What is there left to say about George A. Romero's essential classic, "Night of the Living Dead" that hasn't been said a thousand times or more already? A quick search of any online retailer will also throw up innumerable DVD and video releases (there are at least seven DVD editions available simultaneously at the moment in the UK alone - and many more US editions to choose from as well); a situation engendered by the film's continuing public domain status. Since it is so unusual for such an influential and popular film to be available for virtually anyone to release, it is not surprising that so many versions are on the market (who can forget that horrendous colourised version that appeared during the late eighties? Although we all want to, I know!) and even less surprising that nearly all of them are quite shoddy and fairly unremarkable - although that bizarre 30th Anniversary edition might be said to be remarkable ... but obviously for very different reasons!
This situation changed a few years ago with the release of a fabulous, THX approved transfer by US company, Elite Entertainment as part of their "Millennium Edition" (also reviewed on this site). This has remained the definitive edition to date, with no equivalent available in the UK. Contender Entertainment appeared to be about to change that with their latest addition to the growing "Night of the Living Dead" DVD pile, which advertises itself on the cover as a Special Collector's Edition that has been extensively restored and remastered. The inclusion of most of the extras (it excludes the "Night of the Living Bread" parody and the Romero directed commercials) and the 5.1 Surround Sound mix featured on the Millennium Edition might lead one to expect that the THX transfer has finally got its long overdue UK premier as well. Sadly this turns out not to be the case. Although this disc makes for by far the best edition of the film ever to be made available in the UK, the transfer still pails in comparison to the mighty, sharp as a tack, THX approved wonder featured on the US Elite disc.
As Romero's fourth installment in the continuing Dead series hits cinema screens, it's worth briefly examining what made the original so eerily effective in the first place. The idea of portraying the collapse of modern society through some kind of civilisation-shattering apocalyptic disaster was certainly nothing new: most notably, John Wyndham's "Day of the Triffids" had treated the concept quite thoroughly -- to the point where it was obviously the primary source for one of the most recent Romero-inspired Zombie movies, Danny Boyle's patchy "28 Days Later". In Wyndham's story, the few remaining sighted survivors of a world overrun with flesh-eating plants, try to rebuild society and grapple with the need to reinvent morality (particularly where it involves relationships between the sexes) in order to survive; while the battered remnants of the military attempt to impose it's dictatorial authority on the remaining, scattered groups of humans.
Romero's film was a product of the tumultuous social revolution going on in the States during the Sixties and brings these concerns to bear in its particular vision of a world turned upside down. Although knowledge of its context aids the docudrama realism and adds a certain depth to the film, it isn't primarily what has caused "Night of the Living Dead" to remain so vital in the imagination of horror fans all these years. The flesh-eating zombie has become the most potent horror antagonist of all since the release of the original film, and Romero invented it and -- most importantly -- defined its post-apocalyptic context. There had been zombie films before of course -- and there may even have been flesh-eating zombie films before "Night of the Living Dead"; but nothing previously had managed to excavate such existential dread in the potent notion of the dead returning to consume the living. In the resulting world, small communities of the living were forced to huddle together in claustrophobic environs while the world at large was given over to the walking dead. Social satire and mordantly bleak examination of the human condition became the prime focus of the ensuing sequels but, although I'm firmly in the camp that believes "Dawn of the Dead" to be the best of Romero's zombie films, even I will admit that "Night..." captured something that the others lack: the film manages to convey a sense of the world unravelling in the midst of an incomprehensible occurrence while remaining until the end with the small cast of characters struggling to deal with their nightmare situation. And it is a nightmare! This is why the film still plays well despite the dodgy b movie library music cues and one or two amateur performances -- it really does have the quality of a terrible nightmare, and the constant threat that would be felt by anyone caught in such a dreadful situation as the main protagonists find themselves in is palpable throughout. That eerily opening sequence in the graveyard captures the tone perfectly: we are made to watch as a shambling figure in the deep background gradually gets nearer and nearer to our two main protagonists until he is upon them and then suddenly launches a violent attack on them for no reason. From then on the film stays localised on the terror of being under constant threat of death at any moment; the main characters end up trapped in a small, rickety farmhouse while the hordes of flesh-eating ghouls gather in ever larger numbers outside. There is no way out, and the film unflinchingly documents the desperate hopes and struggles of a group of people caught in a quite hopeless situation, prolonging the agony of the inevitable moment of truth until 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 horror movie was taken out of the realm of moral fairy-tale, where "good" (whatever that means, since there are no comforting polarisations with which to orientate oneself with anymore) always wins out of "evil", and into the modern era of unending confusion and the constant threat of mindless, motiveless violence. This became the subject matter of horror movies throughout the seventies, when some of the blackest, bleakest examples of the genre surfaced, and it was this little film from Pittsburgh that almost single-handedly started it all!
Contender Entertainment's Collector's Edition apparently comes in limited edition steel packaging. The list of extras will be familiar to owners of the Millennium edition: two commentary tracks -- one by the director and producers and another by some of the cast members; an audio only interview with star Duane Jones; video interview with star Judith Ridley; a selection of theatrical trailers; photo galleries and selected scenes from Romero's lost film, "There's Always Vanilla". It's undeniably a decent haul if you don't already own the US release although, for some reason, some dreadfully tacky animated menus depicting grave stones has been used on this release which strike completely the wrong note.
Not the definitive release it claims to be then... just a fairly decent effort with some OK extras.