The Night Of the Living Dead Never Dies (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

George Romero's Night Of the Living Dead (1968) is a true horror classic.  And because it was inadvertently let into the public domain, it's been released on home video a bajillion times.  So, I thought I'd just quickly look at about half a bajillion: the best editions, the worst, releases with unique special features, a few crazy oddities, separate documentary discs and pretty much everything you need to assemble as complete, a definitive experience as you could ever want.  Actually, maybe this won't end up being so quick.
I find my opinion swinging back and forth on Night Of the Living Dead.  Honestly, I've been more excited to add some of the later entries in Romero's Dead series to my collection than Night.  Obviously, it deserves all the credit for being the original, not just in Romero's saga, but an entire cultural movement of zombie horror.  It created it all.  Sure, "zombies" were around in cinema before, from White Zombie to I Walked With a Zombie; but these specific flesh-eating ghouls and rules like "shoot them in the head" were pretty unique to Night and still rather doggedly followed by endless amounts of film, television and literature to this day, some forty years later.  Sure, there are progenitors.  For example, the whole "board yourself up in a house and go stir crazy to survive the hordes of marauding monsters that want to eat you" premise certainly borrows from 1964's The Last Man On Earth.  But I doubt any horror film, even the classic Universals, have been so heavily and frequently borrowed from as Night Of the Living Dead.
But there's also what I've always called a "dinner theater" aspect to Night that tends to put me off.  Sure, long, heavy-handed speeches about whether it's better to hide in one location or another have turned up in many subsequent films - certainly the guys in Day were willing to go even broader than anyone hereBut there's just something about that painted on bruise on Karl Hardman's head while he flails around shouting at Keith Wayne that feels like something less than a proper movie, like the difference between a local playhouse and Broadway.  Not that all the acting's bad - Duane Jones absolutely nails it in this picture, and even Hardman is actually successfully achieving an intentional sort of 12 Angry Men over-the-top pre-method stagey sort of performance that older films typically utilized before pure naturalism came into vogue.  It's not bad acting, it's just a different style.  But it's not consistent and even when it is, it's not always so easy for modern audiences to get engrossed in.  Like, for all it's campy faults, I can pop in the slick Land Of the Dead anytime.  But ask me if I want to watch Night and it's like, uh, I don't know if I want to sit down for all of that.
But then again, my most recent watch of the Museum of Modern Art's new 4k restoration was as breezy and involving as the film's ever been for me, and I started to appreciate how much tighter and purer this story was (with its pitch perfect ending) compared to any of its legit or unauthorized sequels.  Thinking about it, at least part of my reluctance to go back to the original Night probably stems from its long history of fuzzy, low contrast junk transfers it's had for so many decades.  The film slipped into the public domain early on, so every label and it's cousin has released the film, each usually in worse condition than the other.  And that brings me to the meat of this article.  You know, I can still remember watching Elite's highly touted restored laserdisc edition in the 90s... it starts out with the gray, soft image and the music warbling, and suddenly the picture explodes to reveal a fresh, attractively clear repeat of the same opening sequence.  I'm just going to stick to DVDs and blu-rays today; but if you're disappointed that's not going back far enough, don't worry - I've got some a couple DVDs that don't half measure up to that old laser.

There's an overwhelming amount to cover here; this is going to be my longest single post ever.  But let's just start with some visual comparisons so we can sink our teeth in.
A) 1999 US Anchor Bay 30th Anniversary DVD, '98 Edition.
B) 1999 US Anchor Bay 30th Anniversary DVD, 30th Anniversary Edition.
C) 2001 US Front Row Features DVD.
D) 2002 US Echo Bridge DVD.
E) 2002 US Elite Entertainment Millennium Edition DVD.
F) 2004 US Legend Films DVD, All New Color Version.
G) 2004 US Legend Films DVD, Restored Black-and-White Version.
H) 2005 US Mill Creek Chilling 20 Movie Pack DVD.
I) 2009 US Legend Films Rifftrax DVD.
J) 2010 Japan Happinet blu-ray, The 40th Anniversary Re-Issue.
K) 2013 US Code Red 2 Great Brother-Horrors DVD.
L) 2018 US Criterion Collection blu-ray.
M) 2018 US Criterion Collection blu-ray, Night of Anubis work-print edit.
Oh boy, that's a lot of versions to even wrap your mind around.  So let's just run through each of them quickly, shall we?

We start out with Anchor Bay's 1999 30th Anniversary Edition here.  Specifically, mine is the limited edition version (my copy is #02643/ 15,000... remember when 15,000 copies was considered "limited?"), which is different in that it also includes the soundtrack CD.  A non-limited edition also exists in a slimmer case without the CD, but the same cover, DVD and booklet.  This version is infamous because it features 15 minutes of new scenes shot by John Russo and other original personal of the 1968 film, including Bill Hinzman reprising his role as the original graveyard zombie, edited into the film.  It also has a new score and makes some other editorial changes (the radio broadcast is re-voiced with alternate dialogue).  I almost considered leaving this one out, for a separate post, but it also includes what they call the "'98 Edition," which is the original cut of the film, without the new scenes, but does feature the new score.
The original graveyard zombie is back!
Apparently, Romero was originally meant to have done these new scenes, too, but was caught up writing his Resident Evil script, though I wouldn't be surprised if that was just a convenient excuse to skip out on this misguided endeavor.  The new scenes are terribly written and acted, derailing the thrust of the original film.  The new score made sense in theory, since they'd always wanted to record an original score but were forced by budget constraints to use library music.  Unfortunately, the new score is slow and unrelenting piano plodding on for the entire run and not a fraction as effective as the original soundtrack.  And interestingly, in the extras, they make additional claims like, "when Duane was beating those two zombies out by the truck, all of those effects for this 30th anniversary edition have been enhanced and are much better than they were in the original picture itself."  But that's just not true.  I examined still frames of that scene very carefully, and they didn't change a thing.  Just bizarre.
l to r: Front Row Features, Echo Bridge.
Next up we've got a couple of no frills budget discs from some of our favorite cheapo labels, Echo Bridge, Front Row and Mill Creek.  The Mill Creek is part of a 20 Movie Pack set.  These are barebones with transfers worse than the laserdisc.  I like how Echo Bridge even ripped off Front Row's ridiculously cheesy menus with the random fire and electro bolt animations, but bothered to make some minor changes, replacing the purple arrow with a ghost and removing the title of the film.  These are the worst of the worst, which I've mostly just included to show how far the new editions have come.  But it's interesting to note that these transfers aren't identical either, and we'll get into those differences a little later.

Then we come to the Millennium Edition from Elite, the same company that did the laserdisc restoration, and for a very long time was the go-to edition of Night Of the Living Dead.  With the best PQ and a host of quality extras, even though this came out back in 2002, it remained the king until basically the days of HD.
Code Red goes bonkers!
After that we have the Legend and Rifftrax DVDs.  The original Legend disc has an optional audio commentary by Mike Nelson of Rifftrax, but is decidedly not the "rifftrax."  More on that later.  The notable feature of that one is that it features their unique colorized version (past colorizations on VHS were made by different companies and feature distinctly different palette choices).  It also has the film in black and white as well.  Then there's the actual Rifftrax DVD, which came out five years later with the actual rifftrax featuring Mike, Kevin Nelson and Bill Corbett.  It bears inclusion because it does offer the option to watch the film with its original audio, sans riffing.

And the last of the DVDs, then, is Code Red's wacky 2 Great Brother Horrors double-feature, which pairs Night up with I Eat Your Skin.  It re-dubs the film Night Of the Livin' Deadz, inexplicably crops both films to 2.35:1, and presents them in "Lollipop Covermation," which essentially means laying various color filters over the top of the films.  It also includes random commercials between the films, because I guess this is meant to be a "party disc," and has an animated menu of a toilet bowl.  I did promise you oddities, didn't I?

Finally, we've got the two leading blu-rays in the NotLD field: Japan's Happinet disc which was the best you could get for a long time, and this summer's fancy new 4k restoration from Criterion.  Criterion's disc also includes a second, workprint cut.  So okay, let me quickly talk about that.  People were clamoring for the workprint ever since Romero announced at a festival that he found the long-lost 9 minutes of footage that distributors pushed him to cut from the film upon its initial release (when the notorious jump cut happens in the basement).  So when Criterion announced their upcoming release, people kept hitting them for the workprint - will we finally get to see that famous lost footage?  Well, turns out Romero was somehow mistaken, or there was some misreporting, and the lost footage is still lost.  But with more than half their customer base demanding the workprint, Criterion gave us the workprint so they wouldn't get chucked overboard by ravenous fans.  It just doesn't have the lost footage and the same jump cut happens at the same point in the workprint.  So it's really a non-event.  I guess it's interesting to see as a curiosity piece; they do show the full open matte, so we can really see the edges of the frames, which will be relevant to this post a little further down.
A) 1999 US Anchor Bay 30th Anniversary DVD, '98 Edition.
[There is no "B" because the 30th Anniversary
Edition cuts this portion out of their edit.]
C) 2001 US Front Row Features DVD.
D) 2002 US Echo Bridge DVD.
E) 2002 US Elite Entertainment Millennium Edition DVD.
F) 2004 US Legend Films DVD, All New Color Version.
G) 2004 US Legend Films DVD, Restored Black-and-White Version.
H) 2005 US Mill Creek Chilling 20 Movie Pack DVD.
I) 2009 US Legend Films Rifftrax DVD.
J) 2010 Japan Happinet blu-ray, The 40th Anniversary Re-Issue.
K) 2013 US Code Red 2 Great Brother-Horrors DVD.
L) 2018 US Criterion Collection blu-ray.
M) 2018 US Criterion Collection blu-ray, Night of Anubis work-print edit.
So let's really sink our teeth into the PQ.  Let's begin with the AR, because I think there's an important point to be looked at here in terms of the latest remaster.  To start with, most of the transfers, naturally, are fullscreen, at the 1.33:1 ratio.  Code Red's 2.35:1 is of course not the correct ratio at all, and crops a whole ton of vertical information, though interestingly they justify it on their packaging by saying, "Code Red is proud to present this classic motion picture in 2.35:1 Letterbox as many Asian countries viewed it that way."  Well, okay.  Anyway, it's just a novelty.  But interestingly, Criterion widens their framing just slightly to 1.37:1, which they call "its original aspect ratio" (the workprint is also in 1.37 if you crop away the non-picture elements around the edges, and reveals just an extra sliver more).  I'm not even going to touch the debate about whether the film should actually be matted widescreen as many have argued for years, but I am interested in the difference between the 1.37 and 1.33 for one particular reason.
this one's from Criterion's blu, for the record.
Look at the bottom left-hand corner of the screenshot above.  See that light, fuzzy spot?  That's not part of the gravestone or the edge something in the foreground.  It's actually an interesting little flaw that plagues various scenes in this picture.  Look at the previous comparisons shots of the car: there it's bigger and dark.  Look in the comparison shots of Judy Riley coming out of the cellar: there it's in the upper left-hand corner.  You might think oh that's just a shadow on the wall, but no, it moves with the camera as it pans.  And various other scenes in this film have these corner intrusions, too.  None of the extras on any release mention it, but if I were to get presumptuous for a moment, I'd guess we're seeing the lens hood?  The workprint actually gives us the best look at these flaws, as they show the entire edges of the film.  But now look at Happinet's blu-ray comparison shots, which are 1.33:1.  They zoom in a bit, which most people have regularly written off as a slight drawback of an otherwise excellent edition.  But I can't help but notice that they keep the fullframe ratio while essentially cropping out all those little corner intrusions!  The Legend DVD zooms in similarly, but doesn't frame it to leave those corner obstructions out like Happinet has done.  So I'm just thinking perhaps they've actually nailed the proper AR better than any other release before or since.  I mean, I can't say that for certain... I don't think, at this point, even the original filmmakers could.  And it could just as well be a case of a silver lining coming out of what is essentially a mistake on their part.  But it's something to seriously consider, because some of those corners can get distracting and take you right out of the movie.
Speaking of lower left-hand corners... is that a camera tripod?
Anyway, that's the framing.  How about the rest of the image quality?  Well, the worst offenders are not only the fuzziest, but in the case Echo Bridge, Front Row and Mill Creek, interlaced.  The Front Row disc even has an issue keeping its black and white imagery in true gray-scale, having gone a bit green.  Anchor Bay's 30 Anniversary Edition claims to be remastered, but it looks like all they really did is boost the contrast, making the shadows substantially darker.  Also, their '98 Edition is interlaced, though the 30th Anniversary cut on the same disc is not.  Mill Creek's looks particularly low contrast and blandly gray.  And of the DVDs, the Millenium Edition comes basically by virtue of not having any of the flaws the others have: it isn't interlaced, zoomed in, fuzzy, cropped, colored or overly contrasted.
l to r: 2002 US Elite Millennium Edition DVD, 2010 Japan Happinet blu.
But I know, these days, the finer points of the DVDs' PQ don't matter so much now that we're in the age of HD.  So let's leave those behind and just look at the two blu-rays.  And we can naturally discount the workprint as it's incomplete, unattractive with all it's excess junk around the edges and uncleaned damage.  Edits consist of big clunky splices, and the whole thing's really just included as an informational point of interest, not a legit way to watch the film.  And I should also note that the two blus I've got for us today aren't the only blu-ray editions.  There's a flat Mill Creek blu here in the US, and one from Forgotten Films that I almost bought, but now I'm glad I didn't.  And there's a more respected (but OOP and hard to get) Umbrella blu in Australia, and a poorly regarded one in the UK from Optimum, just for a few examples.  But as I mentioned earlier, Happinet has long been regarded as the best blu-ray presentation of Night until this year, when Criterion's release of the MoMA's 4k restoration taken from the original 35mm negative (the first edition to hail directly from those elements) came around to usurp it just this year.

And yes, right away, either blu is a big jump from the DVDs in terms of resolution and clarity.  Even going from the Millenium to the Happinet (which might actually be sourced from the same print), it's a serious boost in photo realism and sharpness.  You can finally see the details of Judy's fingers, which had been smoothed together into one clumsy mitten in SD, or make out the buttons on her jacket.
2010 Japan Happinet blu top; 2018 US Criterion blu bottom.
And there's another nice long step forward between the blus ...most of the time.  As Criterion's booklet tells us, there are points they couldn't use the negative: "[f]or the few sections that proved impossible to scan from that element - approximately 1 percent of the feature film - a 35 mm fine-grain from 1968 was used."  But outside of those moments, the difference is stark.  I mean, just look at that last set of comparison shots.  The image is generally darker, and lower contrast, with the higher resolution confidently finding all the detail and film grain without needing any boosting to clarify it.  Grain was already clear on the Happinet, but it tended to get washed away in the light spots, which definitely doesn't happen on the Criterion.  It's a much more attractive image, and you really notice the gains in the expanded framing (corners aside).  Like, you don't even need me to write anything after seeing those two screenshots; it's the kind of distinction substantial enough to double-dip for.

Audio-wise, of course, we're basically talking about a big pile of mono tracks, except the 30th Anniversary Edition, with its new score and all, was given a 5.1 mix.  And actually, the Millennium Edition gave the original a 5.1 mix.  But pretty much all the blus have kept it nice and pure with just the original mono mix, because, after all, obviously the 1968 film was never made with anything like a 5.1 mix.  A bigger question might be about subtitles, which very few of the releases have, not even the Millennium Edition or 30th Anniversary Editions.  Almost no blu-rays do either.  Well, some, like the Happinet, have foreign language subs, but the ones on the Criterion are pretty much a first.  So that's a nice addition.
And that brings us to the complicated world of special features.  Here's where some of those off-beat editions might be worth hanging onto, though naturally the bargain discs are all barebones.  The Legend DVD is interesting, though.  An even bigger selling point than the colorized version of the film, for certain collectors anyway, was certainly the Mike Nelson commentary.  It's kind of an interesting story here.  Legend Films is the company that would go on to produce Rifftrax, but this is pre-Rifftrax.  Serious Rifftrax fans will remember that when they first started, it was just Nelson, and he recorded them solo.  Then, later on, Kevin and Bill joined, and many of those early riffs were re-recorded as "three riffer versions."  But the version on this DVD is neither of those.  Actual Rifftrax, contrary to their name, are written in advance by a team of writers and carefully performed.  The commentary here is literally Nelson riffing it, as in speaking off the cuff.  He jokes some, but it's only sort of a comedy track, half a serious track with info about the film, and a lot of long pauses.  You'll never forget the long stretch of him detailing the recipe for some zombie-themed drink mix.  It's sort of amusing, but I'd really only recommend it for hardcore MST3K/ Rifftrax fans who have to have everything.  It also has a silly "game" where it compares still frames of zombies from the film with stills of celebrities, some bonus trailers and an insert.  ...Then there's the official 2009 Rifftrax DVD, which is the "three riffer version" and a lot more amusing.
Karl Hardman in (outtakes from) The Derelict.
The Millenium Edition has a lot of great stuff that's also more standard fare, and all pretty much ported over from that special edition laserdisc.  There's two great audio commentaries, one by Romero and most of the cast, and a second by Russo and most of the crew.  These are the same commentaries you come across on subsequent releases, including the Happinet and Criterion blus.  It has an interview with Judy Ridley, an audio-only interview with Duane Jones, a clip from There's Always Vanilla, outtakes from a Latent Image film called The Derelict, some of Romero's old TV commercials, a whole ton of stills galleries, an insert with notes by Stephen King and a couple trailers.  Finally, there's a short parody film called Night Of the Living Bread, which is fairly self-explanatory.

The 30th Anniversary DVD has all unique special features, basically because they pertain to a unique version of the film.  There's a little behind-the-scenes featurette, a truly awful music video, and an audio commentary with Russo and the gang where they tell a lot of the same stories from their past commentary, but also throw in some stuff about the new version.  There's also trailers, a gallery, and a clip from Hinzman's horror film Flesh Eater.  It comes with a very nice, little 32-page booklet full of interviews, as well as a regular insert and, if you bought the limited edition, that soundtrack CD.
One For the Fire: The Legacy Of the Living Dead
Here's something really interesting!  The Happinet blu-ray, besides featuring the old laserdisc commentaries and Duane Jones interview, also features an original feature length documentary by Red Shirt Pictures.  It features most of the cast, revisits some old locations, and is probably the best of all the Night Of the Living Dead documentaries (and as you'll see, I've watched 'em all).  It's in HD, though unfortunately interlaced, and I'd say a pretty compelling reason to buy the Happinet release even now in 2018 if you've already got the Criterion.  Honestly, they would've been better off licensing this than bothering with the workprint.

Criterion doesn't have a documentary at all, though they do have a bunch of neat short stuff.  They've got original (silent) dailies, a featurette with Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Darabont talking about Night's influence on them, a long Q&A with Romero at a festival, a really fun featurette interviewing extras who played zombies in the film, an interview with Russo about Image Ten, a "visual essay" on the look of Night, a vintage TV interview with Romero and Don Coscarelli around the time of Dawn, some brief vintage newsreel footage on the shooting of the film, intros to the workprint and dailies which basically explain what workprints and dailies are for the uninitiated, and a really neat featurette on the music used to create the score that goes so far as to show us the original records used.  They've got the Millennium commentaries and Ridley interview.   And one neat thing is that not only do they have the Duane Jones interview, they have a new, longer version of it with portions never before heard.  They've also got a whole bunch of trailers, radio spots, TV spots and even a little news clip about the Venus probe mentioned in the movie.

It doesn't completely replace the Millenium DVD, though, as it doesn't have Night Of the Living Bread or The Derelict's dailies.  So you might want to keep that disc if you have it, though I certainly wouldn't say it's worth double-dipping to go back and get it now.

I was expecting Criterion to, if not get the One For the Fire documentary, to include The Night OF the Living Dead 25th Anniversary documentary, often retitled as Reflections On the Living Dead.  It's not quite as good, but it's close.  They interview all the major players, but go the extra mile by including lots of big names in horror like Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi and many more to talk about the film, too.  And it's well edited; they're not just little soundbite cameos.  The one drawback is that it was clearly shot on old, fullscreen cameras in the early 90s, so it's pretty low-fi technically speaking.  I've seen some confused or erroneous listings online, by the way, where some sites mix this up with One For the Fire.  The Umbrella blu-ray features this doc, as well as some old Anchor Bay DVDs.  But the neat thing is now you can get it by itself as a solo release from Tempe DVD, which is a lot cheaper than tracking down the Umbrella disc in 2018.  It's a limited edition DVR with... unusual reversible cover art.  It's also the longer cut, with a newer Judith O'Dea interview edited into it.  But just about every version you can find, including the Umbrella disc, also feature the longer cut.

Still in the market for even more Night Of the Living Dead coverage?  Well, if you listen to the old laserdisc commentaries (or even the 30th Anniversary commentary), you'll hear the gang refer to a "jamboree" over and over again.  Well, The Zombie Jamboree was a big 25th anniversary NotLD convention, hosted by the filmmakers, and SRS Cinema's Zombie Jamboree is an original documentary John Russo shot (and narrates!) about that convention. It starts out with some pretty standard stuff about the early Image Ten days (really, everybody shows that Calgon commercial!) and the making of NotLD, but then gets into more original material including footage of their panels and Tom Savini taking fans on a tour of the actual Dawn Of the Dead mall.  Then, because it's a big convention, they also wind up including some non-NotLD related stuff, like interviews with Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, and Adam West.  The downsides are that it's only an hour long (I would've liked to see longer coverage of some of those panels!) and was shot on video tape, so it looks and sounds pretty cheap.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the latest, and surprisingly widely publicized feature length documentary about NotLD, Birth Of the Living Dead from First Run Features.  It's, umm... okay?  Frankly, I was pretty disappointed, and it's not like I came in with big, swinging expectations.  It's got a good interview with Romero, but none of the other cast and crew are interviewed.  Instead they get some pretty bland takes by a handful of critics, fill the gaps with cartoonish animation and feature some really weird footage of a NY school teacher who seems to have built his entire curriculum around showing this movie to young children (I mean, very little kids are shown and discuss all the graphic violence... some so young they can't speak in complete sentences yet.  He should probably actually be fired).  Probably the best part is Elvis Mitchcell talking about Duane Jones, but even that doesn't have him saying anything you wouldn't anticipate him saying.  DVD extras include extensive footage of a zombie walk (Yawnsville, USA), a cool, vintage recording of Romero doing a Q&A after the film's premiere screening in the 60s and an extended interview with Romero, which I'd actually recommend instead of the documentary itself.
So, let's try to summarize all of this into something manageable.  The Criterion blu is hands-down the best presentation of the film (with a tiny percent chance you might prefer the Happinet for the framing difference).  It's a 2-disc set packed with extras, including a lot of the classic DVD extras, so it may well be all you need.  Still, the lack of a solid documentary has me recommending the Happinet disc just for that.  Ever since Criterion came out, you can get the Happinet a lot cheaper, so it makes for a nice supplement.  Just think of it as a One For the Fire blu-ray; you'd buy that for $10, right?

Then, if you still want more, I'd recommend stuff in the following order of most to least: The Rifftrax DVD.  It's funny and something different.  Honestly, the more you watch these NotLD documentaries and extras, the more you're going to hear the same anecdotes told the same way by the same people.  Pretty much all of them have something unique to them, too; but you're going to get pretty sick of hearing them explain over and over how the Duane Jones' role wasn't written with black person in mind, or how each of the Image Ten pitched in some of their own money to get the funding rolling over and over again.  But the Rifftrax is a wholly unique and entertaining supplement.
Then Reflections Of the Living Dead, for being the runner-up feature length doc with a bunch of unique interviews with other horror directors.  And you can probably stop there unless you're on a collecting binge.  You might be interested in the 30th Anniversary as an interesting historical artifact, especially with the behind-the-scenes footage and stuff; just be aware that it's terrible.  Zombie Jamboree is also pretty cheesy and crappy, but it's got different, not entirely unamusing, and the fact that Russo made it himself makes it a little interesting in a way the other NotLD docs can't match.  Then, if you're just throwing cheap stuff in your cart, maybe Birth (more for the DVD extras) and the Millennium DVD for Bread.  No reason to go as far down the road as I did, but I do think getting the Criterion release plus one or two other side documentary discs is the way to go for any fan.  After all, Night is a true classic, even if it's arguably a little creaky, and warrants going an extra step or two for.

3 comments:

  1. Awesome, thanks.
    Another one for the fire:
    https://www.amazon.com/Autopsy-Dead-Charles-Craig/dp/B002FZPR2O

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ooh, interesting! Never heard of that one...

      Delete
  2. Wow, incredible essay. Thanks for all of your work. I dig reading your posts!

    ReplyDelete