RiffTrax: Night of the Living Dead – DVD Review
You have to give the RiffTrax crew credit for nerve if nothing else. Back when they were aboard the Satellite of Love, as part of the cult television cable hit MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett targeted the worst of the worst cinematic slime, the oozing putrescence from the lowest depths of the cinematic vault. Here, they take the old, patented formula (cracking wise on the soundtrack while the film unspools) and apply it to a classic horror film, George A. Romero’s brilliant 1968 debut, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It’s a risky gambit, one that risks alienating fans. The result could have been either an epic failure or a monumental, surprise hit; instead, it falls somewhere in between.
For those of you out of the loop, RiffTrax is an Internet venture, not a television show, and it consists only of audio commentary, with no host segments showing the gang doing skits based on the film. The RiffTrax website sells these down-loadable audio tracks that you can synch up with your DVDs. This allows RiffTrax to take on movies without securing the broadcast or DVD rights, so they have extended their reach quite a bit beyond what they could do as MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 (or the interim project, THE FILM CREW). Instead of going after only the worst movies ever made, they also take on more high-profile films, including the occasional classic.
The problem with this approach is just MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 was at its best when targeting films that were absolutely ridiculous or insufferably pompous. Movies that were simply bland or dull didn’t yield particularly funny results, and really good movies (e.g., Mario Bava’s DANGER: DIABOLIK) could be rendered unwatchable when subjected to the MST3K treatment.
Fortunately, the RiffTrax take on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, now available on DVD, is not the disaster one might have feared. Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett never convince you that Romero’s little black-and-white opus deserves their sarcastic treatment, but they do milk more than a few laughs out of the action.
As effective as it is, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD does have its share of lapses that provide some fodder for the RiffTrax commentary, such jump cuts, continuity problems, and the classic moment when Ben (Duane Jones) claims he has the farm house pretty well boarded up – while a completely open and unguarded window is clearly visible over his shoulder.
The thing is: long-time fans have already heard the cast and crew of the film itself point out this kind of flub on the Millennium Edition DVD audio commentaries. So, if you have already heard actor Karl Hardman say there was “nowhere to go with” with his performance as Mr. Cooper because it started tense and stayed that way, hearing the RiffTrax gang make the same point sounds a bit like beating a dead horse.
At times, Nelson, Murphy and Corbett seem to be struggling against the classic status of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which remains effective despite its flaws. Consequently, the commentary track ends up resorting to tangential remarks (instead of riffing about what’s on screen, the crew imagine other things happening off screen or behind the scenes).
All reservations aside, the RiffTrax crew do come through with some zingers. Even if you are vaguely offended by their choice of target, you will have to laugh when they note that the television news reporters seem to have been cloned from the same source or accuse one spastic ghoul of doing a Joe Cocker impersonation.
The DVD offers the option of viewing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD with or without the RiffTrax commentary, so if you don’t already own the film on disc, here’s your chance to have it at a discount price, even if you don’t want the added jokes. Unfortunately, the video quality is not as good as it should be. The image looks compressed, like a low-res video Internet file or a Video Compact Disc; at times, the motion even looks slightly stroboscopic. There are no bonus features.
The RiffTrax NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD DVD is one of a set of ten RiffTrax titles being released on Tuesday, June 16, marking the first time that RiffTrax has been made available for home video. Other titles include CARNIVAL OF SOULS, PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE, MISSILE TO THE MOON, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.