Director: John A. Russo/George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O' Dea, Karl Hardman, Bill Hinzman
Night of the Living Dead is one of the greatest and most important horror films ever made. Not just did it completely alter the role of the zombie in popular culture, but it brought the horror film into modern times, kicking and screaming. The almost documentary approach, complete with grainy black and white photography, made for an unforgettably tense movie-going experience unlike any other. The use of violence and gore was unprecedented for the time, and was considered the most graphic horror film released up to that point. It also broke many taboos, including having a black actor as the main hero and an unexpected dark conclusion that left everyone who saw it, speechless.
Unfortunately, this low budget masterpiece earned virtually no money on it's initial release and fell into the public domain, where it can be found today in every other horror set that appears on the market. Director George Romero went on to great success afterward, however, and was able to extend his zombie mythology with a series of films, including the excellent, Dawn of the Dead(1979).
However, fellow screenwriter, John Russo, was not as lucky. He remained in Pittsburgh and made hardly anything notable, relying solely on his Night of the Living Dead fame. There's nothing wrong with that, considering the film's impact, for certainly it makes for a wonderful lifetime achievement. Sadly, Russo, producer Russel Streiner and actor Bill Hinzman, were not content with their permanent place in cinema history, though they took it upon themselves to make some dough in one of the most notorious cashgrabs in history. If you thought George Lucas was bad, you have not seen anything yet!
The producers decided to re-edit the original classic, by introducing fifteen minutes of newly shot footage, and a new music score. They could have just made another film in that universe, like another night of the living dead, focusing on other events that took place that memorable evening, but this was about money and no matter how it's cut, the result is a soulless scam.
The 30th Anniversary edition has been notorious for years, garnering several negative(often scathing) reviews from many internet websites, including one from Ain't It Cool News, that rips the film apart worse than any of the film's living dead, even. It's rancid stuff and likely to not just offend the fans of the original, but discerning film fans as a whole.
I picked this up years ago, at the dawn of the DVD, acquiring it in a two pack with the mediocre(though far superior to this) Day of the Dead(1985). At the time, I did not have a good copy of Night of the Living Dead on DVD, so the prospect of getting a remastered one from Anchor Bay, felt promising. I wish I had known better.
The film's original atmospheric beginning, the slow drive up to the cemetery is replaced with a black generic title card detailing the credits of this new edition. Then the film introduces us to two country bumpkins who are carrying a body away from a state penitentiary, where they are to deliver a body to a local cemetery. It turns out to be the body of the first zombie, the graveyard zombie that we saw in the beginning of the film, played by Bill Hinzman. For some reason, he is given a backstory, where we discover he was a child molester! I'm not sure how this is relevant to the plot in any way. Part of the power of the original was the ambiguity of the "man's" motives in the original film. We're not sure why he is attacking and that makes the scene all that much scarier. Even alter, when we know he is a zombie, why would it be important to have a backstory? Are we supposed to care? Does it add anything to the plot? Who thought this was a good idea?
What's worse, is that Hinzman is obviously aged and not exactly a duplicate of his meaner, leaner self in the original film.
He's also surrounded by severely incompetent actors, including the parents of a child that Hinzman's "character" murdered, the father delivering his dialogue, like a member of the WWF. There's also a bald priest, who is unfortunately not Rob Halford, though you may feel free to exclaim "Judas Priest!" aloud while viewing his performance. The actor is a man named Scott Vladimir Licina, and he is the worst. This is not me being ironic. He is not endearingly heartwarming, like Gillian Jacobs' character on Community, who is also dubbed "the worst." No. He really is the worst. Rarely have I seen an actor so incompetent and hammy, his overall appearance and line readings are enough to inspire violence in the most peaceful of men. Oh, and wait for it, he's also the composer of the new soundtrack. Have I mentioned that yet?
It's awful. I mean, it's really bad. The original used library music, many culled from early 50s genre classics, but boy, was it effective. Licina's score is an endless drone of piano and synths, sounding like some kid who just discovered the s synthesizer and is still experimenting with the effects on the keyboard. It's unbelievable that this was actually committed to film. It's unbearable and bears heavily on the rest of the film.
What really amazed me was that I was scarcely ten minutes into this thing and already was infuriated! And it just doesn't end there. Even beyond the awful music score, the filmmakers chose to re-edit the film and cut out crucial things, all pertaining to characterization, the most crucial aspect to any good story, at least I thought most people thought so. Its tragic that one of Duane Jones' best moments, involving his heartfelt back story, is now excised from the film. Instead, a completely pointless car wreck is added to the mix, involving a few of the filmmaker's family members, the sole reason for it's inclusion. The makeup is gruesome and not in putting with the original film. Worse, it compromises many of the film's surprises and darkest moments. In this scene, we see the family in the car, rise from the grave, draining a lot of the horror from the later resurrection of the little girl and her subsequent attack on Marilyn Eastman, playing her mother. Plus, we see the zombies feasting on the remains of others in the car, all but destroying, the film's most infamous and horrifying moment, later on. Why did Russo think this was a good idea? Has the man any sense, involving continuity and how to generate suspense? Did he just assume that we know the story and wouldn't care? In less than half an hour, Russo's re-edit becomes a modern day Frankenstein.
Throughout the remainder of the film, inserts of these new zombie scenes are placed in, the new, cleaner stock sticking out like a sore thumb. They just don't gel with the original's grittier and grimier look, and worse still, they take away from the older zombie footage, alot of which is deleted, including the nude zombie, for reasons unknown.
Towards the end, like the rest of the film, the picture is randomly edited so the suspense and drama of the conclusion is compromised, as we follow a newly shot sequence with the posse going after the living dead in the cemetery from the beginning. It's horribly shot and that damn Priest is back, with more of his hammy, self-indulgent acting that nobody asked for. There's also the sexy Debbie Rochon, veteran of many of the worst movies ever made, just here adding to her amazing resume, which has included the best of Troma, and i'm sure many of you know, unfortunately know what I mean, and since they couldn't even have the decency to shoot a nude scene(bite me, P.C. police), it's all for naught, because she's pretty horrible as an investigating reporter.
Happily, the dumb preacher is bitten in the face by Bill Hrinzman, but before we can all praise the Lord, he is saved by the fat dad from the beginning. Oh, and then Duane Jones is shot...but that's not all folks!
The film than transports us to a year in the future(da-da-DUMB) and we discover that the priest is still alive and somehow immune to the zombie virus. Debbie arrives to interview him and he rants about the zombies being spiked and some kind of religious babble, but not nearly as funny as The 700 Club. Debbie leaves and the film cuts to the bonfire that was originally to have closed the picture. By this point, i'm betting most people watching this were like Duane Jones' character, as being put out of one's misery has to be a smaller price to pay, than to sit through this disaster again.
I've seen many bad movies through the years, all ranging from being merely funny-bad to being deliriously awful. This one fits in the latter, and is made worse by it's association with such a classic film. Night of the Living Dead is not just a personal favorite, but one of the greatest of all horror films. It deserves respect, and that's something that these filmmakers are clearly oblivious to. I have seen some parodies of this film done in bad taste, including one where the entire original film was redubbed, but was not offended the same way I was by this. Maybe, it's because this was made by people who helped craft the original and that's just so horrible to hear.
It's particularly frightening because the thought of a younger generation discovering the film through this version, is more horrifying than the film could ever hope to be. Everything about this film feels irresponsible and stupid, from the inane new footage, complete with indifferent acting, to the boring and needless music score, this has to be one of the worst horror films ever made, even with the original footage intact. The music and the editing rob Romero's film(and it certainly is his, forever) of all its vitality and fear, along with it's intelligence and humanity. By cutting away from the farmhouse, we lose the sense of struggle and the politics and the social issues present, dissipate, as a result. It's more than a little unfortunate, but it makes me realize why I chose to review this: as a warning. Stay away from this garbage and seek out Romero's original classic as it was meant to be seen. If you are morbidly curious(emphasis on the morbid) than be my guest and seek it out, in all it's braindead shamelessness.
For those that have already suffered, hopefully I can make some small amends with these shots of Miss Rochon. You can thank me later.