Blu Notes: Night of the Living Dead ’90

It’s been 22 years since Tom Savini’s official remake (scripted by Romero himself) of the landmark 1968 horror Night of the Living Dead first reached theater screens, more than long enough for a certain nostalgia to build up around it. I must admit to having not much liked the film upon first seeing it, but in the years since I’ve developed a respect and even an affinity for it. As such I was eager to revisit Savini’s Night as film, but such a kerfuffle has erupted with regards to its Blu-ray presentation from Twilight Time that it’s utterly distracted from that process. So in lieu of a film review (one will follow later, I promise) here are my observations on the release itself.

To state the obvious, this presentation of Night of the Living Dead is significantly different, aesthetically, from any that has been made available before. There is typically no shortage of praise to be found in these pages for Sony’s archive restoration department, but their approach here certainly raises questions. Given Sony’s usual approach (either to work directly with someone involved with the production to develop the film’s aesthetic on video, or to go by past knowledge – release prints, etc.) it’s difficult to imagine the changes here passing muster without the approval of someone involved in the original production, though just who that might have been remains unknown (edit to add: The source is evidently a 2010 HD master minted with the involvement of DP Frank Prinzi. Thanks, internet!). What is known is that Tom Savini has now given his approval to the Blu-ray’s new look, making the answers to what’s “right” or “wrong” with Night of the Living Dead‘s appearance rather more ambiguous.

Now for the changes. The first major alteration to how the film has appeared begins almost as soon as the film does. The first twenty minutes of the film, straight daytime sequences in all past editions, now shift from daylight to day-for-night (or twilight, more specifically) over the course of Barbara’s opening flight from the cemetery and the early events at the farmhouse. Colors cool, contrast flattens, and darkness pervades. It’s a dramatic difference in comparison to past editions, and one I can’t say that I’m really enamored with. The problem here is that the shift just doesn’t work within the previously existing language of the film, which is veritably screaming daytime (the ambient soundtrack, full of chirping birds, is a good example) even as the new timing tells us otherwise. Minor details unnoticed before, like Ben arriving with his truck lights off, now pose problems for the new continuity, and what of the film’s montage noting the changeover from day to night? It’s still here, of course, calling into question the whole rationale of artificially clarifying a point the film already makes.

While those first 20 minutes mark the most significant diversion from the past, the rest of the film has been treated as well. The whole appearance has been flattened, from the contrast to the color, leaving the majority of the picture with a darkened and dulled, almost antique appearance. While I don’t find the overall effect objectionable within the context of the film I do find the dimness of the white levels a bit of a distraction. Areas of the image that should be hot (flood lights, a basement lamp, muzzle flashes, even the film’s one big explosion) are unnaturally cold and grey, as though the image were being projected with a defective bulb. The same (or at least a similar) effect has been applied to the daylight sequence that closes the film, lending it a similar quality to “flashed” pictures like Deliverance and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Aside from the alterations Sony’s transfer appears sound, presenting with a very healthy level of detail and a consistent, refined layer of film grain that only rarely descends into noisiness. The image appears free of the usual brand of digital tampering, with no evidence of edge enhancement or adverse noise reduction, though the new color filtering has resulted in some unpalatable posterization effects at times (see the zombie’s face and surrounding sky in the sample below). Twilight Time have given Sony’s contentious HD master a healthy technical backing – the video is encoded Mpeg-4 AVC at a reasonable average bitrate of 26.8 Mbps, and compression artifacts are never an issue.

The audio will prove another sticking point for many. Sony, typically quite astute in their mastering of surround remixes, obviously weren’t paying quite as much attention here, and at least one key sound effect – the shutter click heard over the closing credits montage – is absent from the mix entirely (I can’t vouch for any other missing bits as I’m just not that familiar with the film). Otherwise the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track sounds quite good, with Paul McCollough’s electronic score (also available as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track) given substantially more room to breath than in more compressed past editions. Per the usual for Twilight Time’s Sony-licensed titles, optional English SDH subtitles are included. The release arrives with a Tom Savini audio commentary (ported over from the older DVD) as well as the original theatrical trailer in HD, and Julie Kirgo contributes another fine booklet of liner notes.

Twilight Time went out of their comfort zone in responding to fan requests and releasing Night of the Living Dead ’90 on Blu-ray, and while it’s a shame that the release hasn’t matched expectations the outrage that’s developed against it has been a little… well… outrageous. The label is doing their part in accepting returns from the unsatisfied customers, and otherwise there’s always the bloated resell market (this limited edition was out of print before it was even released, and is already fetching lofty prices from third party scalpers). I consider it fortunate that Night‘s sellout status has alleviated some of the pressure on me for a yea or nay recommendation. Personally speaking, I can live with the disc even as much as I don’t care for some of the changes – I’ve been relying on a decades-old VHS up until now and my pack-rat home media sensibilities mean it’s always there if I need it. Those looking to purchase are encouraged to know what they’re getting into1, particularly at the current going rates. Director Tom Savini has approved of it and I may be fine with it as well, but it’s ultimately up to your personal preferences, and mileage will vary.

1 I realize this wasn’t an option for most, as the title sold out before reviews were even possible. This is the assumed risk of limited edition collecting – either buy early, with the possibility of being disappointed by the eventual result, or wait for coverage and risk paying out the nose.

Blu-ray screenshots were taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Night of the Living Dead was reviewed from a screener graciously provided to this site by Twilight Time.

Blu vs. Blu: Night of the Living Dead

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:

Optimum Home Entertainment
UK / BD-25 / 01:35:52
video: 1080p / 4:3 / black and white
audio: English / DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono
no subtitles / Region B-locked
supplement: One for the Fire documentary
available for purchase through Amazon UK
Network
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:

 

Night of the Living Dead

rating:
company: Image Ten
and The Latent Image
year: 1968
runtime: 96′
director: George A. Romero
cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea,
Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman,
Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley,
Kyra Schon, S. William Hinzman
writers: John A. Russo
and George A. Romero
cinematography: George A. Romero
Order this film from Amazon.com

If you have yet to see Night of the Living Dead, I heartily recommend doing so – this review can wait.  The film is readily available for viewing at the Internet Archive, Youtube and similar sites thanks to its unfortunate copyright status and I’ve linked to my favorite of the many, many home video releases, Dimension’s recent 40th anniversary DVD edition, in the information to the left.  The screen grabs used in this review are sourced from that release.

Over four decades after its original release George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead still packs a nasty punch.  Initially marketed as a weekend matinee (a slot geared towards youngsters and frequently populated by more generic horror fare) by distributor Walter Reade, its difficult to imagine the impact Night‘s gruesome spectacle must have had when new or to quantify the scope of its importance to cinema as a whole.  This is the film the dragged its terrors out of the exotic far-flung locales and up from the secret basement laboratories of old and plopped them right into the lap of middle America.  This is the one that brought horror home.

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Survival of the Dead

rating:
company: Artfire Films,
Romero-Grunwald Productions and
Devonshire Productions
year: 2009
runtime: 90′
director: George A. Romero
cast: Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh,
Kathleen Munroe, Devon Bostick,
Richard Fitzpatrick, Athena Karkanis,
Stefano DeMatteo, Joris Jarsky
writers: George A. Romero
cinematography: Adam Swica
music: Robert Carli
Order this film from Amazon.com
Blu-ray | DVD

Survival of the Dead is currently out in limited theatrical release through Magnet Releasing, and is available for online rental or pre-order on Blu-ray and DVD through Amazon.com.

Oh no.  It’s the zombie-pocalypse.  Again.  People are dying, society is crumbling, and wi-fi coverage is spotty at best.  I’ll be the first to give George Romero credit for his accomplishments, and its hard to overstate his importance to independent film and modern existentialist horror.  But it’s been a long time since Romero’s ghouls first shambled ‘cross the silver screen.  Four decades and five sequels after the fact the people, places and things are all too familiar, and Romero’s once brave new zombiefied world is less compelling than ever before.

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The Crazies

rating:
companies:
Pittsburgh Films,
Latent Image and Cambist Films
year: 1973
runtime: 103′
country: United States
director: George A. Romero
cast: Lane Carroll, Will MacMillan,
Harold Wayne Jones, Lloyd Hollar,
Lynn Lowry, Richard Liberty,
Richard Francis, Harry Spillman,
Will Disney, Edith Bell,
Bill Thunhurst, Leland Stames
writers: Paul McCullough (original
script) and George A. Romero

cinematographer: Bill Hinzman
music: Bruce Roberts
special effects: Tony Pantanella
and Regis Survinski
order this film from Amazon.com:
VHS | SD DVD | Blu-ray

Things get a little crazy in Evans City, Pennsylvania after a germ warfare experiment crash-lands in the town water supply in this early thriller from director George A. Romero (Night of the Living DeadMartin).  Recently remade as a slick horror piece by Breck Eisner with an executive production assist from Romero himself (read our coverage of that film here), the original The Crazies plays less for chills than one might expect.

The story is relatively simple: The Army descends upon the quiet community of Evans City in full HAZMAT getup in an effort to contain an accidental outbreak of the experimental Trixie virus.  Epic miscommunication between the Army, civilians, and the scientists on the hunt for a vaccine causes no end of trouble, with the unprepared military suddenly finding themselves up against both the crazed infected and the understandably defensive citizens of the town.  Meanwhile a small group tries to escape the insanity, dodging military patrols while dealing with the crazies among their own . . .

There are horrific elements to Romero’s The Crazies to be sure.  The opening plays as a repeat of that from Night of the Living Dead, with a young boy trying to scare his sister through ghoulish behavior.  Things soon take a turn for the serious, as the boy’s father loses his mind and sets fire to the property.  Later displays of insanity, a priest’s self-immolation in front of his church, an elderly woman treating a soldier as so much knitting, and a father lusting after his teenage daughter, make for indelible images as powerful as anything from the earlier Night . . . but are few and far between.

The step down in horror means a step up in action, the uneasy balance between the two marking The Crazies‘ place as a bridge between the better-known horror classics that bookend it.  Scenes of the Army bursting into homes unannounced and the gun battles that ensue are highly evocative of the tenement scene early on in Dawn of the Dead, with one major difference:  The tenement residents in Dawn know that they’ve been breaking the law in keeping their dead in the basement of their building – no one bothers to tell the citizens of The Crazies why they’re suddenly finding themselves under martial law.  It’s no surprise when factions of the town, crazed and sane, take up arms against what they see as an anonymous invasionary force.

Made as the war in Vietnam was in its death throws and opposition to it was at its height, the image of the US military in The Crazies is not a terribly kind one.  Soldiers are seen stealing from invaded homes as well as from the corpses of dead, for instance.  The commentary here seems to be more about individual indiscretion under extreme circumstances (a big part of the later Dawn of the Dead) than a condemnation of the military as a whole, here presented as an organization of working men who are every bit as confused about what they’re doing in Evans City as the citizens are about their being there.  Hogtied by bureaucracy and a lack of both supplies and manpower, it’s no small wonder that the containment operation devolves into madness so quickly.

The real villains (the only villains, in fact) of the piece are the politicians and generals at the top of the food chain.  They’re first priority is to put a nuclear weapon in the skies over the quarantined city, a decision that has more to do with saving face (biological warfare experiments are obviously a no-no) than containing the infection.  Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain seems a likely inspiration for these sequences, with those in charge sitting in a room far from the center of action with far more concern for their personal careers than anyone who might be affected by their decisions.  Romero adds a nice touch here, showing several of the group having snacks (an orange, a sandwich) as they glibly discuss the mass-murder of a few thousand civilians.


Made for peanuts in his native Pennsylvania and on the streets of the real Evans City, The Crazies is an interesting if jumbled production from a Romero still trying to find his footing in the film world.  The biggest fault of the production is its kinetic editing sensibility, heavily influenced by Romero’s past as a commercial filmmaker.  What works well for scenes of action or horror leaves the drama tangled and, thanks to the low-budget audio recording, frequently unintelligible.  It’s not a bad film by any means, particularly given the considerable budgetary constraint, and there is still some prescience to the story (the corralling of displaced citizens into a high school gymnasium reminds of the Louisiana Superdome during and after hurricane Katrina).  It’s just not up to par with Romero’s better known works from the same time period, though the positives – strong performances and immediate, documentary-style photography – make up for the negatives.

The Crazies wasn’t a terrifically successful picture upon release in March of 1973 (it was even less successful when re-released as Code Name: Trixie a few years later) and hasn’t developed the same level of cult devotion Romero’s two contemporaneous zombie pictures.  Released twice previously on VHS by Vista Home Video and Anchor Bay respectively, Blue Underground has recently given the film the respect deserving of a lesser work from a horror icon.  Now available on both DVD and Blu-ray from the company, their editions come with excellent restored 1.66:1 framed anamorphic video as well as a nice array of supplements – including a commentary track with director Romero, a featurette on supporting actress Lynn Lowry (ShiversI Drink Your Blood), the usual trailers and television spots and an extensive stills gallery.  Suffice it to say, the Blue Underground editions are the ones to own.

There are more than enough reasons for genre fans to see this one – the director, the supporting cast (Richard Liberty (Day of the Dead), Richard France (Dawn of the Dead) and the aforementioned Lynn Lowry), the memorable moments of craziness.  Though rife with imperfections Romero’s goal of creating a timely action / horror / thriller is achieved all the same, and The Crazies ’73 is still a far more intriguing beast than its recent remake will ever be.  Recommended.

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VHS | SD DVD | Blu-ray

The Crazies

rating:
companies:
Overture Films, Participant
Media, Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ,
Penn Station and Road Rebel
year: 2010
runtime: 101′
country: United States
director: Breck Eisner
cast: Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell,
Joe Anderson, Danielle Panabaker,
Christie Lynn Smith, Brett Rickaby,
Preston Bailey, John Aylward,
Joe Reegan, Glenn Morshower
writers: Scott Kosar
and Ray Wright
cinematographer: Maxime Alexandre
music: Mark Isham
out in wide release

A germ warfare experiment crash-lands in the water supply for the sleepy community of Ogden Marsh in this modestly budgeted redux of George Romero’s sardonic 1973 thriller.  The new The Crazies wisely avoids rehashing the events of the original outright, though a few moments of slick horror aren’t enough to cover for the fact that the Scott Kosar and Ray Wright screenplay has precious little on its mind.

The story this go around focuses squarely on sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant, Live Free or Die Hard) and his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell, Pitch Black, Surrogates), who are expecting their first child.  The intrusion of a shotgun-toting maniac into a high school baseball game announces the arrival of Trixie, a destructive virus engineered by those maniacal masterminds working for the big-G Government.  It isn’t long before other townspeople are showing signs of infection, glassy stares and questionable behavior (some reminiscent of the M. Night Shyamalan misfire The Happening).  Just as sheriff David and deputy Russell (Joe Anderson, Amelia, The Ruins) start to put the pieces of the Trixie puzzle together the town is cast into darkness, an all-encompassing communications blackout announcing the arrival of the film’s second villain: the big-M Military.

Soon David, his wife and his faithful deputy are on the road, doing their best (and failing) to avoid the likes of crazed gun-toting hillbillies and the anonymous forces of the gas-masked Military on their way to Cedar Rapids.  They meet others along the way of course – one of Judy’s patients, her boyfriend, and the less-than-friendly new management of a rural car wash – none of whom are terribly important.  The film wastes no time in dispensing with them by means of pitchfork-armed high school staff or squads of Army-issue goons.

Breck Eisner’s The Crazies hits upon several of the high points of the 1973 film, updating the house-fire opener of that picture to good effect, but eschews the military perspective entirely (a huge part of the original, which focused on the inefficacy of government bureaucracy at the time of the Vietnam War), a perspective that could have added some prescience to this by-the-books horror programmer in the wake of hurricane Katrina and in the midst of two wars in the Middle East.  Instead we get an anonymous Military machine that, in obvious allusion to the Nazis, rounds the towns population into cattle trucks and concentration camps in preparation for mass extermination.  Yikes.  A soldier momentarily captured by David and his cohorts even enlists the Nuremberg defense after helping to gun down a teen-aged boy and his mother: “We were just following orders.”  There can be little doubt as to who is supposed to be perceived as more dangerous – the Military or the crazies – with a fuel-air bomb hanging over our protagonists’ heads.

The “military = bad” trope has been repeated in films ad-nauseum for as long as this reviewer can remember, and while it probably still works for plenty of people it’s my biggest complaint against the picture.  One thing we can be thankful for, however, is the exclusion of a scheming uniformed baddie behind it all.  Whoever is behind the quarantine operation in Ogden Marsh is left graciously unexplored, and one irksome genre pratfall avoided.

The other villains of the piece, those poor souls unfortunate enough to have become infected with the Trixie bug, are utterly unremarkable in design, with Eisner choosing to take his cues from the overflowing cornucopia of blandness that is modern zombie cinema.  The crazies sprout sores, puffy veins and discolored eyes, an aesthetic far too familiar to be in the least big frightening on its own.  Crafty implementation could have solved that particular issue, but no dice.  Eisner telegraphs his scares far in advance and allows too many of the horrific setups to devolve into outright silliness, leaving The Crazies sorely lacking in real visceral thrills.  Gore is actually quite limited here, and those expecting buckets of exposed inner organs may be disheartened.  Here I find myself giving Eisner considerable credit, for depending on the horror of the situation over graphic visuals.  A pitchfork to the gut is no less terrible a prospect without the sight of intestines flailing about.

Eisner seems more adept at action than horror here, with the slow-motion tumbling of an SUV proving one of the highlights of the picture.  His handling of the dramatics is adept if not particularly brilliant, and it’s the believability of the small-town characters that ultimately lifts The Crazies above merely average.  The cast do well in their respective roles even if no one (as is the case with much of the picture) stands out.  The fictitious Ogden Marsh may be no substitute for the real Evans City of the original, but it’s Mayberry-esque main street appeal is not to be underestimated.  The intrusion of HAZMAT-suited military men upon Rockwellian America is still a vision both surreal and effective, though it is a pity more wasn’t done with it.

I feel it important to note that I did enjoy The Crazies by and large, even if I have no desire to see it again.  Neither memorable or really effective, it’s still better than most horror programmers these days.  The crowd I was with was certainly entertained (admittedly much more-so than myself), even with a baby cooing and giggling  throughout.  The best thing about the picture may be Romero’s place as its executive producer – he’ll undoubtedly see a decent payday for his troubles.  This new The Crazies may be entirely forgettable, but those on the lookout for a matinee’s worth of entertainment could certainly do worse.

Day of the Dead

Laurel [1985] 96′
country: United States
director: GEORGE ROMERO
cast: LORI CARDILLE, RICHARD LIBERTY,
cast: HOWARD SHERMAN, JOE PILATO

Im hot off the heels of having seen (most of) the straight-to-video monstrosity that is DAY OF THE DEAD 2008, which may well be the first zombie film in some 20 years to evoke in style, tone, and pacing the relentlessly absurd Italian actioners (Mattei/Fragasso’s ZOMBI 3 and Lenzi’s INCUBO SULLA CITTA CONTAMINATA particularly) that preceded it. Much less a remake than a late arriving cash in on the problematic but generally successful DAWN OF THE DEAD reboot from 2003, this latest in a long line of completely disposable video store filler has, none-the-less, given me reason to revisit the much-maligned Romero vehicle that was its inspiration.

Civilization is wearing more than a little thin in 1985′s DAY OF THE DEAD, with only pockets of humanity surviving in isolation from the masses of the undead. Of those who remain, only one group is detailed – a motley assortment of military men and civilian researchers who have locked themselves away in an underground storage facility (a la NIGHT OF THE COMET) in a last ditch effort to end the zombie epidemic, now well beyond control, and salvage what they can of human society. But with supplies and tempers running shorter every day, the group seems increasingly doomed from within.

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