Saturday, September 29, 2012

Blu-ray Review: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990)

- The Limited Edition Series -
Label: Twilight Time DVD
Region Code: ABC
Duration: 88 Minutes
Rating: R
Video: 1080p 16x9 Widescreen(1.85:1)
Audio: Englisg DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 with Optional English SDH Subtitles
Cast: Tony Todd, Bill Moseley, Katie Finneran, Tom Towles, Patricia Tallman
DirectorTom Savini
Synopsis: Night of the Living Dead (1990)—a George Romero-approved remake of his 1968 cult horror classic, directed by makeup wizard Tom Savini—tells once again the chilling tale of seven people holed-up in a farmhouse besieged by armies of the un-dead. As the terrified little group fights for their lives, they begin to find themselves as plagued by the evil lurking within as by the ravening flesh-eaters battering on hastily boarded-up windows and doors. “Splatter King” Savini keeps things moving—and the blood flowing—as the survivors dwindle one by one.

The Film: Much like the original Romero-directed film we open with siblings Johnny (Bill Moseley, The Devil's Rejects) and Barbara (Patricia Tallman, Army of Darkness) visiting their mother's grave at a remote, rural cemetery - it's a picturesque location with rolling hills covered in green grass overlooking a lake. Johhny is an acerbic and witty and takes great pleasure in tormenting his sister about zombie, intoning the iconic line "there coming to get you Barbara". On cue a man stumbles into the scene, you're thinking it's a zombie but we get a fake out as the film deviates from the original. The man is dazed and injured, mumbles a warning and stumbles off, confused. It's now that we've been lulled into a false sense of security that the undead show up and attack, Johnny struggles against the fiend while Barbara screams her head off, he falls onto a gravestone at a weird angle, his neck snaps, it's brutal. The panicked Barbara flees the scene and eventually ends up at a rural farmhouse. It's here that she meets Ben (Tony Todd, Candyman) a man also fleeing the chaos of whatever it is that's happening in the area, it seems people are turning violent and eating people. We the audience of course realize this is the beginning of a zombie outbreak but remember the characters don't really know what the Hell is going on, they're panicked and stricken with fear. The two set about fortifying farmhouse in an effort to prevent the massing zombie hordes from entering the home. They remove doors from entry ways inside the home and barricade the windows, in the process of looking for lumber they discover the house is not as empty as it once appeared, in the basement they find Harry Cooper (Tom TowlesHenry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), his wife Helen (McKee Anderson), their daughter Sarah (Heather Mazur, TV's Pretty Little Liars) , who was bitten by one of the fiends. She's deathly ill but no one realizes just yet how dire the situation really is. Also taking refuge in the basement is a young couple Tom Bitner (William Butler, Ghoulies II) and his girlfriend Judy Rose Larson (Katie Finneran, TV's Wonderfalls).

Immediately Cooper rubs Ben the wrong way - both are strong headed men of action and have differing opinions on the best course of action to follow which leads to a lot of tension, drama and altercations, some with damning consequences. One of the most noticeable departures from the original is the character of Barbara portrayed by Patricia Tallman (Babylon 5) who is quite the opposite of the blonde, meek and nearly catatonic Barbara (Judith O'Dea) in the '68 film here is a red-haired fire-brand, she starts off a bit  on the prissy side but by the film's end is a zombie-killing bad-ass,  it's a great switch-up . Tony Todd very capably fills the shoes of Duane Jones as Ben - this just might be Todd's finest performance. Special mention of Tom Towels (Stuart Gordon's The Pit and the Pendulum) as the abrasive Harry Cooper, a real bastard, super unpleasant and quite intense, there's a nice exchange of words between his character and Ben as they pretty much fight over a TV - great stuff.

The film has atmosphere to spare, the rural farmhouse proves to be an claustrophobic setting as hordes of zombies try to break-in until they eventually fall through the windows like a mass of insects. The sound of incessant hammering  as windows are boarded up and patched throughout the siege is unnerving, the zombies are slow-moving shamblers, it's creepy stuff. 

This was the first of only four features that splatter-master Tom Savini directed and it's far and away his finest moment behind the camera, the most recent being the "Wet Dreams" segment of The Theatre Bizarre, the weakest of that anthologies vignettes. Perhaps what we have something akin to a Spielberg-Hooper situation on Poltergeist (1982) here with Romero-Savini... it's not likely but apparently Savini's directorial debut will remain his most well-regarded effort. 

The films is shot in color but like the black and white original it is propelled by chilling atmosphere and dread, not gore, though there are certainly moments of grue provided by the capable effects team of John Vulich (Re-Animator, The Hidden) and Everett Burell (Dolls, Castle Freak) whom created some great zombie make-ups for the film. 

The film pretty much sticks to the blueprint of the original save for a few twists, one being the wickedly great finale, there's a delicious irony in Ben taking final refuge in the basement after disputing it so vehemently with Cooper, the final twists are fantastic and the final few shots of the film are eerie and chilling

Blu-ray: Twilight Time offer up Tom Savini's chilling remake of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead in a very nice looking MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer in it's original theatrical widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (anamorphic). It's sourced from a very nice print, most likely the same Columbia master used for the DVD, I saw no print damage whatsoever, there's a fine layer of grain and while the 1080p image didn't exactly leap off the screen with fine detail it is absolutely an improvement over the previous Columbia Pictures DVD edition.   
The English language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sounds great with some nice atmospheric touches in the surrounds but the majority of the action is front and center, dialogue is crisp and the score and effects sound great. There is an optional English SDH subtitle option.

Special features are culled from the previously mentioned DVD edition and include a theatrical trailer plus an audio commentary with director Tom Savini, it's a relaxed and scene-specific commentary covering many facets of the film, it's quite an interesting listen as he discusses the numerous splatter scene excised from the film by the MPAA and an alternate death scene for "Helen". Something noticeably missing from the Blu-ray is the "The Dead Walk" (24:52) making-of featurette. Not sure why that was not included but I believe for one reason or another not all bonus materials from Columbia are made available to third-party distributors, it would have been a sweet inclusion but it was not to be, however, we do get Twilight Time's signature isolated score track (DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0) featuring the original score by composer Paul McCollough (The Majorettes) which is not found on the DVD. The last item is a 8 page color booklet with color pictures and wonderful writings by  Twilight Time staff-writer Julie Kirgo who always offers interesting insights that put the film in perspective. I must compliment Twilight for the inclusion of a booklet in every release, it's a nice touch and something that's all but disappeared, such a shame. 

Something I never really comment on with releases is the Blu-ray box art and I gotta say that this film has ever really had great artwork associated with it's releases. The Columbia DVD was pretty lame I hate to say it but this Blu-ray is worse, it's just uninspired, worthy maybe of Diary of the Dead maybe but not this. The backside of the booklet features some great original theatrical poster art, that would have been fantastic.

 Special Features:
- Isolated Score Track by Paul McCollough
- Audio Commentary with Filmmaker Tom Savini
- Original theatrical Trailer
- Julie Kirgo liner notes
Verdict: Night of the Living Dead (1990) is a chilling and poignant take on George A. Romero's '68 original, with Romero himself penning the screenplay the film follows the sketch of the iconic black and white chiller with precision with but a few nice surprises. I will offer up that when I take in Romero's trilogy of the Dead I actually throw this on instead of the '68 original - it's that good. As remakes of classic films go this is right up there with The Blob (1988), The Thing (1982) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) - definitely one of the better horror entries of the 90's and a high recommend. 4 Outta 5 

NOTE: This release was limited to only 3,000 units and is sold out and fetching upwards of $100 on eBay :(