Synopsis: 30 years ago in the quiet Pennsylvania countryside, the dead began to walk. Fueled by an insatiable hunger for living human flesh, the ghouls ghastly quest inadvertently brought together six strangers whose inability to unite would ultimately lead to their tragic downfall.
To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the cult classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had been expanded and enhanced. So turn out the lights, board up the widows and get ready for an all new experience with THE definitive horror film of all time.
eyelights: Scott Vladimir Licina’s new score. its new perspective on the zombie attack.
eyesores: its discrepant new footage. its anachronisms.
“We are being punished for our sins! The dead are rising, and Judgment Day is upon us!”
I’m a HUGE fan of ‘Night of the Living Dead‘; in fact, it’s the movie I have the most versions of. When one of my best friends showed up one night with a used Blockbuster Video copy of the picture, neither of us had any idea of the tremendous impact that it would have.
On me, at least.
Afterwards, I obviously had to seek out George A. Romero’s other ‘Dead’ movies. Then I gradually picked up the rest of his oeuvre. And when he decided to add a second trilogy to his ‘Dead’ series, I was immediately on board. One could say that I’ve become a Romero fan.
All this because of that screening of ‘Night of the Living Dead’.
When, in 1998, John A. Russo, the co-author of the picture, decided to celebrate the picture’s 30th anniversary by re-releasing it, I was immediately curious. But I barely knew the picture, let alone the people involved at the time (Wikipedia didn’t yet exist, after all!)
So I bought the limited, numbered edition DVD/CD set.
When I watched it, I was surprised to find out that this edition was not the original: Russo had decided to update it to give it a more modern flavour; he’d replaced some of the film with new footage, added a completely new score and edited the picture a bit more briskly.
I liked it. How could one not like ‘Night of the Living Dead’.
But it wasn’t the same.
The new footage didn’t blend in seamlessly, for one; clearly, it wasn’t shot on the same equipment and had a brighter, less filmic quality. The staging and the performances weren’t really in keeping with Romero’s original either. It wasn’t bad; it was just awkward.
Looking at it now, the new footage is as B-grade as the original, but of a more modern variety; the performances weren’t always stellar in the original, but they were sincere. Here we get the impression that these actors were maybe being ironic in their portrayals.
Were they purposely being bad? Were they going for “camp”?
It’s hard to say.
Be that as it may, it’s hard to argue that they’re any worse than Judith O’Dea’s jaw-droppingly offbeat performance as Barbara. Seriously, let’s be honest for a moment: only Duane Jones is truly stellar in the original picture. So the delivery here isn’t far off.
One could, however, criticize the new material: the new opening footage essentially provides us with an origin story to Bill Hinzman’s Cemetery Living Dead, new zombies were added to the old ones, and there’s a newly-minted religious spin on the proceedings.
- The origins of the Cemetery Living Dead: Though it’s completely superfluous, adding little to our understanding of the plot or its characters, I do find this new intro interesting in that it punches up the opening – which originally consisted of Johnny and Judy driving endlessly.
And the Cemetery guy doesn’t just come out of nowhere now – though one could argue that not knowing where he’s from makes it scarier, especially since it isn’t initially clear that he’s a threat. In this new version, it’s established before Judy and Johnny see him that he’s undead.
The worst of it, really, is that Bill Hinzman wasn’t the same man he was 30 years prior: back then, he was gaunt, making him seem more corpse-like, creepier. By 1998, he’d clearly gained some weight and looked very little like his former self. This footage of him doesn’t blend in.
Clearly, Russo couldn’t afford a CGI effects team of Disney caliber.
- The new zombies: I guess this was done more for fun than anything, but Russo shot extra footage of zombies making their way to and encircling the farmhouse. I don’t necessarily mind, aside for the fact that the footage doesn’t blend in and there’s a moment when the camera stays still while an endless stream of them walk past. So much for punching up the picture.
- The religious spin: At the onset, the Cemetery Living Dead is established as having just been executed for the grisly murder of a little girl. There’s talk of why he wasn’t simply cremated and the victim’s parents are present for the burial, for closure. They disagree with the priest’s assertion that he must pray for the man’s soul, causing some tension.
Towards the end, the priest (who is played by new score composer Scott Vladimir Licina) is interviewed by a journalist and he’s saying that it’s Judgement Day, that God is punishing us all for our sins. When Hinzman’s character suddenly shows up, the priest tries to pray for him but is attacked and bitten – before some of the militia shoot the zombie dead.
Fast forward a year later, and he’s still alive. He contends that prayer, and the fact that a couple tended to his wound with holy water, saved him. He is even more adamant that our faith in God’s power is the only thing that can save us from the fiery pits of Hell.
This is not at all in keeping with the original film, but given that the Religious Right was gaining traction in the ’90s, this was as topical as the Civil Rights theme was in the original. In fact, though it’s easy to dismiss, it seems like a contextually suitable take.
- The edits: The picture has a much brisker pace, due to the removal of some of the longer bits, including exposition and atmosphere. This is in keeping with a more modern film, but it changes the vibe of the original dramatically. One feels less isolated in the house, less desperate.
Further to that, the way it’s cut, Ben’s murder of Mr. Cooper feels less justified; there isn’t the same tension-building between them. One also gets the impression that Cooper is pig-headed, but not necessarily as much of an @$$hole; killing him doesn’t come from survival more so than reprisal.
- The soundtrack: The original film made use of pre-recorded music, which was perfectly fine for the era and genre, but it’s hardly a compelling score. For the 30th Anniversary Edition, Russo hired Scott Vladimir Licina to contribute a more cohesive score, incorporating it to some remnants of the original.
Personally, I’m a big fan of it. Though it’s anachronistic, with its synths, the plodding keyboard theme (or “march”) is reminiscent of such compositions as John Carpenter’s main theme for ‘Halloween‘. It’s catchy, it’s sinister, it creates atmosphere. And it ties the whole picture together pretty nicely.
In fact, the soundtrack CD, which came with the DVD, has been one of my biggest go-tos whenever I want to play atmospheric horror film music (I edited out the film soundbites so that it’s only music, mind you). I truly think that Licina’s score need to be reconsidered as a valid work all on its own.
I know that the 30th Anniversary Edition wasn’t at all well-received by fans and critics. It’s always hard to accept the apparent mauling of a legendary work. But I’m arguing that this is no less valid than the George Lucas edits of the original ‘Star Wars‘ films.
Or the many cuts of ‘Blade Runner‘.
Yes, some of the choices made weren’t for the best. But some work. And given that it’s intended to be a 1998 vision of the picture, not a 1968 one, it’s defensible. If the movie had been made in 1998, in black and white, it probably would have ended up much like this.
What I’m saying is that the 30th Anniversary Edition of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is merely another way to look at the film. And, frankly, as a huge fan of ‘NOTLD’, I like having a different take on it – so long as the original is available (a huge oversight of this DVD!).
This is basically ‘NOTLD (John Russo remix)’. You may not think it’s better than the Romero version, but it’s interesting to see what was done with it. And it actually succeeds in fulfilling Russo’s intentions: it’s a more fast-paced, energetic, modern perspective.
Much like ‘Zombi’ is to ‘Dawn of the Dead’.
It’s certainly not better than the original – I would never argue that, being the fan that I am.
But it’s entertaining in its own right.
Date of viewing: August 18, 2017