One month after its Video on Demand debut in April, writer-director George A. Romero’s sequel to DIARY OF THE DEAD gets a limited platform theatrical release, which hopefully will boost DVD sales. The story is set on a small North American island, where the population fends off the living dead while searching for a cure that will restore the zombies to their former selves. The cast includes Devon Bostick, Julian Richings, Athena Karkanis, and Kathleen Munroe. Theatrical release date: May 28.
The latest installment of writer-director George A. Romero’s on-going magnum opus makes its debut on Video on Demand, with a limited theatrical release to follow next month. This time the story is set on a small North American island, where the population fends off the living dead while searching for a cure that will restore the zombies to their former selves. The cast includes Devon Bostick, Julian Richings, Athena Karkanis, and Kathleen Munroe. VOD release date: April 30. Theatrical release date: May 28.
For more than four decades, George A Romero has been one of the unassailable giants of the modern horror film, particularly the independent variety. In 1968, his NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD quite literally changed the game; besides kicking open the door for many to independent film (NIGHT was financed and shot in his beloved Pittsburgh) it pushed the limits of what was then considered acceptable levels of violence and was simply light years ahead of the then-current state of horror. For the uninitiated, Romero’s career seemed to descend into a kind of sleep mode between the release of NIGHT and its semi-sequel (really more a continuation of the theme) DAWN OF THE DEAD 10 years later, but Romero actually made 4 films in that period (and those who can name check the forgettable THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA or SEASON OF THE WITCH can consider their geek test passed). But Romero’s other two films of the era stand among his most important works; 1978’s MARTIN, a story of a severely troubled youth (John Amplas) whose delusions of vampirism result in tragedy, was released a few months before DAWN and still stands as one of Romero’s most personal and fully realized films (and his own favorite résumé bullet point) and 1973’s THE CRAZIES, available this week in high definition from Blue Underground.
Rebounding from the frankly awful Vanilla, Romero returned to exploitation, if not outright horror for his third film. The Crazies centers around the rural town of Evans City, PA, whose residents are beginning to exhibit decidedly strange behavioral ticks, like murdering loved ones and setting their homes ablaze. These extreme acts perpetrated by otherwise normal members of the community doesn’t escape the notice of local firemen David (W G McMillan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) – particularly when a large military force, resplendent in gleaming white HazMat suits (a lovely, ironic touch) sets up camp as an occupying force. It turns out that an experimental biological weapon – code named ‘Trixie’* – has been accidentally dumped into the town’s water supply, igniting a murderous – even suicidal – rage in all the townspeople who come in contact with it. While Col. Peckam (Lloyd Hollar) attempts to enforce a quarantine of the town, a scientist close to the Trixie project(Richard France, who Romero used again in a small role in Dawn of the Dead as an eye patch-wearing TV commentator) works round the clock on an antivirus. Meanwhile, David and Clank – along with David’s pregnant girlfriend, Judy (Lane Caroll) – attempt to beat cheeks out of the infected area before either their Trixie-infected neighbors or the military killing them, along the way teaming up with another local man, Artie (Richard Liberty, who also worked for the director again as the memorably demented Dr. Logan in Day of the Dead) and his teenage daughter Kathie (the famously feline-featured Lynn Lowry, fresh from a brief appearance in I Drink Your Blood and fast becoming an exploitation mainstay with a lead role in Radley Metzger’s Score and a drop-dead sexy turn for David Cronenberg in Shivers on her horizon).
Romero rewrote Paul McCollough’s original script, giving equal emphasis to the military’s attempts to isolate Evans City, almost as if he realized how much stronger those scenes would play. As with Night, Romero’s color blind casting of a black actor in the central, heroic role of Col. Peckam pays off hugely, and the scenes of the military implementing martial law are effectively stark. In this way, The Crazies is a near-perfect showcase for Romero’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker: sometimes, George just can’t get a handle on performances – particularly with less experienced actors – allowing some (like nearly the entire cast of Day of the Dead) to drift into a shrill flatline. The non-military protagonists (with the exception of Liberty and Lowry) simply aren’t very interesting, and there isn’t enough on the page – or in Romero’s direction – to incite a spark.
Fortunately, The Crazies is also a prime showcase for Romero’s keener skills; even when his own words as a screenwriter fail him, he manages to imbue his characters with an emotional honesty that is not typically seen in low-budget exploitation fare. Romero is also particularly good at staging violent civil unrest, and scenes dealing with the military takeover of the town are the obvious antecedents of Dawn’s nerve-shaking opening movement. As the Trixie virus penetrates deeper into population, Romero has a lot of fun with the spreading insanity, including a kindly grandmother who calmly rises from her chair and stabs a soldier in the heart with a knitting needle, and a woman attempting to sweep blood off of grass with a broom in the middle of a pitched gunfight between the army and townsfolk.
These grace notes will be familiar to Romero’s fans, as will the socio-political subtext that runs through many of his films. The documentary-like camera work is deliberately evocative of the TV news footage of Vietnam – a grim reality to most American in 1973 – and Romero smartly exploits the rampant mistrust of the military with scenes of the martial law imposed on the Evans City. We suspect much of this will be lost on younger generations, particularly a sequence of a priest overcome with Trixie immolating himself in the middle of the road.
Blue Underground’s new Blu-Ray disc is a direct port of their fine DVD edition of a few years back. Early VHS releases were a dark, muddy mess that didn’t do the already low-budget film any favors. BU’s visual renovation of The Crazies is nothing short of miraculous, and the Blu-Ray allows us to see just how good their high-def master really looks. The colors are bright and deeply saturated; there’s a definite pop to the presentation, and the level of detail belie the picture’s low budget.
Some fans with intricate sound systems might balk at the 1.0 DTS mono, but it was probably best not to stretch the soup too much. Extras are identical to BU’s DVD and remain in standard definition, including one of Romero’s always genial, informal commentary tracks (this time sitting with BU founder and cut filmmaker extraordinaire, Bill Lustig)’ a nice featurette, “The Cult Film Legacy of Lynn Lowry” (who has a cameo in the remake); and a sampling of theatrical trailers.
- “Code Name Trixie” was in fact an early title for The Crazies.
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.
This is strange entry in the careers of George A Romero and Dario Argento, as fans expecting an anthology along the lines of Creepshow were instead given essentially 2 almost completely unrelated hour-long features based on stories by Edgar Allen Poe. Romero’s episode is about a wealthy patriarch who dies while under hypnosis; his gold-digging wife (Adrienne Barbeau giving one of her best performances) hides the body in the cellar until the estate can be settled. You needn’t have read Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” to guess what happens next. We actually think this is one of Romero’s better films from this period, without the amateurish acting that occasionally plagues his efforts.
Argento’s effort is based on Poe’s “The Black Cat” and stars Harvey Keitel as Rod Usher , a crime scene photographer who kills his girlfriend’s black cat, photographing it at the point of death. Once she discovers the nightmarish photos in Rod’s just-published book, she confronts him, they struggle, and he kills her – but this is still a Poe story, and walling up a dead body isn’t always the best method of disposal. Unfortunately, this film falls in line with Argento’s other weak efforts from the period, including the Pittsburgh-filmed Trauma from 1993. Even with Argento’s trademark visual flair, the film seems much more slowly paced than Romero’s segment when the opposite ought to be true; even with the limited running time the film drags as we are left too long in the company of Keitel’s Usher character, an utterly unlikeable bastard who illicit zero sympathy. The heavy-handed gore (courtesy of Tom Savini) also seems forced – more like a contractual obligation than artistic method.
Like Blue Underground’s previous HD efforts, this Blu-Ray disc is gorgeous, bringing out excellent color and detail (though still limited by the occasionally rough source material – this wasn’t a lushly budgeted film). The extras replicate BU’s previous edition, including the documentary “Two Masters’ Eyes,” featuring interviews with both filmmakers.
The Zombie Auteur Explains HIs Approach to Creating Believable Horror.
George Romero shot to cult stardom in 1968 when he directed NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, from a screenplay he co-wrote with John Russo. The film’s reputation is perhaps based mostly on its documentary style (black-and-white photograph, hand-held camera work), but in truth the script is a very well written, tightly constructed piece of work, with lots of good dialogue and character drama mixed in with the horror. Since then, Romero has continued to write the screenplays for his films, even when they have been based on other source material (as in MONKEY SHINES). His writing has always been marked by an intelligent approach to genre material, in which the traditional legends and superstitions underlying most horror stories are thoroughly deconstructed by an agnostic, contemporary point-of-view (as in his 1978 film MARTIN, in which the title character is a psycho-killer with delusions of being a seductive vampire). Recently, Romero took the time to outline some of his thoughts on his debut film and on the general subject of writing horror stories for the screen.
“When I made my first film, I thought I was hip and cool,” says the writer-director. “I wasn’t. I was just a guy waving his hands around, trying to get attention, even though I knew there was no reason in hell for people to pay me any mind. That’s the human condition I guess. The first stories ever told were horror stories. Our distant ancestors huddled around a campfire listened to those stories and wondered, ‘Who am I? Why am I here? What is fire?’ People were asking those same questions in 1968 when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was released; they’re still asking them today, willing to turn almost anywhere for answers.”
According to Romero, the script for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD grew out of a short story he had written, which was inspired by the Richard Matheson novel I AM LEGEND. The novel, a science-fiction take on the vampire myth, portrays the plight of the last living human being in a world of overrun by a plague of vampires. “That’s Matheson’s jumping off point for what is basically a siege story,” Romero explains. “I ripped off the siege and the central idea, which I thought was so powerful—that this particular plague involved the entire planet. Similar stories, SALEM’S LOT, for example, deal with the populations of small isolated towns that have been infected with a virus, an alien predator, or radiation from the good old days of atomic testing—scientific testing gone awry. Easier to believe—and easier to blame—than any monster.”
For Romero, “Believability and Blame are two evil spirits that haunt any writer of horror fiction, bringing sleepless nights and blank pages. I’m talking about the kind of Blame that a writer wants to—or feels the need to—assign to someone or something within the fiction that he or she has created. The monster is by definition Blameless; it’s just doing what comes naturally and is therefore likely to invoke sympathy. Who doesn’t feel sorry for Frankenstein’s Monster, or King Kong, or Larry Talbot, the Wolfman, who would never hurt a fly—which brings us to THE FLY, which illustrates a target for blame. It can be pinned on the character who caused the problem. David Hedison, Colin Clive as Victor Frankenstein, Richard Attenborough in JURASSIC PARK, or those reliable whipping boys, the scientists, who appear in everything from THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN to GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER.”
This kind of Blame works in horror stories grounded in science fiction, but supernatural tales are not so easy. “Who or what do you blame if you’re writing something like DRACULA or THE EXORCIST?” Romero asks rhetorically. “Blame evil? Pure Evil—the writer’s escape hatch: ‘The devil made me do it?’ Pure Evil is basically Pure Bullshit. It comes closer to chance, that real monster which stalks us all. Is there any such thing as Pure Evil? I doubt it, and so does pretty much everyone else, except for lapsed Catholics—not practicing Catholics, but those who have strayed. They, we, me—stained our jockeys when we first saw THE EXORICST. As far as I’m concerned, that is the only film that dealt with Pure Evil and managed to pull it off.”
Therefore, Romero advocates avoiding “Pure Evil” as an explanation; in fact, he thinks no explanation at all might be preferable. “By and large, when you’re dealing with the absurd, no explanation is better than the one you can trump up,” he states. “As far as I’m concerned, Blame doesn’t need to be assigned. It’s acceptable, even probable, that a protagonist might draw the black marble and be screwed over by circumstances. It’s also acceptable that evil might come from within. It might even be; it might not really be there. It might be a monster from the Id, like in FORBIDDEN PLANET. It might be insanity, as in REPULSION, the most frightening film that I’ve ever seen. My suggestion to writers facing those blank pages is, in short, forget about blame. Fill those pages with whatever gives you the willies. You can assign blame later, or someone else will—the way analysts assigned blame in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to the Republicans.”
As for the other troubling topic, Believability, Romero thinks that any premise, however, impossible, can be made believable if handled with conviction. “The very fact that you thought of it means that, somewhere in your mind, it’s believable to you,” he says. “All you have to do is convince your audience that it’s possible. Here again, you don’t need to get your old science texts to find some backup for your premise. All you need to do is set some rules. Let’s say you dream up a story where a man is stranded, starving on a desert island. All he’s got is a carton of a dozen eggs. In the yolk of one of those eggs, an unborn monster is lurking; cracking the shell will enable it to emerge, eat the island, and eventually eat the man. How do you make this believable? Early in the story, you plant a few seeds: Monsters hang out in egg yolks. Not all egg yolks, but there’s bound to be one in a dozen. If the bad egg is cracked open, the monster will be unleashed. You’re done; that’s all you need to do. People will believe, and each time your character goes to crack open an egg, the audience will howl, ‘No, don’t do it!’”
Romero warns against overselling the concept with unnecessary technical jargon. “If you spend time on exposition, as to why egg yolks are targets for monstrous possession, the audience is going to nod off, and you’re likely to get raked over the coals by the critics—who, while they should appreciate your scientific approach, are just as susceptible as anyone else to boredom. Even in something like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, where there is no explanation, they’ll find their own reasons for the horror, and write about your genius in dreaming it up.”
Romero opines, “That’s why people go to horror flicks, laying out that good money: to be shocked, startled, to experience that buzz in a context that doesn’t threaten us with any real danger. You feel safe in a movie theatre, depending on who’s sitting next to you. You feel safe in your bed, reading a Stephen King novel, depending on who’s sleeping next to you. You can let yourself go, let your guard down. Some people intellectualize and get past all that without having problems. Others can get past all that and surrender—not to say that they should. Some people never experience orgasms or other real highs, for the same reason. Reading a novel or going to a scary movie, people can abandon themselves, because there seem to be no consequences.”
As for the current viability of horror in Hollywood, Romero is guardedly optimistic. “After 9/11 there is no question that the climate has changed, but it’s actually sort of tapering off a little bit,” says the writer-director, who had been trying to shop around his script for LAND OF THE DEAD (then called DEAD RECKONING). “I was first going around with the new zombie script in the beginning of September. Right after 9/11, nobody wanted it. We got a lot of rejections slips. Now it’s sort of coming back. It looks like there’s a lot of interest.”
Nevertheless, Romero is dubious about the present state of the genre. “Where is the genre going? We sure are just sort of rowing around in circles, I think. Unfortunately, the big special effects that we’re able to do in films—producers feel they have to be competitive with that stuff. I certainly don’t think it has helped with innovation in the genre at all. People don’t seem to learn a lesson from things like BLAIR WITCH. You can still make an inexpensive film about things that go bump in the night, and it’s just as scary as if you have $100-million worth of special effects. But people are afraid to take that risk, even on a small film. So I haven’t seen a lot of progress being made in the genre, certainly not a lot of innovation. The cats that are consistently making this stuff good—John Carpenter, Wes Craven—have an affection for it. A lot of people just have no affection not just for the genre but for the medium. People wont’ presume to say, ‘I can do something funny. I’m gonna go make a comedy. I know how to do it.’ But it seems like almost every exec that you run into thinks that he knows how to make a horror film. And it doesn’t work that way! All I can say is I hope they never get too repressive and that we can do the stuff that we want to do. But it’s hard for an independent like me to do what I want to do anyway, because it generally doesn’t click with what most studios are looking for.”
Copyright 2004 Steve Biodrowski
RELATED ARTICLE: George Romero on “Diary of the Dead”
By Randall D. Larson
George Romero’s celebrated Dead series has taken as much of a musical evolution as it has a cinematic one. From the classic black-and-white original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with its snippets of tracks culled from music libraries that provided a surprisingly organic musical accompaniment, to the heavy rock beats and pervasive synthetic atmospheres of DAWN OF THE DEAD (composed by the Italian rock band Goblin) and DAY OF THE DEAD (scored by composer and now director John Harrison), through the compelling synthetic sound design of composers Reinhold Heil (RUN LOLA RUN) and Johnny Klimek in LAND OF THE DEAD, Romero’s wicked soundscape has risen and fallen with his reanimated brain-munching cadavers. The latest Romero zombie epic, DIARY OF THE DEAD, recently released on DVD, revisits the franchise with a fresh viewpoint. Continue reading “The Score: Norman Orenstein’s Diary of the Dead”
It is one of those weeks: almost everything released for home video – at least when it comes to cinefantastique – is either an old title being repackaged or some obscure direct-to-video property of little interest. Fortunately, there is at least one big, bright shiny piece of news for horror fans: the DVD release of George A. Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD, which received a small, platform theatrical release earlier this year. On the “Dimension Extreme” label (which emphasizes visceral horror titles, often direct-to-video), the DVD includes several bonus features: a look behind the scenes; a makeing-of featurette; a visit to the set; plus and audio commentary by Romoero, cinematographer Adam Swica, and editor Michael Doherty. Continue reading “Laserblast: Romero's Dead Rise Again”
Grapevine, Texas is one of numerous communities that surround the gargantuan Dallas/Ft Worth International Airport. They exist in a symbiotic relationship; the airport brings thousands of short-stay passengers into the area each day, and the communities provide hotels, restaurants, and a preponderance of the writ-large shopping experience that one would expect from Texas. While there isn’t much in the way of specific character to the area (a trait that large airports rarely inspire), sometimes people bring their own – and that’s precisely what happened at the Texas Frightmare Weekend. The large scale horror convention is a relatively recent phenomenon, gaining steadily in popularity in larger cities on the East and West coast for the last few decades. And while in terms of size and attendance, the TFW is still the little brother to the Chiller and Fangoria cons – it’s also free of many of their pitfalls.
The TFW kicked off in earnest on Thursday, Feb 21st with a 40th anniversary screening of a film that, for many people, represents ground zero for the modern horror film – NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Presented in conjunction with AFI Dallasat the Inwood theater; the TFW gathered much of the original cast together, including Judith O’Dea (Barbara), Russ Streiner (Johnny), Bill Hinzman, (1st graveyard zombie), George Kosana (the Sheriff, whose line “They’re dead, there…all messed up” ignited a deafening audience reaction), Kyra Schon (Karen), co-writer John Russo, and, of course, George A Romero. Amazingly, Marilyn Eastman (Helen), unable to attend the screening after injuring her ribs in a bad fall, actually made the rest of the convention from a wheelchair!
The Inwood has been part of the Landmark Theaters chain since 1988, and along with sister theater, the Magnolia, provide Dallas with an enviable art-house experience. Though the strip mall that houses it will set few hearts aflutter, once under the gleaming marquee you feel like whoever runs the joint is there for the same reason you are. Remaining non-believers (and sober correspondents) should be set right by the Inwood Lounge located in the theater lobby. Why more theaters don’t follow this example is puzzling – any seat that isn’t spinning is a good one.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has been brining in American pop-culture for 4 decades; few horror film have soaked up as much allegorical encumbrance, and fewer still are able to bear up under the scrutiny. Romero has never said that the casting of African-American Duane Jones was anything other than a case of ‘right man, right part’, but color blind casting was a rare bird in 1968, and even popular stars like Sidney Poitier rarely found roles where he was free from embodying the noble suffering of his race at every turn. After all, a black actor in a leading role in a motion picture had to mean something, right? And what of the zombies themselves? What dark aspect of our society does the lurching army of the undead represent? The redneck zombie-hunting parties? (well, that one isn’t too hard…)
NIGHT was made in 1968, unquestionably one of the more turbulent years in our history. With an unpopular war raging abroad, assassinations taking the lives of popular, progressive leaders, and rampant student protests tearing up both college campuses and city streets – could it really be called just a horror film? Thankfully, there is no single answer; NIGHT is teeming with political meaning – all you have to do is lightly scratch the surface. One could argue that the ultimate fate of Duane Jones’ character speaks far more eloquently on the (then) current state of race relations than other, more meaningful films (GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, long considered the ne plus ultra of late ’60s liberal film-making, now plays painfully stilted).
But most importantly, NIGHT is still a gangbusters horror film. The B&W cinematography perfectly captures the textures of a nightmare – compare this to the dreamy, albeit rambling tone of CARNIVAL OF SOULS, a film we have yet to remain awake through a complete run of (current record – 40min!). And unlike the vast majority of films in the genre, the acting is uniformly good. Low budget horror films are much like life rafts in a storm; all it takes is for one performer – lead or supporting – whose reach exceeds their grasp and everyone goes into the drink. Duane Jones (whose CV prior to NIGHT is non-existent) in particular provides immeasurable gravitas to a film that rarely stops to provide its characters with back story or motivation.
The 40th Anniversary print that is currently making the rounds looks little better than one of Romero’s re-animated corpses; many fans of the film are still surprised to learn that NIGHT was indeed shot on 35mm film. After the Walter Reade Organization filed to copyright the film (an error which likely cost them far more in revenue over the years than Romero) it fell into the public domain. Since the dawn of the home video age in the early 80s, bargain bins around the world have been filled with inferior copies of the film, as there was no need to pay royalties. It wasn’t until 1995, when Elite Entertainment undertook a painstaking restoration of the film for a laserdisc release, that an acceptable edition of the film made it into the hands of the public – and what they produced was nothing short of a revelation. Nearly 3 decades of neglect was wiped away, allowing fans who hadn’t even been born in 1968 the chance to see the film as originally intended.
This restoration, however, was of the video master only; restoring a 35mm print is another (considerably more expensive) matter entirely. The contrast of the AFI print was poor, and much fine detail has been lost to time. The soundtrack pops and sizzles like a burning breakfast, and there are enough frame dropouts to constitute a second feature – and none of it mattered one blessed bit. While some films have trouble surviving a sub-par presentation, NIGHT almost seems to thrive on it; the flickering, unstable image plays like an extended newsreel clip of some narrowly avoided apocalyptic event. Romero’s future installments to his zombie oeuvre were far slicker (and in the case of 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, arguably better) but none pack NIGHT’s raw, rough punch. The only demonstrable glitch was the in the projection: NIGHT was photographed in the Academy Ratio of 1.37 and has been correctly presented ‘flat’ (without letterboxing bars) on all home video releases. For some reason, the projectionist chose to frame the film for 1.85 and cut off significant portions of the top and bottom of the screen. I didn’t hear anyone else mention it, but anyone familiar with the film must have noticed the cramped compositions forced onto it. Romero, who has probably seen the film plenty of times, left before the screening began – but it was strange (and embarrassing) for this to happen under the auspices of the AFI.
Romero and his cast took the stage for a Q&A that was rather surprisingly hosted by fellow Frightmare guest Malcolm McDowell (McDowell was certainly game, but it was obvious that he had never seen the film before and was fulfilling pre-arranged convention duties). They discussed their company’s humble beginnings in Pittsburgh, the initial hostile reaction to the film – and a story I’ve not heard before: while driving to NYC with Russ Streiner to meet with the Walter Reade people, the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination broke on the radio. Romero sheepishly confessed that now they might “really have something” with the casting of Jones. It was a great evening, and a wonderful kickoff to the weekend.