Night of the Living the Dead is not just a horror classic, it’s a just plain classic film. It has left a permanent mark on modern day movies. If Psycho opened the door on film violence, then Night of the Living Dead collectively shoved movie goers in. The film is a true example of low budget genius, making the non existence of its budget a boon as opposed to a problem. It creates a documentary feel with its old cracked film stock, popping soundtrack, unreliable lighting, and simple, straightforward camera moves.
It all starts with a trip. Siblings Barbara and Johnny pick the wrong time to enter to a cemetery when "they" start attacking. Johnny is killed but Barbara makes it to an abandoned farm house. There she meets Ben, a tough, self-reliant black man who prepares the house for the worst. Hiding in the cellar are a few other people: A bickering family of three and two teenagers. More and more zombies come and the tension becomes completely unbearable. By the time the ridiculous explanation for the zombies reveals itself (Venus radiation brought back by a wayward space probe) you won't care. The characters are well developed and in his own strange way Ben is just as important to positive black characters in film as Mr. Tibbs.
As always though, the power of the film comes from Romero's instinctual sense of where taboo lines lie and just how far to push them. In this film we are bear witness to two golden boy teens being barbequed alive and then having their intestines and various cuts of meat heartily munched on. A little girl stabs her mother to death with garden shears and then feast on her remains. Barbara meets her brother again and in a terrifying confrontation he comes at her in a way that doesn't suggest fraternal love. Finally the movie ends by having the protagonist soaked in gasoline and burned to death. The great thing is that unlike other horror movies, Night of the Living Dead’s characters are fully aware that the taboo lines are being shattered. Watch the great reaction of the newsman as his interviewee tells his viewers to take their dead, soak them in gasoline "and just light them up". Or watch the uncomfortable sheriff who when being interviewed is finally is driven to "Well they're dead and they're all messed up.".
The tension and style of the film drive it though. To make it more realistic and give it the feel of some nightmare documentary, the lights are dim and unreliable. The zombies are hidden in deep shadow much of the time which enhances the somewhat minimalist makeup in a way that Dawn of the Dead could not. In one wonderfully effect-driven scene during the afore mentioned matricide, the little girl knocks down the overhead lamp which creates a strobe reacting, increasing the effectiveness of that scene.
Night of the Living Dead is a true classic. It’s nihilistic, funny, violent, scary, and just plain great filmmaking. It more then earns its place as one of the best films of all time.
The Elite Pictures release is a nice disc. It features two commentaries, the first of which has director George Romero, actor/producer John Russo, actor Karl Hardman, and actress Marilyn Eastman. Commentary Track B has Commentary actor/head zombie Bill Hinzman, actress Judith O'Dea, actor Keith Wayne, actress Kyra Schon, actor Russell Streiner, and production designer Vince Survinski. Both are fun. There's a humorous little parody entitled "Night of the Living Bread" which is surprisingly good. There are a few actors and some footage from the never finished Romero film "There's always Vanilla" and last but not least King includes some wonderful liner notes for the constant reader. As anyone familiar with his five hundred page geek out "Danse Macabre" knows that King is a huge fan of movies. All in all a nice set of features for this disc. A note on which edition to buy: This review is of the original cut of Night of the Living Dead. Not the 30th anniversary. The first Night of the Living Dead is a groundbreaking work of classic cinema that resonates as finely as Waterford Crystal right to this day. The 30th anniversary edition is the work of malevolent monkeys, monkeys with editing machines, crap new age white noise, and a knowledge of Public Domain. They should be ashamed for making it and Anchor Bay should be ashamed for releasing it. I really can't stress enough how hard you should work to avoid the 30th anniversary edition. Just picture your favorite movie. Go ahead, I'll wait. OK now just cut out random pieces, no rhyme or reason just randomly think of scenes. Now go shoot some scenes that totally don't fit and have no effect on the movie and release it on DVD. That's what that is.