Friday, November 30, 2018

Night of the Living Dead: Thank You, Criterion

The new must-have Criterion DVD release.
At long last the definitive DVD release of Night of the Living Dead (1968) is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Criterion. For the record, this is my favorite horror movie. It was the first horror movie I ever saw and the first film that gave me nightmares. It remains the only movie to provide me with recurring nightmares decades later. As a self-obsessed fan of the black and white classic, I bought every DVD release in the hopes that someone would provide a superior print transfer. The film fell into the public domain and has since been released on DVD over 100 times and most of them grainy, fuzzy dupes. There are thousands of fans like myself who purchased multiple VHS and DVD releases over the years, with the same goal in mind: the best picture and sound quality available. Do not judge me: Night of the Living Dead was one of the first films deemed culturally significant and resides in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

Shot outside of Pittsburgh on a shoestring budget, a band of filmmakers determined to make their mark had no idea at the time what they would accomplish. Directed by George A. Romero, this is a great story of independent cinema: a midnight hit turned box-office smash that became one of the most influential films of all time. A deceptively simple tale of a group of strangers trapped in a farmhouse who find themselves fending off a horde of recently dead, flesh-easting ghouls. Romero's claustrophobic vision of a late-60s America literary tearing itself apart rewrote the rules of the horror genre, combining gruesome gore with acute social commentary. 

Republic Pictures released what might have been the first great print on VHS, matched by Elite Entertainment's DVD release. Elite provided a number of bonus features including an interview with Duane Jones. (The Jones interview is included in the new Criterion release but reportedly four and a half minutes longer in length.) Mill Creek Entertainment put out a shoddy so-called "Anniversary Edition" on Blu-Ray, rushed out to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the film's restoration and theatrical release. The quality was very poor and like many companies that specialize in public domain titles, decided not to invest money in an archival print transfer and instead grabbed the film print from anywhere they could find it. Beware of the Mill Creek release.

As for the recent Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray release, this is the definitive version. Prior releases were very tightly cropped, whereas the film is presented here in its 1.37:1 aspect ratio, with additional footage on all edges of the frame. The depth and richness is far superior. Boy was I surprised to discover Duane Jones' plain white shirt actually has fine, gray stripes. The floor tiles in the kitchen have patterns on them. You can see light reflected on Johnny's glasses. Barbara has a lot of thick makeup on her face -- tons of detail level that was never noticed with prior releases. There has to be a point where you bump up against the limits of the source itself, but considering this is a major cut above all the rest I would state this is absolutely the best version you will find on DVD anywhere -- ever. Even the soundtrack has been restored. 

If you have the Elite Entertainment DVD release, keep it alongside your new Criterion release as there are bonus extras on there that is not available on the Criterion. 

But make no mistakes, Criterion provides so many bonus extras I could not name them all: newsreels from 1967, audio commentaries, archival interviews with cast and crew, a never-before-seen 16mm dailies reel, the never-before-presented work-print edit of the film (titled Night of Anubis), movie trailer, radio spots, TV spots and more.

The Criterion release will cost more than any of the others. Just remember that while Night of the Living Dead is available on hundreds of DVD releases, each of varied grainy, milky quality, the Criterion release pictured at the very top is the only one you want to have in your collection -- proving you get what you pay for. As for me, my quest to find the best quality available for this horror classic is put to rest.