NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD Finally Looks As Perfect As It Should

Criterion's restoration makes up for decades' worth of crummy transfers.

Like most horror fans my age, my first time seeing George Romero's Night of the Living Dead was on a blurry, scratched up VHS copy that appeared to have been partially chewed before running through my VCR's well-worn heads. As this was the mid 1990s, i.e. before I had the internet or an extensive Fangoria collection (which will finally get bigger! Yay Phil!), I just assumed the movie was badly made, and didn't think much of it. Later on I would learn about the film's legal issues (short version: the copyright card got left off when the title was changed, and until the law was revised nearly a decade later, the lack of on-screen copyright put the film in public domain instantly), which is a big part of why so many copies looked like ass. Since it was legal for anyone to sell a copy, pretty much everyone did, using whatever source was available. Sometimes you'd get a copy that looked OK, but by and large they were all copies of copies (at least), and it wasn't until Elite's laserdisc* that the film was really cleaned up and presented in a favorable fashion.

Alas, laserdisc was not the format of choice for the average movie fan, especially younger ones - and NOTLD's public domain status remained, so even with Elite doing great work for the time the junky ones were still the order of the day. Sadly, it wasn't until they put their transfer on VHS (an inferior format!) a few years later that most fans got to see it, and by then DVD was already coming out. And as it was a new format companies were eager to jump on board with, what better option than a classic horror film they didn't have to pay anyone to obtain? Almost instantly the DVD market was flooded with dozens of Night releases (there are over a hundred now), and it was impossible to know which ones looked OK and which ones somehow managed to look worse than VHS. Therefore, inferior copies would find their ways into the hands of fans who wanted to save a couple of bucks, or well-meaning aunts and uncles who saw it at the grocery store and were enticed by the $2.99 price tag thought it'd be a nice gift for their horror-loving niece or nephew. The kneejerk belief of a new format is "It'll look better than (the previous format)", but as anyone who has ever bought a DVD budget pack from the likes of Mill Creek knows, that is certainly not the case. The first time I got a disc that looked quite good was in 2008, when Dimension (of all companies!) put out a restored special edition on DVD that has served me just fine for a decade. Blu-ray releases came along, of course, but I never felt the need to upgrade because my thinking was always "How good can this movie possibly look?"

Enter Criterion. This week, the titans of home video preservation put out their 4K restoration on traditional Blu-ray, and my god is it beautiful. I'm not even exaggerating when I say that the improvement in quality from the best DVD I ever saw to this Blu-ray is as big of a leap as the shittiest VHS copy was to the Elite laserdisc transfer; at the risk of a pun, the difference is night and day. I was lucky enough to catch it on the big screen at Beyond Fest last year, but I swear it's just as revelatory at home, with some shots looking just as pristine as any modern movie that opted to shoot in black & white would appear to the naked eye. The jumps and scratches and other blemishes you've probably gotten used to over the years have almost all been completely wiped out, and the image reveals details that you've likely never noticed no matter how many times you've seen the film (around twenty in my case). Plus, they didn't go overboard with the grain reduction like some other restoration teams have done in otherwise remarkable transfers, so no one looks like a wax figure. They just look great.

In fact, it looks so good that it changed my tune on the "proper" presentation of the film. Up until recently, I kind of regretted tossing my VHS copy all those years ago, as I wanted to watch it again like that, as it added to the film's creepy, "Midnight Movie" charms (and, yes, my own nostalgia), and even though I have the nice Dimension DVD I would sometimes opt for one of my beat up Mill Creek transfers I inadvertently owned. On one of the new special features Criterion offered along with the new transfer, Guillermo Del Toro said his first viewing almost felt like a nightmare he had, and I suspect he's not alone - with the usually sub-par transfers almost certainly playing a part in that. But now that it's being given the same lavish restoration usually bestowed on the likes of Alien and other big budget studio movies, it's easier to see that it's truly a great movie (not just "great horror movie") and doesn't deserve to be seen like that. Its "charms" do not need to be added to any more than they do for lavish, modern classics like It or The Conjuring, two of the thousands of movies that most likely have never had to be subjected to the degraded quality that we often just accepted for this film for the past few decades.

And that's what excites me about this restoration: it's possible that a lot of the budding horror fans who will be seeing this classic for the first time in the next couple years will never have to see it that way, and in turn never think of it as a "B-movie" at all. Sure, some of the dialogue and performances aren't exactly Oscar-caliber, so I don't think anyone will ever mistake it for a Hollywood production, but certainly it won't be seen as the product of amateurs who didn't know what they were doing, as I once did and some sadly still do (I recently read a piece where the author was confident it was a student film). The public domain garbage will always be floating around (I can't wait for a knockoff Ultra HD 4K release to pop up for $9.99 somewhere), but it's a different world now, and people are wising up and realizing that they get what they pay for. Criterion's work sets the bar so high that it will be difficult for anyone to justify settling for anything lesser, and as any horror fan probably owns at least one previous copy, it's almost worth the cost of buying it again just to sit down and compare the two.

If you somehow DON'T own a junky copy, don't worry: Criterion has sort of provided one in the form of a workprint, titled "Night of Anubis". While it's still probably an improvement on your average budget pack transfer, it obviously has not been given the same loving restoration, so it's a bit beat up and a bit washed out compared to the gorgeous contrast levels in the main feature. The differences from the finished film are minimal (and in fact it's missing some things, like when Cooper and Tom first appear), but again, it's worth a look just to see how much work went into properly restoring the released version if you don't have an old copy lying around somewhere. If you DO you might want to check out the bonus features it offers before you dump it, as Criterion mostly created new ones and didn't port much over from previous releases (just the two commentaries from 1994, I believe), so if there's a particular interview or retrospective doc (that 2008 Dimension DVD had a great then-new Romero interview, for example) that you want to keep, you might need to make room for two copies in your collection. Trust me, it's worth the shelf space - far as I'm concerned, this is the only way to watch the film from here on out. 

*You can watch the opening here, which shows a typically awful transfer of the film followed by their logo, the THX logo, and finally, their version, for an instant comparison to how improved it was.