Essential Series – The Living Dead Trilogy

I have been looking forward to this for months. Growing up there were two film trilogies which really spoke to me. The Living Dead Trilogy, by George A. Romero, was a different horror experience than the movies I had smuggled in before it. In these films horror may be their capsule, but humanities, morals, and ethics is the medication. Last summer when Romero died I had a marathon but wanted to wait for the newest addition to my collection of the Criterion Collection release of Night with its new restoration from the Museum of Modern Art because my old DVD was insufficient, knowing that this new edition would eventually be released I chose to wait.

Modern horror would have evolved in a much different form without Romero’s films along with his European peers, Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi et al, and their ever-ramping game of gore horse, trading shot for shot to see who could squeeze the most bile out of their fans. Robert Kirkman has, essentially, said that The Walking Dead, which is, arguably, one of the most popular intellectual properties in the world, would not exist without Romero.

Night of the Living Dead

Director: George A Romero

Screenplay: George A Romero and John A Russo

Minutes: 96

Year: 1968

Score: 7.67

Release: Criterion Collection

Night of the Living Dead would screen late at night on channel 25 in Cleveland, Ohio and those choppy, flickering, screenings would be the first scary movie viewings I had as a young pup. It wasn’t until years later that I had an actual understanding of why the movie matters.

From Criterion.com:

Shot outside Pittsburgh on a shoestring budget, by a band of filmmakers determined to make their mark, Night of the Living Dead, directed by horror master George A. Romero, is a great story of independent cinema: a midnight hit turned box-office smash that became one of the most influential films of all time. A deceptively simple tale of a group of strangers trapped in a farmhouse who find themselves fending off a horde of recently dead, flesh-eating ghouls, Romero’s claustrophobic vision of a late-1960s America literally tearing itself apart rewrote the rules of the horror genre, combined gruesome gore with acute social commentary, and quietly broke ground by casting a black actor (Duane Jones) in its lead role. Stark, haunting, and more relevant than ever, Night of the Living Dead is back.

Growing up in a suburb of Cleveland I was surrounded by a fairly diverse community in school so when I watched Night of the Living Dead on those late night broadcasts it did not seem to be a stretch or oddity to have Ben being played by a black actor. It didn’t bother me, but at this point it would have been about 20 year’s difference between the film’s release and my viewing. So we had come a long way, even if we still aren’t there yet. I also didn’t see a racial ending, which even though we are 50 years away from the release I still don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say I can see it both ways but it would be many viewings before I learned that there could be a double meaning (also this may be a definition of white privilege that I wouldn’t even see this).

That double meaning does change my perceptions. My wife watched it with me last night and the shock is there but it was the discussion afterwards in which we delved into the possible meanings. Again, watch it yourself.

The second film in the series, which I will get into shortly, has always been the most important of the three films to me but as I learned more about Night I have a clearer picture into what the film means to both horror films, specifically, and independent films, in general. Romero often said that it was never his intent to make waves, he only wanted to make movies, but he was blessed that they were as well received as they have been.

Now, my most recent viewing was of the brand new, out today, Criterion Collection edition of the film. As is common with Criterion releases there is a trove of special features which I haven’t had a chance to dig into but with all films the feature itself it the most important reason to covet the release. I am planning on spending some time in the next few weeks with them but I have to tell you that the movie looks better than ever. As a film which was always in the public domain (due to a paperwork error) everyone wanted to release a tape or DVD but nobody wanted to put money into it. Now the Museum of Modern Art has ponied up and we have a definitive, beautiful, release of the film. I have said this before but this restoration is eye bursting.

Special Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director George A. Romero, coscreenwriter John A. Russo, sound engineer Gary R. Streiner, and producer Russell W. Streiner
  • New restoration of the monaural soundtrack, supervised by Romero and Gary Streiner and presented uncompressed on the Blu-ray
  • Night of Anubis, a never-before-presented work-print edit of the film
  • New program featuring filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez
  • Never-before-seen 16 mm dailies reel
  • New program featuring Russo on the commercial and industrial-film production company where key Night of the Living Dead filmmakers got their start
  • Two audio commentaries from 1994 featuring Romero, Russo, producer Karl Hardman, actor Judith O’Dea, and others
  • Archival interviews with Romero and actors Duane Jones and Judith Ridley
  • New programs about the film’s style and score
  • New interview program about the direction of ghouls, featuring members of the cast and crew
  • New interviews with Gary Streiner and Russell Streiner
  • Newsreels from 1967
  • Trailer, radio spots, and TV spots
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Stuart Klawans

Director: 10 – Cinematography: 6 – Edit: 7 – Parity: 10 – Main performance: 8 – Else performance: 4 – Score: 9 – Sound: 7 – Story: 7 – Script: 8 – Effects: 8 – Design: 6 – Costumes: 5 – Keeps interest: 10 – Lasting: 10

Dawn of the Dead

Director: George A. Romero 

Screenplay: George A. Romero

Minutes: 119

Year: 1978

Score: 7.00

Release: Midnight Factory

My friend Jim has always said that he is blessed to have been born the same year that Star Wars was released, I would counter the same, but claiming Dawn of the Dead. Tragically the blu-rays are out of print and the DVDs are strangely expensive.

Dawn of the Dead continues the themes of Night of the Living Dead bringing the zombies into the city where the police are struggling to deal with the dead as well as the criminal elements taking advantage of the situation. Stephen and Francine, David Emge and Gaylen Ross, are local television reporters would decide to leave the city with the police officer friend Roger, Scott H. Reiniger. They are joined by Peter, Ken Foree, a second copy and they abscond with the news helicopter and find a mall to hold up in, until the come to the attention of a looting biker gang.

When my friends were watching Freddy and Jason slasher flicks (which I love) I was watching Dawn of the Dead and was struggling to explain why it was so much better. To my young eyes the effects in Dawn were superior to those in other horror films because Romero never hid them in the dark, and Tom Savini is a master artist. Yeah, they are clearly budget effects, maybe some mushed-up Jell-O, but they were not afraid to stand up and gross you out, especially when they get to the pigs guts.

What struck me is that this was the first movie where I remember the monster being scenery and even while that scenery wanted to eat you the movie was about what kind of future the characters could expect even if they are able to escape the present.

Like I said, though, the movie is sadly difficult to find. It is my understanding, and I could very well be wrong, that Richard Rubinstein, the US producer of the film, is keeping the vault doors closed, for one reason or another, I don’t know, money probably. Luckily, yet unfortunately, if you are region free you can import the film from Italy and for fans it is well worth the cost to do so. The European producer of the film was none other than Suspiria’s Dario Argento.

This Italian release comes in a few versions, with the restorations produced by Nicolas Winding Refn, it comes in 4k, Blu-ray and, for some reason, DVD. The Blu-ray is available on Amazon.it (side note, all of the Amazons are formatted similarly making it only a little treacherous to order without using a site translator).

Before Criterion’s new release of Night I could not imagine a Romero release, possibly, looking better than this edition of Dawn. The Blu-ray includes three cuts of the film. The US, which is the one I grew up with, the Extended, original, Cannes cut, which I haven’t watched yet, and Dario Argento’s amazing European Cut, with the full Goblin score. I cannot say of all three have the super HD treatment but he Euro cut does. Plus there are tons of special features.

It is difficult for me to really want to pressure the sale of a region-locked disc because they aren’t very feasible for most people, but this one is special.

Special Features:

  • MOVIE THEATRICAL VERSION BD: the 127 minute version desired by Romero and projected in 1979 in America –
  • MOVIES EXTENDED VERSION BD: the 133 minutes version submitted to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival 1978 –
  • EXTRA BD EXTRA: total length 150 ‘ HD material –
  • INTERVIEW WITH TOM SAVINI, responsible for the special effects and make-up; 18 ‘ –
  • EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW TO Nicolas Winding Refn; 8 ‘ –
  • EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW TO DARIO ARGENTO; 28 ‘ –
  • INTERVIEW WITH MICHELE DE ANGELIS AND GIANNI VITTORI on the restoration of the original film and its transposition in 4K Ultra HD: 8 ‘ –
  • PRESS CONFERENCE AT THE 73rd INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL OF VENICE; 31 ‘ –
  • PRESENTATION ROOM AT MIDNIGHT SCREENING OF THE FILM THE 73rd INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL VENICE; 10 ‘ SD material –
  • WHEN THERE IS NO MORE ROOM IN HELL (interviews with Dario Argento and Claudio, Claudio Simonetti, Alfredo Cuomo): 31 ‘
  • Trailers and TV Spots; 16 ‘ – BOOK ON FILM WITH PHOTOS AND INTERVIEWS –
  • 5 collector cards (contest NWR)
  • AUDIO COMMENTARY SIMONETTI

Director: 10 – Cinematography: 7 – Edit: 6 – Parity: 4 – Main performance: 6 – Else performance: 4 – Score: 10 – Sound: 3 – Story: 8 – Script: 8 – Effects: 9 – Design: 6 – Costumes: 4 – Keeps interest: 10 – Lasting: 10

Day of the Dead

Director: George A. Romero 

Screenplay: George A. Romero

Minutes: 102

Year: 1985

Score: 7.07

Release: Shout Factory

Rounding out the trilogy is one of the goriest and bleakest horror films that I have seen. Day of the Dead answer the questions from Dawn and makes you wish it was never asked.

From Shoutfactory.com:

In this the third film in the continuing saga of the undead from writer/director George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, Survival of the Dead), a small group of scientists and soldiers have taken refuge in an underground missile silo where they struggle to control the flesh-eating horror that walks the earth above. But will the final battle for the future of the human race be fought among the living or have they forever unleashed the hunger of the dead? Lori Cardille, Joe Pilato and Richard Liberty star in this controversial classic with groundbreaking gore effects by Tom Savini.

Day moves the story of living with the living dead in a very interesting direction with Bub, a zombie who has instinctual memories of humanity while civilians are dealing with an overzealous caricature of a military officer who angrily believes that his soldier are more important than the mad scientist’s experiments or any of the civilian operators. I won’t argue with the soldier’s importance but if we cannot co-exist with ourselves how could we do so with this new race of brainless cannibals.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that this is the weakest of three films. While the gore effects are at their absolute pinnacle and there are some incredible scenes which highlight the characters various psychosis, the overall experience of the film doesn’t reach the same levels as Dawn or Night. However, I am very grateful to Scream Factory for releasing a stacked disc. As I have mentioned these movies mean the world to me and I really want everyone to be able to watch them.

If you have listen to the band Gorillaz, but haven’t watched this movie, you have already been haunted by the vacant search scene at the film’s opening.

Special Features:

  • All New Transfer
  • New Documentary – World’s End: The Legacy of Day of the Dead
  • NEW! UNDERGROUND: A Look into the DAY OF THE DEAD mines
  • Audio Commentary with writer/director George A. Romero, Special Make-up Effects artist Tom Savini, Production Designer Cletus Anderson and actress Lori Cardille
  • Audio Commentary with filmmaker Roger Avary
  • Behind-The-Scenes Footage from Special Make-up Effects Creator Tom Savini’s archives
  • Photo Galleries
  • Theatrical Trailers
  • TV Spots

Director: 9 – Cinematography: 7 – Edit: 7 – Parity: 6 – Main performance: 5 – Else performance: 2 – Score: 6 – Sound: 6 – Story: 8 – Script: 9 – Effects: 10 – Design: 7 – Costumes: 4 – Keeps interest: 10 – Lasting: 10

Yes, there is also Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survivor of the Dead, and I might circle back later but the first trilogy (like most trilogies) is the best trilogy.

 

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