NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD – Blu-ray review

The early 1990’s were a down time for the horror genre. The eighties had saturated the horror market with endless sequels using every situation imaginable ranging from innocent holidays like Valentine’s Day all the way to massacring slumber parties. The prototypical victims seemed to be valley girls and frat guys and their customary doofus friends.  Audiences were waning and budgets decreased further weakening the already cut-rate product. Crossing over into the 90’s, it seemed like sequels were the way to go with their built in fan bases already intact.  The law of diminishing returns was in full effect.  It wasn’t all bad though.  The early 90’s did produce several pearls that peaked out of above the mud. The “Night of the Living Dead” remake is one of those films.  Even though it wasn’t an original idea, “Night” still was a mature, effective horror film that actually had adults in the lead roles instead of the usual stock teenagers.

Tom Savini, who was the foremost expert on gore effects at the time, was given the chance to make his directorial debut at the request of his friend George Romero.  The story goes, Barbara and her brother Johnny are visiting their father’s grave in lieu of their mother who can’t make the three hour trip to the country herself.   Wasting no time, the threat presents itself and its pure survival the rest of the way.  The remake plays extremely close to the original.  This is a story of strangers trapped in a house trying to survive.  Savini’s biggest similarity to the original is the focus on character over action. The only real differences are some of the characters fates.

Much has been said about modern zombie movie remakes losing the social criticisms of Romero’s original works. He used the ideas of dead people attacking the living to subtly convey the rise of the counter culture tearing apart the nuclear family in the original “Night of the Living Dead.”  With “Dawn of the Dead” he used society’s automaton-like ways towards shopping to take a jab at consumerism. It was after this when zombies were used to just show more and more gore effects and subsequently losing any commentary about contemporary society.  Where these modern zombie movies focus more on trying to come up with new and disgusting ways of zombies eating the living, the “Night” remake does not do this.  In fact, there is a surprisingly low number of death-by-zombie kills which, dare I say, gives the film a bit of realism.  There is no run n’ gun action here.  It’s low key and things fall apart in a genuine fashion.  There is a strong focus on survival and trying to work together even when people are not getting along.  A surprising amount of screen time is devoted to watching characters board up the house.

Even though the socio-political tones may be gone, the remake still represents how the times have changed.   Back in 1968, Romero purposely wanted the main character to be African American because of the times. Twenty-two years later, it’s not as much of a racial statement as it is re-envisioning the same characters. Race isn’t nearly a factor as it used to be in 1968.  Another social change that can be seen is the strengthening of the women’s role within a story from being timid and useless to becoming heroic and alpha-like. Patricia Tallman does a fantastic job for someone who has spent more time as a stunt woman than an actress.  Her character arc requires a lot of emotional range and she makes it all believable.  And now another 22 years later after the remake, the film still holds up incredibly well.  Sure, some of the clothing choices have changed and synthesized organ music is no longer prevalent in movies but you can still equate the zombie epidemic to any current situation.  Maybe they can represent the current financial crisis or unemployment.  When it comes down to it, the idea of people trying to work together will always be a useful experience in any movie.

Video:
If you are not aware yet of the uproar against this release, it stems from the beginning of the movie looking vastly different than is has on past incarnations.  The opening has always taken place during the day with the sun shining.  For the Blu-ray it appears a filtering technique has been applied significantly darkening the daylight in the first 20 minutes of the movie.  This gives the scene a more moody tone.  It looks like an attempt to make it seem that it was filmed during the “golden hour” when the sun is down but there is plenty of light to shoot in.  It doesn’t fully work in this case because there are still some harsh shadows and reflections present.  There are many comparison screenshots floating around the web that make it seem darker than it really is.  To clarify, it’s not messy looking.  If you had never seen the movie before, you wouldn’t think anything is abnormal.  But for those of us who have grown up with this film and admire all its scenes, there has been a noticeable change. In subsequent scenes their remains a minor bluish tint throughout that also was not present before.  However, it only presents itself when the action is outside near a light source.  It is not overwhelming but it is present. Now, Savini himself has come out saying the transfer looks “beautiful” and doesn’t find any issues with it.   Personally, even though I loved the film for the 20 years  as it was, I have always thought it lacked a filmic quality.  Being shot on 35mm, it still looked a little cheap at times.  I do not mind the new look as much as others appear to.  I honestly believe the new look on the Blu-ray does help make the movie look more cinematic.

I believe most of the uproar over the transfer is also derived from Twilight Times business model.  They release a limited amount of copies at a premium price ($30) and do not post any reviews of the product before they start taking pre-orders.  In this case, “Night” sold out in a little over a week which means you had to take a leap of faith and assume the product would be acceptable.  Most of their other releases have been fine but it will be interesting to find out if they will add any additional quality control or early reviews to their practices.

Aside from above issue, the transfer looks great.  There is a terrific amount of clarity and depth in most scenes.   Most of the final act takes place in the dark and there is no visible crushing or aliasing. This is the best the film has ever looked.

(Note: in Savini’s commentary he does say that he originally intended the opening scene to take place on a dark, dreary day in the late afternoon but the weather did not cooperate.  Take that for whatever its worth.)

Audio:
Lost in the shuffle of the video quality is the nice audio boost the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack gives to the film.  There are some nice surprises all around. Clarity is the biggest benefit as there are innumerable music cues, dialogue and groans that I never noticed before. LFE is not overwhelming but has a little punch when needed, especially when rifles and shotguns are being used. Another nice surprise is the use of the rear channels in many scenes.  When arms crash through windows the glass has a nice spreading effect across the soundstage.  This is a very impressive upgrade.

(One odd note is that the camera shutter sounds during the ending credits have been removed.  There has been no explanation provided so far.  It is not a terrible loss, just a noticeable change to those who know the film inside and out.)

Extras:
For such a premium price the extras sure are scarce.  There is a commentary track by Tom Savini which has some great insight into the making of the film even though his delivery is rather dry and unexciting Next is a theatrical trailer that actually keeps the original color timing. The last extra is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 isolated score which lets you watch the film without dialogue or sound effects.  It is mildly interesting at best but most likely won’t be revisited by viewers twice.

Bottom line:
Like it or not, Twilight Time’s “Night of the Living Dead” Blu-ray will be a Limited Edition in all respects.  If there is another release after Twilight Time’s three year contract is up, it will undoubtedly be corrected and if for some reason the same master is used, then this will be the experience going forward.  Yes, it is different but not a deal breaker. The mood is altered in the beginning but it was done to try to improve the tone. The truth is, it should not have been altered but it does not completely mar the rest of the film.  Aside from that issue, it looks and sounds better than it has in the past.  Since this is sold out and most likely only available at auction sites for a hefty sum, this comes recommended for collectors and forgiving enthusiasts of the film.  To the purists and all others, hopefully one day it will be released on the cheap in its original aesthetic.

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