This blu-ray was provided by Criterion for the purpose of this review. All opinions are my own.
One of the most influential horror films ever made is now getting the Criterion treatment in a new Blu-ray edition, but does this version of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead make it worth replacing one of the seemingly hundreds of other versions released over the years? Yes, dear God, yes.
Originally released in October 1968, this low-budget, black-and-white horror film about the dead returning to life and wreaking havoc on a small Pittsburgh suburb proved to be the perfect lightning-in-a-bottle movie. It’s release coincided with the height of the civil rights movement, and it starred a black actor, Duane Jones, something that was nearly unheard of at the time, especially in a film that wasn’t explicitly tackling the subject of race. This sparked an immediate social commentary within the film, one that remains relevant to this day, though Romero states he simply hired Jones because he was the best actor he found.
Night of the Living Dead also helped to spark a time in cinema when boundaries were being pushed with regard to adult content. Films like Bonnie and Clyde, released a year prior, brought new levels of violence to films, and with the introduction of midnight movies, Night of the Living Dead would easily find its fanbase in crowds yearning for more explicit content in their movies. When watching now, it’s tame in comparison to some of the bloodbaths that have been released since, but it’s important to remember this was about as edgy as it got back in the ’60s.
After its release Night of the Living Dead famously lost its copyright due to a title change (originally called Night of Anubis then later titled Night of the Flesh Eaters before changing a second time to Night of the Living Dead) on the master print, with the distributor forgetting to include the copyright notice on the title card. This caused the film to immediately go into the public domain, and that’s why we see it so much in movies and TV and why we see so many releases on home video formats. The saddest part of this debacle is that Romero and his crew saw no money from the film, despite it bringing in $30 million at the box office.
So now that Criterion has teamed up with MoMA and The Romero Family Trust, you can go ahead and ignore all those other releases and pick this one up instead – the true and ultimate version of the film. With a brand-new 4K digital restoration supervised by George Romero before his passing, this is hands down the best version of the film I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many, many versions of this movie. The visuals are crisp and clear, with no visible scratches or blemishes to speak of; it really is an outstanding restoration.
Criterion knew they couldn’t simply restore this movie and call it a day, so they packed in a metric ton of bonus content, not the least of which is never-before-seen 16mm workprint version of the film back when it was called Night of Anubis. The second disc houses all the extra supplements, which include new featurettes with interviews from the cast and crew, along with other filmmakers, such as Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Darabont; never-before-seen 16mm dailies; archival interviews; and tons more. This second disc is reason enough to pick up this Blu-ray. Also included in the packaging is a mini-poster with an essay from critic Stuart Klawans.
Night of the Living Dead defined what the zombie film would become and is easily one of the most influential pieces of cinema in horror, but more than that, it’s just a fantastic movie that’s worth adding to your collection.