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.