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Night of the Living Dead on DVD

by Jim Bray

Now in bloodcurdling color, George A. Romero’s low budget horror classic eschews its grainy, dark and claustrophobic look in favor of digitized tints.

Truly a case of gilding a lily.

Night of the Living Dead is the most frightening movie I've ever seen. I saw it on its first theatrical release, when the ads promised a $50,000 life insurance payout for anyone who died of fright during the show. That was a dare I couldn’t pass up, especially since I was a horror movie buff who figured I’d seen everything.

But I wasn’t ready for “Night.” Okay, I didn’t die, but I did find myself shaking during some of the movie’s more intense sequences. And I left convinced that perhaps that insurance policy was no con, that perhaps some who may have been of weaker constitution than I could have succumbed during that frighteningly graphic movie.

The movie starts out innocuously enough, with a woman and her brother arriving at a cemetery to perform a periodic and unwanted pilgrimage to a family grave. The brother begins teasing his sibling, warning her that the dead are coming to get her – just to get a rise out of her, as siblings are wont to do. And almost as if on cue some old guy with a limp is seen stumbling through the graveyard, and bro points to him and warns Barbara that he’s coming for her, just like he said.

And, of course, he is. This is the first zombie to appear and the next thing she knows Barbara (Judith O’Dea) is fleeing for her life while her brother lies dead in the cemetery – for now, at least (we know what’s going to happen, don’t we?).

And from there Night of the Living Dead never really lets up with its incessant drumbeat of horror as Barbara and a few strangers find and hole up in a small farmhouse in the country that becomes their fragile fortress against the marauding forces of the undead as they search for the living on which to feed.

The only way this movie could be more intense is if the human protagonists had been holing up in a campground (in tents, get it?). Before the movie runs out we see zombies feeding greedily on the flesh of the recently departed, a recently dead little girl stabbing her mother – over and over and over again – in the basement – and an ending so downbeat you wonder why you sat through the previous hour and a half.

Indeed, a true horror classic – and a really scary one!

The original black and white version of the movie looks as if it were shot for about $1.98, and that works to the film’s advantage. The grainy, full frame (not widescreen, which gives it a “home movie” feel) footage has a kind of documentary look to it that’s positively chilling – much more so than the supposedly documentary look of “the Blair Witch Project” that came decades later.

The performances, by actors with no household names, are excellent, the direction is creepily exquisite, and the musical score adds to the feeling of unbridled dread.

And now they’ve seen fit to colorize this movie, removing the darkness and claustrophobia so you can see the blood better.

Forget about it! Oh, the colorization is okay if you like such things, but the movie is much scarier in black and white.

So far as the color picture goes, it’s okay. You can’t correct the low budget look (nor should you), and during the daylight and interior scenes the color isn’t bad. In the darkness if often doesn’t make much difference.

Audio is now available remixed into Dolby Digital and dts 5.1 surround and it’s better than the original soundtrack, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a better experience: the original sound matches the low budget, documentary-type look and feel.

Fortunately, this new 20th Century Fox DVD includes the restored original black and white feature. It’s accessible via the “special features” menu, rather than giving you the choice from the main menu, alas. But this is the one to watch. It features good video and audio transfers that manage to preserve the joy of the low budget origins.

Other extras include an audio commentary by Mike Nelson of TV's “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” some trailers for other horror flicks, and a weird item that supposedly shows actors before and after their make-up sessions but which is no such thing at all.

Night of the Living Dead, from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
96 min. full frame video (not 16x9 TV compatible)
Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea,
Produced by Russell Steiner, Karl Hardman
Written by John Russo, George Romero, directed by George A. Romero


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