Criterion Blu-Ray of the Day : George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

Night of the Living Dead

I’m watching George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD on Criterion’s beautiful newly released 2-Disc Edition.

 

DISC 1: THE FILM

I’ve seen the movie before, years ago, as well as other Romero films. And while understanding the significance of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I have never been a fan of the zombie/ghoul genre. Most likely due to its over-saturation by lesser filmmakers just regurgitating Romero’s novel approach, as well as simply not being a fan of gore.

Romero’s re-imagining of the Zombie as a flesh eating corruption never stood well with me. It was the myth of the ghoul, rather than the older Haitian mythology of the Zombie. A Zombie, as understood from Haitian lore, was something dead, that had been transformed into something beyond death and beyond corruption, more in common with the Jewish Golem, and seen most visually in the Val Lewton produced I WALK WITH A ZOMBIE

Romero’s flesh eating, rotting monstrosity, that was all corruption, could not be more different than the idea of the Zombi. However, to Romero’s credit he did identify the creatures accurately in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as ghouls, but for whatever reason ; the press or marketing latched onto calling them by the incorrect nomenclature of Zombie. If I had to guess, I would think the more exotic sounding Zombie, simply appealed to them more, than the more crude (but accurate) term of ghoul.

So while I appreciated NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was never the biggest fan of it. It’s a little too strident for me, and argumentative, filled with unlikable people, which may or may not be accurate in such a situation; but was for me, not what I wanted to spend time viewing, and was a bit plodding because of it.

However, re-watching the film, on this Criterion release I have a new appreciation for the film. 

First thing that strikes you is how stunning this film looks, in this Museum of Modern Art remastered edition. The Black and White cinematography is beautiful, and I see now exactly how stylish the film was in its use of camera angles and shadows. It may be Romero’s most beautiful film because of its noirish and dutch angle filled aesthetic.

2nd, the very structure of the film, while commonplace today, at the time the ‘house under siege’ motif was new, most notably seen in 1964’s Vincent Price vehicle THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD managed to build on that premise, and deepen it, by adding group dynamics to the mix, as well a claustrophobic ‘you are there’ intensity, in its cinema verite shooting style. Not to mention the creation of a whole new breed of monster.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, taken in context of when it was made, is ground breaking in terms of how it is filmed; the mixture of science fiction, horror, group dynamics and intended irony and unexpected social commentary, along with the running commentary of the media helping to tell the film’s back-story. And just the general bleakness of the film is astonishing, even watching it today. Given how truly threadbare and Indy this film was, in a time before the concept of Independent film even existed, its nihilism still has the power to impress.

Duane Jones gives a compelling performance as Ben, and is the bedrock upon which the film cements itself as a classic. But all the performances are surprisingly intriguing, from Russell Streiner and Judith O’Dea and William Hinzman (lead Ghoul) who effectively open the film in a now iconic sequence, to on-screen couples Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley and Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, and Kyra Shon as their daughter.

A word on Marilyn Eastman who plays Mrs. Cooper, she gives, in a small role, one of the best performances of the film, up their with Dwayne’s work. You can not take your eyes off of her when she is on screen, she is so nuanced and compelling in a very contained performance, that plays all the more effectively in counterpoint to the histrionics and testosterone around her. She also was part of the crew and is on this commentary, and her insights are always an informative part of the commentary.

DISC 1 SPECIAL FEATURES

Regarding the Special Features, Co-producer Russell Streiner in the INTRO TO NIGHT OF ANUBIS feature, explains NIGHT OF ANUBIS was the working title for the film as it was under production. NIGHT OF ANUBIS was actually the 2nd title for the film, they originally wanted to title the film THE NIGHT OF THE FLESH-EATERS. However a cease an desist order from a studio with plans to release a movie called FLESH-EATERS led to Romero coming up with the title NIGHT OF ANUBIS.

So the movie would go all through production with the title NIGHT OF ANUBIS, however once the film wrapped the distributors did not like the title ANUBIS, found it too esoteric no doubt, so the name was changed for the last time for its release, and the film NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was born.

FIRST COMMENTARY

Romero and select Crew- It’s not the most interesting commentary, one reason is because there are so many voices on the commentary, and they are all going in different directions, and largely they are discussing minutiae even by commentary standards. Whether eye-glasses were supposed to be half on or all on, and discussions like that.

It is initially a very pedantic, pedestrian, minutiae focused commentary. However the commentary does pick up in moments, and becomes quite incisive, such as about 25 minutes in as they discuss the actors, among them the lead Duane Jones. and the thoughtful changes he made to his character. One intriguing thing is, it was colorblind casting. The role was not written for a Black guy, they actually had another actor, a White Actor, they were going to go with, but then Dwayne Jones came in an auditioned. His audition impressed everyone and he got the part.

It was a threadbare Pittsburgh production, and for the character of Ben they just needed a big guy to play him, as initially he was supposed to be a Brutish trucker. So largely they lucked out with Duane, as they got an actor who brought so much more to that character, than was on the page.

Necessitating rewriting that character for the more erudite and thoughtful presence that Duane brought to that role.

That in hindsight the film is notable for a Black protagonist, I think overlooks the stronger blessing of that casting; which is that they were lucky enough to get a great actor for that role. Duane Jones ended up bringing a unique variable to that performance, that would have been lost –  not just by an actor of a different ethnicity, but an actor of lesser sophistication. By any actor that was not Duane Jones.

There is a humanity Duane brings to a brutish character, that careens it away from the facile, surface level histrionics— to instead explore someone captivating and heroic and flawed. The takeaway from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is not that they cast a Black actor in the role, but rather that the best actor for that role, was a great actor, who was also Black. It is a subtle distinction but I believe an important one, that is still not quite embraced today.

Another interesting segment on the commentary, is an hour into the film, where they discuss the making of one of their more involved shots, the Washington DC based tv coverage, where the crew drove down to DC, and play the roles of reporters and military personnel. Involved, because for all intents and purposes this was just a very small Pittsburgh production, done by the crew, in any free time they could carve out, around their full time jobs.

The commentary than segues into discussion of Duane Jones before his passing. From this point to the end, the commentary gets far more intriguing. Overall, while not always fluid, this commentary gives you historic insights into the film and the performers that otherwise would have been lost to time. For this reason while not a great commentary, there are gems in here that make it an essential commentary.

 

SECOND COMMENTARY

Commentary Two has even more people involved, so lots of similar voices overlapping. Russell Streiner (producer/actor ‘He’s coming to get you, Barbara!‘), helping to sheep-herd this conversation, gets it off to a more compelling, entertaining start than the first commentary. And it places this commentary in time, to hear them discuss the upcoming laserdisc release. As someone who remembers laserdisc and still own some, it is a nice nostalgic touch.

And I like that, in this commentary, they reassert that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was not made as a social message film, they were simply making a horror film, and Duane was hired simply because he was the best actor who auditioned for the role. Add to that a running gag about Marilyn Eastman and lumber, and it is just a fun, affable commentary.

 

DISC TWO : A WHOLE DISC FULL OF SPECIAL FEATURES

Holy cow. Is this a loaded, feature rich release. This disc includes over 12 special features. Including interviews with the cast, and new documentaries made just for this release. It is just  wonderful grab bag of content that you can revisit and dive into at your leisure.  Including just a wonderful 1987 audio interview with Duane Jones recorded with Tim Ferrante.

“That moment, the total surrealism of the racial nightmare of America, being worse than whatever we were doing as a metaphor in that film, lives with me to this moment.”

-Duane Jones, 1987

 

SUMMATION

All in all, is a must own physical media release. In terms of beauty of the product on your shelf, and the content itself, and booklet. I came to this release a bit hesitantly, because as I mentioned I was never a huge fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Revisiting this film, and listening to the commentaries, and going through the special features, I have to say this is one of the treasures of my collection. Highly Recommended.

 

Get your copy here!

 

George Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD DVD Review! Haitian Zombies or American Ghouls?

Well I’ve rented a pasell of movies in the past couple weeks, and thought I’d break my blogging silence, for a quick overview of what I thought of one of them.

George Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD- First let me say, I’m not a fan of the so-called Zombie Movies.

I’ll follow that line up with a slight tirade: They are not effing Zombies!!

Zombi is a Haitian word, Romero’s ‘creation’ is a ghoul. Not a Zombie. The Zombie of Haitian lore, is in real ways about the incorruptibilty of the flesh, it is about a state in which you do not eat or sleep or defecate or decompose. The Zombie of Haitian Lore, in many ways a state of grace most analagous to Christianity’s Lazarus, save bent to the will of another. So think the myth of Lazarus mated with the Jewish myth of the Golem, and you begin to get an inkling of what the word Zombie really implies.

But leave it to the west, America in particular, to take a concept of incorruptibility… and make it about corruption. Leave it to a cannibal nation like America to play out in fiction, the nature of its facts.

So that is my general issue with so-called Zombie flicks, hereto referred to by their proper nomenclature… Ghoul flicks. 🙂 . Don’t worry, it’ll grow on you.

So yeah it’s a genre I can take or leave, and typically leave. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as the progenitor, holds up. It’s a very good movie, that is a very simple premise, but elegantly done with, for the time, a shattering ending. And its purity of vision, over five decades later, puts it head and shoulders over just about all the numerous Ghoul flicks it has spawned.

The first NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had something to say, but said it in a very understated manner, to let you draw for yourself parables of science gone amuck, or judgement from god, or the cannibal nature of the American id. In contrast all Ghoul films since suffer either from being about nothing but gore (idiotic and juvenile), too full of its import, or just inept.

George Romero’s DAIRY OF THE DEAD suffers, to some degree, from all three issues. The plot/writing is the main issue. The films conceit is this student filmmaker is going to walk around during a walking dead apocalypse with a camera glued to his face, during scenes both intimate and horrific. Such as when his friend is being chased by the ghoul in a mummy costume (don’t ask), rather than put the fucking camera down and help, he just keeps filming. I don’t buy the conceit.

I’m not saying there aren’t such sick fucks out there who would do that, I’m saying I don’t know any such people, can’t relate to such people, and don’t want to spend hours of my life watching such a peice of garbage survive. So the protagonist was an unrelateable and unlikable character.

And that said other characters I thought their arcs and actions were likewise a bit fast and convenient, becoming quickdraw terminators, and taking their particular brand of murder/killing way too easily in their stride (“I just blew my lovers head off, but I’m from Texas yall, and am ready to make jokes in the next scene for you Mr. Romero”). There was just a lot of poor acting married to either heavyhanded/preachy dialog or inane plot contivances.

So the poor plot, bad dialog, unnatural performances makes it impossible for you to view the film seriously, but it fails also as satire or comedy because a/it’s not smart and b/it’s not funny (with the exception of the Amish line. The only memorable line in the whole movie).

DIARY OF THE DEAD attempts to jump on the discovered footage bandwagon of flicks such as CLOVERFIELD (which I found also to be an inept film, with unrealistic performances, married to a heaping dose of annoying actors and quite a bit of boredom) or REC(which I found to be brilliant. There the conceipt of a TV crew following a team of professional, is crafted believably), DIARY OF THE DEAD however is a poor jumper, and instead slips on the bandwagon, twists its ankle, and pretty much lays there like a dead fish till the credits roll.

I’m being a little facetious, the film does have some points of interest, high among them is the performance of the film/theater teacher, who just so happens to be John Rambo when emergeny requires. While something of a hodgepodge of stereotypes, the actor pulls it off and imbues his role with real charm. And the aforementioned Amish scene has a humorous beginning. And I liked them running into the Black survivalists. I thought that was a neat twist.

So the film isn’t without its strengths, unfortunately its flaws, the spliced in footage of real disasters (trying to give the film an importance and weight that its ultimately too inept and tactless to earn) the too often poor performances and situations, just smother everything else.

All in all a pretty disappointing and forgettable film from Romero, who seemingly has become obsessed with making these Ghoul flicks, in an attempt to recapture the acclaim and relavence of his first film. It comes off almost as a one trick director, remaking the same film to various degrees of diminishing returns.

DIARY OF THE DEAD may be worth a look if it is free and you’re bored, but otherwise avoid. D-.