A couple of notes before starting. Firstly, this is strictly to be a comparison of the two most readily available Blu-ray editions for George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead - a film that’s been scaring the hell out of me since I was in grade school. For those interested in my thoughts on the film itself, this article should do the trick.
Second, I had hoped to cover the domestic Forgotten Films Blu-ray release of the film as well, but the $17+shipping asking price at Amazon is just too rich for my blood given a company with zero reputation and a product that is almost destined to fall below my standards (even for a low budget horror nearly 45 years old). If anyone out there has a copy they wouldn’t mind lending out for a few days I’d be happy to include coverage of it here. Otherwise I’ll post about it when I get around to it, but given the money I already have tied up in pre-orders that’s not likely to be anytime soon. UPDATE: I have reviewed the Forgotten Films Blu-ray here. That gray market release has copied the transfer from the Optimum release, trimmed the film (!) for dubious purposes, and presents with no extras other than a worthless slideshow of screenshots from the film itself. Skip it.
Third, this article may become a bit more involved than my usual Blu-ray coverage, and to prevent any confusion as to which edition I’m discussing the discs will be referred to, in bold, by the name of the company that released them: Network and Optimum for the two Blu-rays, and with reference to past DVD editions, Dimension (40th Anniversary Edition) and Elite (Millennium Edition).
Now, onto the details of the two discs to be reviewed:
UK / BD-25 / 01:35:12
video: 1080p / 4:3 / black and white
audio: English / 16-bit LPCM 2.0 Mono
no subtitles / All Region Compatible
supplemnt: Original Trailer (HD)
available for purchase through Amazon UK
First things first – let’s talk about sources. The Optimum Blu-ray of Night of the Living Dead is sourced from the very same high definition master that was struck for Dimension‘s 40th Anniversary Edition DVD in 2008 (the Elite Millennium Edition DVD, by contrast, was authored from the SD master that company had originally prepared for Laserdisc and VHS issue in the 1990s). The 2008 master is sourced from the original 35mm negatives, as was the earlier Elite master. The 2008 master used by Optimum has also been sourced for Blu-ray releases in Japan, France, Spain and elsewhere.
The Network Blu-ray, by contrast, is sourced from a new proprietary HD master struck from a 35mm theatrical release print, and features a super-imposed credit for Movielab (one of the producers of prints for the film’s initial theatrical runs) in the opening titles. No other disc that I’m aware of is sourced from Network‘s master. Interestingly, though both the Optimum and Network editions are framed at the proper 1.33:1, the latter offers substantially more information on all sides of the frame in comparison to the former. This appears to be a result of zooming of the Dimension master at the transfer level (that company’s DVD is framed in the same manner), and is not indicative of manipulation on Optimum‘s part.
For those familiar with the Dimension DVD’s precise presentation (tight framing aside), the Optimum Blu-ray offers much the same, only with the expected uptick in clarity and detail. Textures are quite impressive, from the wood grain in the comparison above to the thread patterns of clothes and furniture to the subtle details of human flesh (un-dead and otherwise). Damage is at low levels throughout, though the minor scratches and speckling of the source elements are more readily noticeable in this HD iteration. Contrast is at healthy levels throughout, with a nice array of gray tones, with only a bit of posterization here and there to distract. A fine grain is in evidence throughout, and soundly rendered by the Mpeg-4 AVC video encode (at an average bitrate of 20.6 Mbps). The image maintains its filmic quality even on close inspection (zooming in 3-4x) with negligible encoding artifacts. Most importantly, Optimum‘s presentation is fully uncut, running just under 96 minutes with no missing footage (save for the final shot, but more on that in a moment).
Network‘s presentation is another beast all together, but I’m not totally averse to it. I grew up watching Night of the Living Dead from copies sourced from the same blown-out Movielab-produced theatrical elements as are utilized here, so the presentation tickles the nostalgic corners of my brain in the best of ways. This applies especially to the film’s unsettling closing credits sequence, which is rendered here just as it was theatrically (with the unfortunate omission of the final “The End” closing card). In all three of the other editions referenced here, and all of the other editions sourced from those same transfers, the zoomed-in still of a lit torch fades to black, before either cutting or fading to the final shot of the bonfire. The Dimension transfer gets things particularly wrong on this front, fading into this final shot a second or more later than it should. The Network transfer preserves the theatrical ending, with the screen flaring white as the torch still is “lit” and cutting to the shot of the bonfire lighting.
Still, one can’t let nostalgia get in the way of objectivity, and with the exception of the closing editing and the correct framing Network‘s presentation is, by virtue of its source alone, the inferior of Optimum‘s. Detail and textures remain at higher levels than SD can muster, but are mitigated by the blown-out contrast of the Movielab source print. The shadows are frightfully intense, and light areas of the frame can really blaze – fine detail is frequently lost to both. To be fair, this is exactly as I recall these theatrical prints looking, but for consumers of modern HD transfers, which typically harvest from the OCN, interpositive, or internegative, this appearance may come as quite a shock. Damage is considerable, from dust, dirt, and speckling to prominent vertical scratching (both black and white, meaning that at least some of this was printed right in). There is even some persistent emulsion bubbling towards the top center of the frame, further evidence of just how much care (not much) was taken by Movielab in minting the print to begin with.
This biggest issue with Network‘s presentation, however, is the amount of footage that’s missing (a little more than half a minute). Some of it amounts to a few frames lost to splices here and there, as at the end of the opening “An Image Ten Production” credit, though more substantial losses are also evident (a long shot of the truck driving through the zombie horde is cut quite short), particularly around the reel changes (as is the case with the late-film dialogue scene concerning Barbara’s crashed car, which is missing several lines). These Movielab prints have always been splicy, and I’d wager that most if not all of the ones that still exist are now incomplete, but it wouldn’t have been that much trouble to restore the more substantial losses from alternative sources. Indeed, I suspect Network may well have compounded the issue by removing some of the more excessively damaged frames outright – there’s not a reel change marker or splice to be seen, but the footage associated with them also appears to be gone.
Grain is at low levels, either by virtue of the multi-generation source or mitigation efforts on the part of Network, but the end result didn’t appear overly waxy or digital to these eyes (as is often the case with their HD masters of The Prisoner television series). Unfortunately the Mpeg-4 AVC video encode is of lesser stuff than Optimum‘s, and while the bitrate is only slightly lower (19.6 Mbps on average) artifacting is much more noticeable. It’s not to the point that it ever really distracted from my viewings, but it is there, and the larger you screen the disc the more obvious it will be.
Note: The screenshot comparison for this article is rather big, so I’ve opted to move it to the end of the text instead of its usual place here.
With regards to audio, the Optimum release is mastered from the better source and, as should be expected, sounds quite good in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 monophonic English. Dialogue has always been pretty flat throughout this film, a limitation of the original production, but the looped library music has some nice punch at times. Network‘s edition sounds better than I expected in 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic English, but is hindered by the limitations of both the production and the multi-generational source print. The loop score can still sound strong at times, but the track is thinner overall, and the pop and crackle expected of old theatrical prints can be heard at times. That said, the phasing issues that have plagued past Network audio restorations (Things to Come, The Prisoner) are blessedly absent. Neither disc offers subtitles, SDH or otherwise.
Neither release offers much of anything on the supplemental front either. Die-hard Night of the Living Dead fans no doubt already own the feature-length One For the Fire documentary, which was produced for the Dimension DVD in 2008 and amounts to the whole of the Optimum supplemental package. Network eschews anything substantial, but does offer a fresh 1080p transfer of the very rough, very high contrast theatrical trailer for the film. Network may win over on the packaging front, with an awesome original cover design and a style-consistent chapter listing on the interior side of the insert, but Optimum earn props for sticking by the excellent original poster work (They Won’t Stay Dead!). In terms of price each is quite affordable, with the the cost of import to the US (through Amazon UK) running roughly $15 for the Optimum Blu-ray and a slightly lower $13 for the more rustic Network, standard shipping included, at the time of this writing.
In the end I suspect it’s regional playback limitations that will decide for most of you – the Optimum is locked to Region B, while the Network is all-region compatible. For the rest I present the screenshot comparison below. For my part, I bought both, and am happy with each on their own merits. Anything beyond that is up to your personal preferences.
Blu-ray screenshots were taken as full 1920×1080 resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.
Optimum Home Entertainment Blu-ray | Network Blu-ray
Select the appropriate cover below to purchase the respective edition: