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Night of the Living Dead (Blu-ray)

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George A. Romero
Duane Jones
Judith O'Dea
Russell Streiner
Marilyn Eastman
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It often feels like it might just be possible for me to spend a whole lifetime reviewing nothing but the myriad releases of George A. Romero's groundbreaking indie classic, "Night of the Living Dead". The film's permanent public domain status means that rarely does a year pass without at least one new disc appearing on the market. With the emergence of the Blu-ray format, it seems we're about to undergo yet another round of multiple release madness. A quick check shows there to be at least one Blu-ray version of "Night of the Living Dead" already available in the U.K.. That version had significant framing issues, with cropping on all four sides of the image-frame rendering its increased resolution of image a moot point; the version here under review is a brand new release from Network Films (much loved in these quarters for their many great boxed sets of cult 60/70s TV series), featuring an all-new High Definition transfer taken from original 35mm elements. Does it provide the definitive release of this important classic?
George Romero first came up with the idea for his low budget flick after reading Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend". The director's genius move was to take the novel's central conceit, which revolved around the depiction of a post-apocalyptic world, uninhabited by day but by night overrun by vampires, and make a film that showed the actual process of collapse itself -- not in the form of a large-scale catastrophe (that would have been too far out of the scope of such a low budget b picture, anyhow) but as a horrible, claustrophobic nightmare lived from the point-of-view of a small group of ordinary people who are desperately barricaded against the lurking menace outside. The film manages to convey a sense of the world unraveling in the midst of an incomprehensible occurrence, while remaining until the end with the small cast of characters struggling to make sense of and deal with their horrific 'life or death' situation.
And the film really does play like a delirious nightmare! This is why it still works so well despite the dodgy b-movie library music cues and one or two amateurish performances; it really does have the quality of a terrible dream, and the sense of constant threat that would be felt by anyone caught in such a dreadful situation, is palpable throughout. That eerie opening sequence in the graveyard captures the tone perfectly (all the more striking because it takes place in bright daylight): we are forced to watch as a shambling figure in the deep background gradually gets closer and closer to our two main protagonists, Barbara and Johnny, until it is suddenly upon them, a horribly contorted ghoul who launches a violent attack on Barbara for no reason. From then on in the film stays tightly focused on the mounting mood of terror felt by the dwindling group of survivors, now under constant threat of death at any moment; the main characters end up trapped in a small, rickety farmhouse while outside the hordes of flesh-eating ghouls gather in ever larger numbers. Another clever device, I've always felt, is that the zombie numbers increase as daylight fades, thus increasing the sense of hopelessness as the night deepens throughout the film.  There is no way out, and the film unflinchingly documents the desperate hopes and struggles of this group of people caught in a quite hopeless situation, prolonging the agony of the inevitable moment of truth when the barricades can finally last no longer. There is no comfort to be had by the movie's end: the terror is only going to get worse -- and with that realisation, the modern horror movie was taken out of the realm of moral fairy-tale forever. Romero's film was a product of a tumultuous social revolution already going on in the States during the Sixties, and brings these concerns to bear in its particular vision of a world turned upside down, while always staying true to its horror/sci-fi sources.
Network have rectified previous framing issues and the increased resolution on this Blu-ray certainly makes it a far superior release to all previous DVD versions of the film. However, the source print utilised for the transfer is in an often parlous state, with all sorts of nicks and scratches, and general wear & tear issues visible throughout. The contrast often seems to bleach out detail in the image, thus negating the otherwise obvious benefits of the Blu-ray's increased resolution. The previous U.K. Blu-ray didn't suffer from these issues at all, so it appears we are now left with a choice, either of an excellent transfer badly cropped, or a correctly framed transfer but with wavering image quality. The disc's only extra is the original trailer and the only audio option is a perfectly respectable 2.0 mono track.
Not a definitive release then. Blu-ray promises yet to further enrich the viewing experience of this classic movie; but although this disc is a step-up from previous DVD editions, it could have been a whole lot more.

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