March 12, 2018
$39.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman.
In any form, the opening shot seems exactly right: a moving car finessing all the twists and turns of a pastoral setting that turns out to be a graveyard entrance that its sibling passengers would have been better off zooming by — 100 MPH and going backwards. But it’s the heavy contrast and overall crispness of the image that grabs me immediately about Criterion’s 4K, stops-pulled, whoop-de-doo, shirt-sleeves-rolled-up crack at George A. Romero’s original 1968 Night of the Living Dead, a onetime un-pedigreed cheapie that I just can’t believe has looked as good (if then) since its opening night a few months short of 50 years ago in … Pittsburgh?
As a D.C. area dweller for 45 years, I can remember when an exhibitor buddy gave literal klieg-light-and-carpet treatment to the local premiere of John Waters’ Polyester, so unexpected gala treatment does happen, But you have to believe (and please, someone, correct me if I’m wrong) that not many three-river locals at the time splurged too much for what ended up being (for me) the greatest example of Pittsburgh horror since Bill Mazeroski’s home run to end the 1960 World Series. Yet now, after half-a-century, here’s Dead carrying the Criterion imprimatur atop its 1999 selection into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
I can tell you how the movie was treated in my hometown of Columbus, which is about a three-hour drive west from the production’s city of origin. I was working during high school and college in the film department of the local CBS affiliate, and we wouldn’t play its grisly TV ads on the air — I can’t recall if these are the ones that show up here in the bonus section — no matter what the sales department wanted. One of my department colleagues was the station’s exceedingly stringent screener/censor, even though he had managed to let a hilarious reference to female genitalia in 1962’s Invasion of the Star Creatures get by for airing on Flippo the Clown’s afterschool “Early Show.” As a result, I recall, these Dead trailers were immediately consigned to a reel of excised film clips that my boss annually showed to TV classes at Ohio State for mornings of revelry. Always saved for last, just to give you some context, was Gertrude Michaels’ Sweet Marijuana showstopper from Mitchell Leisen’s Murder at the Vanities, which had been snipped during the days when the station owned the original MCA package of 1929-49 Paramount titles, the greatest single movie package of all time.
Dead was, of course, strictly area drive-in fare — and not the ‘A’-class drive-ins that at one time or another offered the local Columbus premieres of films by Wilder, Huston, Leone and Polanski. (The local neighborhood indoor theaters were, of course, completely out of the question because they were too busy showcasing George Kennedy’s oeuvre.) And yet: it didn’t take too long — and this in laughably pre-Internet days — for Dead’s rep to take hold. By 1971 or ’72, which is when I first saw it in my town’s one decent repertory house, it was billed as a marquee equal with Tod Browning’s Freaks for a real “Mayberry R.F.D.” alternative, if there ever was one. Which was a status it deserved, for several reasons.
First all, there’s the white-hot pacing that never flags, despite most of its action restricted to either the main floor or the basement of an abandoned house adjacent to the graveyard while fire-fearing ghouls do their outside marauding in an imaginative array of costuming. (Say, what was it like at the local dry cleaner when the better-dressed ones went in to get their suits pressed, and what did they do upon noticing that someone had crushed their collar buttons?) Then, there’s the issue of interracial leads — handsome African-American Duane Jones and blonde Judith O’Dea — provocative teaming that likely wouldn’t even have been mentioned in ’68, though let it be noted that the script makes absolutely nothing about it (and if it had, the picture would likely only play as a period piece today).
What I really dig, however — and maybe this gets back to my days at the TV station — is the bulls-eye verisimilitude of its portrayed radio and TV coverage, which is full of unassuming reporters who do not look like Katie Tur, falling into the greatest story of their lives. I love the shots of the local camera crew — which is basically a guy with a portable home movie camera that is probably just as suitable for bar mitzvahs — and the way that all the journalistic atmospherics remind me of something seen as a young kid in a still photo whenever I was leafing through my barber shop’s pile of Police Gazette while awaiting a buzz cut. (They also remind me of CBS’s very short-lived “Wanted” series from 1955, which spooked the hell out of me around the same time — I can even remember the musical theme — by going around to trailer camps and the like in pursuit of real-life criminals on the run.) In fact, I have 20-some hours of network JFK-assassination coverage from 1963, and even it isn’t any more visually sophisticated. CBS had to throw up a slide for about 20 minutes when it interrupted “As the World Turns” for Dallas reportage as they scrambled to assemble a crew who could photograph Walter Cronkite reading wire reports. This is a great, great time-capsule aspect of Dead that is rarely mentioned.
There isn’t, though, a whole lot you can imagine being left out of this Criterion package — though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of the real mind-blowers here comes early on in what I think is a recycled but engagingly jokey group voiceover (Romero included) in which it’s noted that a subsequent real-life hurricane around the graveyard site disentombed a whole bunch of buried individuals. There’s also a shorter work-print edit (of predictably wobbly quality) that the hardcore may even want to see more than once; a new featurette/appreciation whose homage-paying filmmaker appearances include one by super-trendy Guillermo Del Toro; a new appreciation of the music, which was kind of cobbled together from an existing library but is nonetheless superb; a germane Tom Snyder “Tomorrow” episode, which makes me wish that there could be a Snyder box, given that he interviewed everyone from Sam Peckinpah to Marilyn Chambers (who were probably wise not to work together); a look-back at filming on a dime in flyover country (Learning From Scratch); a Stuart Klawans essay; and even — atop more goodies I’m leaving out — a primer about directing ghouls (who, gotta say, are indeed well-directed).
This last leads to a plug for my former USA Today colleague Susan Wlosczcyna, who once actually got to appear on screen as a zombie extra — and in color, which is how I saw her everyday at work — in 2005’s Land of the Dead after Romero turned the franchise into a cottage industry with more sequels than you could shake a fiery object at. To her credit, Woz never high-hatted me about this, though she had to know that little in my life could equal it. To be sure, and at the same TV station I referenced, visiting “Password” host Allen Ludden once said hello to me when I was returning from lunch. But no one can say that’s the same.