Night of the Living Dead: 40th Anniversary Special Edition

It used to be a movie. Now, it’s a myth. Where once it represented the concerted efforts of some Pittsburgh admen and their desire to enter into the realm of commercial filmmaking, now it’s the granddaddy of all zombie flicks. But beyond all the legends, the factual falsehoods and made up mysteries, lies one of the supreme experiments in horror ever conceived – and to believe those involved, it was more an accident than intentional. Between proposed narratives about invading aliens to the decision to cast a black man in the lead, Night of the Living Dead was as much happenstance as pure intention. Yet the results speak for themselves – and for generations – even 40 years later.

So much has been written about this now classic creepfest that it’s impossible to imagine any new product providing additional insight. From the proposed political subtext to the proto-documentary cinema vérité camerawork, director George Romero and his post-modern macabre remains the proverbial overbeaten movie mare. Everyone, from the casual fan to the detail-oriented obsessive has a take on this material, a way of making a weekend effort by some bored professionals into a universal statement on the story of man. Of course, as the years have passed, those involved have begun to believe their own fable. It remains one of the more intriguing aspects of the film’s heritage.

For those unfamiliar with the basic storyline, it all begins when adult siblings Barbara and Johnny travel to a distant cemetery to lay a wreath on their father’s grave. During their visit to the site, Johnny is accosted by a strange man and is mortally wounded. Barbara runs for her life and, after wrecking the car, seeks shelter in an abandoned farmhouse. There she finds a rotting corpse in the upstairs hall. Before she can gather her thoughts, a black man named Ben barges through the door and starts sealing up the house. He has also had some “run-ins” with angry individuals, and has witnessed the senseless brutality of the mob.

As he secures the doors and windows, a group of people appears from the basement. They are Helen and Harry Cooper, a married couple with a sick child in the cellar. Local boy Tom and his girlfriend Judy are also present. They escaped to the house after being accosted. A radio reports the awful truth: the dead have risen, and have started to kill…and eat the living. Tempers flare and plans are hatched. There is a gas pump on the property. If they could refuel Ben’s truck, they could escape. But as more and more zombies encircle the house, these survivors come to a horrible realization: they may not survive this ‘Night of the Living Dead’.

In conjunction with their release of Romero’s latest take on the genre, 2008’s divisive Diary of the Dead, Genius Products and the Weinstein Company are putting out an anniversary DVD of Night, complete with some new bonus features. In many instances, the reverence almost ruins what is an inherently fascinating tale of ambition and realization. It goes without saying that everyone more or less knows Night, and if they think that they don’t, they just haven’t realized it yet. Romero and a group of local Pittsburgh day players more or less invented the undead Bible, laying the foundation for the meat-eating mythos in all of its bullet-in-the-head, shuffling corpse glory. Influencing more films than the works of Fellini, Kubrick, and Cassavetes combined, this black-and-white marvel of minimalism packed a powerful wallop in its decidedly low-budget heyday.

A look around the current pop culture landscape produces more bows to the living dead dynamic than anyone should have to endure. There are remakes of other Romero classics (Dawn of the Dead and some unnecessary offal called Day of the Dead) just waiting to sully our memories of the originals. The omnipresent videogame industry (creators of such software shockers as Silent Hill and Resident Evil) has taken the foul flesh eater and turned it into Level Three’s big bad “boss” (not to mention creating their own motion picture spin-offs). Honestly, it seems that society is fixated on the ornery undead in a very big spending way. Even rock and roll has embraced the creepy cadavers – surely Rob Zombie isn’t celebrating a certain rum-based drink with his horror handle.

That being said, Night of the Living Dead has not really aged all that well. Sure, it’s still a masterpiece, but one that’s been lessened by its status as the standard-bearer for the entire walking corpse conundrum. The movie is still a fascinating, fatalistic work. But it is very talky in its middle act, a lot of the more horrible elements of the story needing exposition to envision them, since the production couldn’t afford to create the necessary visuals. Action and bloodshed comes in spurts and many modern horror fans, more adjusted to a ratio of down time to killing spree will consider this scattershot approach too much to tolerate.

Also, Night has been basically remade a million times in both direct (John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13) and inspired (Aliens has a lot of the same “us vs. them” vibe) ways, so much so that it’s almost an experience in rote entertainment. You don’t respond to what’s happening onscreen as much as the realization that you understand the plotting implicitly and realize automatically what will occur next. While it is still dark, foreboding and cruelly heartless, Night of the Living Dead has left a lot of its cinematic effectiveness in the past, where people appreciated its attention to authenticity. Today, it almost plays like a parody of itself, overworking all the formulas and clichés it helped create.

That’s why this newest DVD is so intriguing. Aside from delivering a devastatingly crisp and clean image (the new 1.33:1 transfer looks amazing), the added content continues to further redefine the film’s formative fairytale. Between commentaries and interviews, we learn of the role mannequins played in the production and that Dwayne Jones was not hired for his skin color, but his availability and ability as an actor. Distributors were also disturbed by the amount of dialogue and actually demanded six minutes of contextual conversations be edited. Their stipulation for more zombie footage also fell on deaf ears, since Romero and crew had limited amounts of that material. Perhaps most compelling of all, a terrible flood destroyed most of the artifacts associated with the film, including the actual work print.

Granted, some of these stories have been offered up before, and when it comes to staying firmly within the boundaries of their illustrious reputation, Romero, producer John Russo, and other members of the Night committee aren’t about to stray too far. The new documentary created for the 40th anniversary, entitled One for the Fire, uses a stagy recreationist approach to get some valuable information across. While it’s great to see the remaining cast look back at their foolhardy novice naiveté with a wistful veneration, it’s hard to argue that they do much more than repeat what fright fans have already committed to memory. Indeed, the main stumbling block Night of the Living Dead faces is its own well-earned scary movie status. Objectivity is no longer possible, or perhaps necessary.

And like any great hero, the movie moves on, forever heading toward the sincere sunset of cinematic classicism. It is an amazing achievement considering the dozens of like minded efforts that crammed their way into drive-ins and dives during the same period. Because of what Romero created, because of his desire to treat the schlocky subject seriously and with an unflinching eye, the results speak for themselves. Night of the Living Dead, the movie, may indeed render Night of the Living Dead, the 40th Anniversary DVD edition meaningless, but the journey into the past is still a captivating one. While one may never be able to experience this seminal film the way audiences did four decades ago, at least we have such scholarship to keep its cause contemporary. In that regard, this newest packaging is a success.