This may finally be the definitive release of George Romero and John Russo's influential zombie film. After years of bad VHS and cheap DVD releases, Elite's new transfer, made from the original 35mm negative elements, with a cleaned up and remixed 5.1 soundtrack, is just amazing.
Great care was taken to ensure the original depth of the film's grey levels were retained in the digital transfer. Best examples are the various daytime shots, where Judith O'Dea stumbles through thickets and open fields, heading toward the farmhouse that becomes the battleground between humans and the living dead. A careful balance is maintained between image sharpness and noise reduction, so the overall transfer doesn't suffer from obvious filtering, which can smoothen objects (a flaw that often plagues older DVD transfers). Granted, because of the film's dynamic editing, there aren't too many night shots which linger long enough to test the active bit rate, but Elite's THX-approved transfer yields solid blacks, clean shades of grey, and crisp whites.
Though the film's sound elements were always in mono, the Dolby 5.1 remix essentially cleans up the soundtrack, adding stereophonic reverb to the rear surrounds, and a few directional effects (like passing a car) for the front surrounds.
Carried over from the original Elite laserdisc, and the label's first DVD release, are dual commentary tracks, each consisting of a group of "Dead" participants. Apparently recorded with an omni-directional microphone, the voice levels are uneven, with someone in the back often unintelligible. Fans of the "Dead" films and Romerorites will probably enjoy the apocrypha which dominate the tracks, but there's just too much minor information - often repeated - that makes for an uneven listening experience. The movie and two commentary tracks make up for almost 300 minutes of viewing/listening time; it's a substantial chunk to devote for occasional historic production nuggets, buffered with lengthy minutia, such as participants point out former clients, friends and family members who appear as zombies. Given the two tracks were recorded for the laserdisc - one of Elite's early releases - any effort to re-edit the tracks into a more fluid narrative would no doubt have been attacked by fans, particularly after the recent revisionist "Night" DVD, fashioned by co-writer John Russo, which remains a controversial example of Lucasification. Elite's complete presentation, therefore, gives surviving participants the opportunity to voice their memories, but even ardent fans may find their finger inching towards the remote's shuttle button once in a while.
John Russo's treatment and script (taken from the only known copy held by Marilyn "Helen Cooper" Eastman), and a Personal Scrapbook and Memorabilia gallery (featuring press clippings, telegrams, letters, diary notations, stills and PR bios) fill out the text and graphic galleries. Theatrical and TV trailers - with flesh munching and a decomposing head - round out the film's publicity gallery. Taken from older video transfers, the trailers are a bit soft and worn, but demonstrate the filmmaker's attempts to fuse standard exploitation marketing with the still shots and fast editing used in their commercial productions.
As with all cult films, interviews with stars are an expected bonus, and Elite includes a 1988 audio interview with the late Duane Jones (accompanied by stills), in which the actor discusses his pride of being a part of cinema history, and the trappings of being recognized and pursued over the years with the same level of questions (like, "Did you eat real flesh?"). Judith ("Judy") Ridley is interviewed by Marilyn Eastman around the same time, and in spite of a slow start, the single camera set-up pays off with some amusing recollections. (Mind you, the final questions regarding the fate of her wardrobe, including sandals, is just kinda weird.)
Elite's DVD also contains a trio of short material: the funny parody "Night of the Living Bread" (effectively recreating, yet synthesizing, the original "Night," using volumes of fine white, untoasted bread); a rather curious inclusion of silent outtake material from a negligible short titled "The Derelict," starring Karl Hardman; and scene excerpts from Judith Ridley's second film, "There's Always Vanilla." (Released in 1971 as "The Affair," the colour snippets show characters in the midst of a commercial TV shoot, and though directed by George Romero, no other info is provided as to the film's history, or "lost" fate.)
The DVD's final extras - some new to this release - create a vivid portrait of the film's production, often placing it as an episode in the evolution and careers of people who, during the 1960s, came together and formed The Latent Image and Hardman/Eastman Productions - two of Pittsburg's best-known commercial production houses. Text menus and produced examples (namely eight 1-minute TV commercials; some quite funny) show creative pros that used television and radio as platforms to become filmmakers outside of the Hollywood system - strategies that still provide foundation for today's new filmmakers. In that regard, Elite's excellent "Dead" DVD should provide a little inspiration for the next wave of budding filmmakers.
Also available are two documentaries focusing exclusively on NOTLD: " Night of the Living Dead: 25th Anniversary Documentary" [M] (1993), and "Autopsy of the Dead" [M] (2009).
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan