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Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead - 30th Anniversary Edition (this version)(1968/1998), Laugh Track: Night of the Living Dead (2003) (USA) (video title (redubbed comic version)), Night of Anubis, Night of the Flesh Eaters

They keep coming back in a bloodthirsty lust for HUMAN FLESH!...

Directed by:

George A. Romero

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 93 minutes

UK Certificate: 18

On DVD

Country: United States

Shot in 1968 on a shoestring budget in cheap black-and-white by a small collective of independent filmmakers from Pittsburgh, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ was to set new standards for what can be done in the horror genre. It introduced realistic gore to the mainstream, showed that an ordinary farmhouse can be a far more claustrophobic and frightening setting than a castle or mansion, demonstrated the devastating dramatic potential of an unhappy ending, and completely reinvented the cinematic concept of the zombie (without once using the term) to the blank, flesh-hungry undead still recognisable in the most recent rash of zombie films (28 Days Later…, Resident Evil, the Dawn of the Dead remake, Shaun of the Dead). In short, NOTLD breathed new life into the long dead corpse of horror, ushering in the Golden Age of the 1970s – and its influence on horror is still being felt today.

In the interests of unnerving the viewer, Romero broke all manner of cinematic conventions in NOTLD. Following a cue from Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’, the platinum blonde Barbra (Judith O’Dea) is introduced as the film’s apparent focus, only to be reduced to a state of catatonia (from which she never recovers) within minutes of the opening. Ben (Duane Jones), who eventually turns out to be the lead character, is a black man – something virtually without parallel for the time. Sympathetic characters – in fact, almost all the characters – are killed suddenly and violently.

NOTLD was revolutionary in other respects too, tapping into contemporary racial and social anxieties to add to its uneasy sense of dread. Ben is first seen in various postures – rushing suddenly out of the dark at Barbra, standing over her unconscious body – that pander to fear-mongering racist stereotypes of the time, but these stereotypes are subverted when he proves to be not the object of terror, but in fact the hero. On the other hand, the posse of rednecks who shoot and burn the ‘ghouls’ have been made to look and sound like the Southern lynch mobs that were so often seen on the TV news of the 1960s. Meanwhile back at the farm, the vicious attack on a mother (Marilyn Eastman) by her own daughter (Kyra Schon) reflects the vast rift emerging in the sixties between the values of older and younger generations. Even in the absence of its original social context, however, NOTLD still remains frightening and powerful, and its ending is just as harrowing as it was three and a h alf decades ago.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the ’30th Anniversary Edition’. Written and directed by John A. Russo, co-writer of the original, it comprises an extra fifteen minutes of newly filmed material, but Russo’s intention that this should merge seamlessly with the old is sorely misguided, both because black-and-white processing is not enough in itself to capture the look of the original (especially when the cemetery ghoul Bill Hinzman visibly changes age from one scene to the next), and because the new content is at best unnecessary (extra zombie sequences) and at worst unwelcome. In particular, a whole subplot involving a fire-and-brimstone priest (played gratingly by Scott Vladmir Licina, who also rescored the soundtrack to no obvious purpose) imports an overstated religious subtext that strips the original of all its subtlety – and the ill-judged reappearance of the priest in a semi-comic epilogue serves only to neuter the staggering impact of the original’s ending. Adding insult to injury, to make room for his revisions, Russo has shamelessly cut fifteen minutes from the original. Granted, the older material has been painstakingly restored, but why bother if it is only for Russo to go mindlessly stumbling about tearing its guts out? “Hit him in the head”, I say, “right between the eyes”.

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It's Got: Zombies, social critique and desperate bleakness - and a stupid priest and a stupid dog called Moshu in the new version.

It Needs: To be seen in its original 1968 form.

DVD Extras Released as part of Anchor Bays new George A. Romeros Trilogy of the Dead boxset (2004), this reissue of Night of the Living Dead - 30th Anniversary Edition has no option for watching the original 1968 version, no audio commentary, and all of its extras pertain to the new material. There is 9 minutes of behind-the-scenes, a good photogallery of scenes and production stills (in colour), a trailer, a one-minute sequence from Bill Hinzmans Flesheater (aka Revenge of the Living Zombies), and the Dance of the Dead music video (industrial dance remix of the new soundtrack, arranged to visual and verbal samples from the film). It is hard to care much about any of this. The photogalleries and documentaries on the boxsets fourth disc, however, are much better. Tom Browns 82min NOTLD 25th Anniversary documentary (1993) reunites Romero, Russo, Karl Hardman, Russell W. Streiner and Marilyn Eastman to reminisce anecdotally, and features comments from famous fans including Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi, John Landis and Wes Craven. At one point Romero declares: "If we had ended it in any other way we wouldnt have been able to hold our heads up" - if only Russo had listened instead of going on to his stupid alternative ending five years later. Roy Frumkes 83-minute (plus supplementary material) Document of the Dead (1989) is an excellent study of Romero as an auteur, focussing on the whole production process of Dawn of the Dead (1978), but also analysing sequences from NOTLD, Martin, Monkey Shines and Two Evil Eyes - and an addendum includes stills from Day of the Dead. DVD Extras Rating: 7/10

Summary

Romero's nightmare vision of a society rising up against itself is a true horror masterpiece – but Russo's rotten new material tears the guts out of the original.

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