single company. The reason being the film had fallen into public domain after it was mistaken copyrighted under its original title Night of the Flesh Eaters. (This is also why Night of the Living Dead is frequently featured as a horror movie being watched by characters in a horror movie, the filmmakers don’t have to pay for its use.) This meant that anybody with a beat up print of George A. Romero’s film could issue it on home video, and just about everyone did. Crummy, over-lit prints with the occasional scene missing or random jump cuts of Romero’s classic filled the bargain bins. There was even a 30th anniversary special edition, which I regrettably bought, featuring new footage spliced into the classic with the intention of giving the film’s first zombie a stupid backstory. This was an early omen that the DVD boom wouldn’t last long if companies would be putting out inferior products with the intent of misleading their customers.
The good times, if we’re calling them that, wouldn’t last forever. Streaming quickly dominated the home video market and bottomed out the physical media market. Of course, Night of the Living Dead was available on most streaming platform with the same print issues that plagued its myriad of DVD releases. There would soon be light among the darkness. For the 50th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead, Janus Films undertook an extensive restoration of George A. Romero’s zombie classic and now have issued it as a part of the Criterion Collection. Finally, there is the definitive version of Night of the Living Dead to add to your home video library. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Romero’s zombie film, but upon watching the Criterion disc for the first time I was stunned as how I had never seen the film so crisp and clean.
Night of the Living Dead stands as one of the most influential American movies ever made. Beyond the fact that the film created a horror subgenre that has maintained popularity for 50 years, Night of the Living Dead is a revolutionary moment in American independent cinema, a film that inspired countless of filmmakers to pick up a camera and attempt their dream with nothing more than a handful of friends, a shoestring budget, and a vision.
While every low budget horror movie filmmaker will say they’re inspired by the low budget horror film that made its way out of Pittsburgh 50 years ago, so many forget what makes Night of the Living Dead so incredibly special. For one, Romero and co-writer John A. Russo waste absolutely no time in getting the horror rolling. A small lull before the zombie storm greets the audience as the credits roll, siblings Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbara (Judith O’Dea) venture out to visit the grave of their dead father. Within minutes of starting the film, Romero introduces one of the most iconic moments in the horror the genre, as Johnny places on his pair of driving gloves and inflects a Vincent Price-like tone to creepily utter, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” Before you can settle down following Johnny’s ominous warning, a zombie attacks, taking down Barbra’s brother and leaving her on the run for her life from a mysterious and relentless attacker. And just like that Night of the Living Dead is off and running with no exposition, no characters explaining their inner wants and desires – it’s all action and character development through action.
Romero’s film is so rich with subtext that the film has undergone a variety of interpretations. Of course, this is amplified by the casting of black actor Duane Jones in the lead role as Ben, allowing many to see a civil rights current flowing beneath the surface of the zombie attack on the quaint farm house. 50 years later and the subtext of racial strife still plays strong in Night of the Living Dead. A modern interpretation could see Ben as a Barack Obama-like figure, thoughtfully and calmly trying to battle a crisis. He makes mistakes, sure, but he’s putting forth the effort to fortify the house and formulate a way to survive. In the basement, cowering in fear is Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), the Trump stand-in. No matter what Ben does, Harry is there to vocally inject his displeasure. Does Harry have any alternate ideas that might help everyone survive? No. He’s simply there to be loud and seize control for his own feeling of superiority. It’s ultimately that arrogance that does everyone in.
As is the case with any Criterion release, Night of the Living Dead is overflowing with special features, this time with a separate disc of supplemental material. There are documentaries on the making of the film, including one with co-writer John A. Russo where many of the advertisements that the Russo and Romero worked on cutting their teeth are shown. It’s an illuminating look at how Romero always had an eye for striking images and even some that show his wry sense of humor that would later emerge in other Dead films. Another featurette examines the legacy of Night of the Living Dead with interviews with Guillermo Del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Frank Darabont, who developed The Walking Dead for television. These just scratch the surface of the myriad of special features available on what is the definitive edition of this horror classic.
Just as they did with His Girl Friday, Janus Films and the Criterion Collection have restored a classic film that has fallen into public domain and thus been subject to countless inadequate home video releases. Now a whole new generation of film lovers will never have to subject themselves to the woeful bargain bin releases of Night of the Living Dead and can view the enduring terror as it was meant to be seen. George A. Romero left this earthly plane last year but he will always be remembered as the man who made zombies so much more than the victims of a Haitian curse but as flesh-eating hordes of the undead, a terrifying creature that could be anybody and gave creators the room to use the undead as a means to critique modern living. And now Night of the Living Dead will never truly die due to a perfect restoration thanks to the Criterion Collection.
Night of the Living Dead
After decades of inadequate home video releases for the horror classic, Night of the Living Dead lands in the Criterion Collection with a pristine transfer and an array of special features that make it the definitive edition of George A. Romero’s groundbreaking zombie film.