Sunday, October 1, 2017

GEORGE A. ROMERO'S NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) (50th Anniversary Blu-ray Review)

50th Anniversary Blu-ray 

Label: Mill Creek Entertainment
Release Date: October 11th 2017 
Rating: Unrated
Region Code: A
Duration: 96 Minutes 
Audio: English LPCM 2.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Full FRame (1.33:1) 
Diretor: George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Bill Hinzman, Russell Streiner, Kyran Schon

Night of the Living Dead (1968) opens with siblings Barbara (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) driving out to a rural Pennsylvania cemetery to visit the grave of their grandfather at the urging of their overbearing mother, once there Johnny kids around with his sister, taunting her about a ghoulish looking stranger (Bill Hinzman) seen wandering in the cemetery, jesting that he's  coming to attack Barbara, and sure enough the shambling man does just that. Johnny comes to defend his sister but is knocked down and hits his head on a tombstone, it's a killing blow. 

Frantically Barbara runs to the nearby car but in a panic cannot get the car started, she puts in in neutral and the car rolls down hill, unable to control the vehicle it strikes a tree, forcing her to flee on foot from the deranged man who is still in pursuit. She finds shelter in a nearby farmhouse, inside she finds the macabre corpse of a woman.  Eventfully a man named Ben (Duane Jones) shows up, also fleeing what turns out to the undead, the man in the cemetery was not an isolated event, hordes of the undead are roaming the area and chewing on their victims, who in turn get up and repeat the cycle. Ben begins to board up the windows and doors of the house to keep the massing undead out of the home, Barbara is not much help, having been left in a state of shock following the attack and death of her brother. With the house secured they settle in for the night, listening to the radio, which informs them that the mysterious re-animated corpses have overtaken not just the local area but the entire Eastern U.S..

The plot thickens when a group of like-minded refugees emerge from the basement, having been cloistered away down there the entire time; we have  stubborn Harry (Karl Hardman) and his wife Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman), plus their bitten daughter, Karen (Kyran Schon), and a teenage couple named Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Riley). The group do not see eye-to-eye, Harry has different idea than Duane about the best course of action to take, he seems emasculated when Ben, an African-American, seems to take charge. They continually bicker over who should control the TV and radio, the possession of a gun that is found n the house. The group hears further broadcasts from the news in regard to military intervention, and the possible cosmic-origin of the plague, perhaps spread by a satellite that exploded upon re-entry into he earth's atmosphere. 

The undead are the identified threat at first, but in what would become a Romero trademark, they don't prove to be the complete threat, as the chaos and threat of the undead increases human nature is clearly the more immediate threat to everyone. I remember  watching this on TV as a kid, it was my first zombie film, and even in black and white I found the ghoulish flesh-eaters so damn frightening, the idea that something once dead will come back to eat you was horrific, and the cemetery up the road didn't help maters either. 

The visceral effect of NOTLD might have been dulled by the familiarity of forty years of repeat viewings, but the movie still packs quite punch, a pessimistic tale of survival, of the ill-conceived ideas that go awry, and how ego and alpha-male tendencies spoil the pot. The undead are still a threat though, the siege scenes are cacophonous and still terror-riddled, there's still a sense of dread and helplessness, this is where a lot of these now familiar zombie themes got started, before this we did not have flesh-hungry ghouls - that all started with Romero.  

The scene of the the young girl Karen succumbing to her bite and attacking her mother with the trowel in the basement is potent stuff, and the shocking and saddening finale still carries a lot of weight, Romero really tapped into the racial tensions of the civil rights movement of the 60's here without ever blatantly beating you on the head with it, but the film is informed by it, it bleeds into it, and the social commentary makes it that much more powerful.  

Audio/Video: It's generally known that late-great George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) fell into the public domain immediately following it's theatrical release in 1968 due to a tragic copyright snafu. So unfair, right? This is the man that created a seminal piece of cinema history, the visionary director from Pittsburgh who ushered in the modern-age of the flesh-eating zombies, and as a result of this unfortunate error pretty much anyone has been able to duplicate and distribute the film and profit from Romero's labor. There have been literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of home video releases of this film throughout the years spanning the spectrum of quality from the nearly unwatchable to pretty damn decent. We've seen it re-cut as fan edits, re-scored with new music, colorized and given fan commentaries. It's available on nearly every budget horror collection out there and Romero never saw a penny from any 'em - except for a few director approved editions, these include the Elite Entertainment Millennium Edition or the more recent 40th Anniversary Edition from Dimension Films - which is a great release with cool extras. Both of these releases offer pristine transfers and great bonus features, the Dimension release includes a great feature-length documentary called 'One for the Fire', a must-see for fans of the film. There's also a colorized version that's been given the Mike Nelson Rifftrax treatment, and the John Russo's blasphemous 30th Anniversary Edition released by Anchor Bay Entertainment that went so far as edit in newly filmed additional scenes and provided a new film score, which is really terrible stuff, a true atrocity, and one to avoid at all costs. 

There's also a new Romero supervised and approved 4K restoration on the way someday, but that's not what I am reviewing here today this is a 50th Anniversary Blu-ray from Mill Creek Entertainment, not a restoration but a grindhouse style 2K scan from a well-worn uncut, theatrical print. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) arrives on Blu-ray for the first time in the U.S. from budget distributor Mill Creek Entertainment, advertised as a 2K scan of a theatrical film print without any restoration or clean-up, presented in the 1080p HD full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio with an AVC encode. The black and white image suffers vertical scratches and some dirt and debris, white speckling, and occasional blown out whites and other contrast issues - it's the prettiest image but there's nothing here that is out of the ordinary for what this is, a raw 2K scan of a well-worn print, as advertised. This is a very "grindhouse" presentation with plenty of grit.  

The Blu-ray includes an English LPCM 2.0 Mono is tinny and lo-fi sounding with not much range, the library score sounding limited and boxy,  but it does the job, if you've sat through this one on any of the million of budget releases you've heard much worse, optional English subtitles are provided.  This only extras on the single disc release is digital code for the movie from Mill Creek's streaming service, which includes an audio commentary with YouTuber Film Fan Pete

Special Features: 

- Digital Copy with Audio Commentary by YouTuber Film Fan Pete

George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead is still a potent, though dated, seminal slice of undead terror, the new Blu-ray from Mill Creek is a raw scan of a well-worn but decent looking theatrical print without the benefit of any restoration, a very "grindhouse" looking watch, with plenty of grit, but as of this moment it is the only domestic U.S. release on Blu-ray - though the Wienstein restoration is available on Blu-ray from Japan and other territories. I'm looking forward to that eventual 4K restoration from the original negative, but in the meantime this is only $8 and will suffice till then.