During my last interview with George A. Romero, we briefly discussed the upcoming restoration of his groundbreaking film Night of the Living Dead. He was obviously excited about the project; overseen by Martin Scorsese on behalf of the Museum of Modern Art, it promised to be “closer than anything we’ve seen to the definitive version of the film.”
I finally had the opportunity to view that version of the film last weekend, and it was amazing! There’s little more to be said about the importance of Night of the Living Dead; countless articles, editorials, and entire books have been devoted to the incredible impact that it has had on film-making and our culture. But even the technical improvements of this restoration pale in comparison to what it truly offers a modern audience – a genuine experience!
Despite a number of local showings, including the popular Alamo Drafthouse, I chose the infamous Texas Theatre; perhaps best known as the location of Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Open since 1931, this classic theater seemed to provide some authenticity to a film that had originally been released in 1968.
Apparently the understanding at that time was that the audience for horror movies consisted mostly of children and adolescents. But thanks to Night of the Living Dead, all of that was about to change! The grim and sudden realization that an entirely new genre had exploded onto the scene may best be remembered by prominent film critic and historian Roger Ebert, in a review that has since become legendary:
I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater last Saturday afternoon. I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt … But “Night of the Living Dead” was produced before the MPAA code went into effect, so exhibitors technically weren’t required to keep the kids out … but I don’t know how I could explain [that] to the kids who left the theater with tears in their eyes.
Honestly, I’ve always appreciated the horrible quality, low resolution, and cheap hiss of previous releases. Compared to other classic films of the time like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, George Romero’s little black-and-white flick seemed real and gritty; almost like a documentary. And I was afraid that it might loose that intimate quality.
But now I could actually see the bark on the trees, the dirt on the window sills, the zombies far off in the darkness. I would even swear that I could hear the camera itself, quietly whirring in the room with the actors. This new 4K restoration is absolutely beautiful, and I’m sure fans are already champing at the bit for the inevitable Criterion release or special edition Blu-ray.
I’ve watched Night of the Living Dead countless times; it’s become an annual tradition to screen the movie every year on Halloween night. But this new restoration finally provides an opportunity to see the film as it was meant to be seen; in a theater with fellow horror fans. It’s an experience I couldn’t recommend more, and one that I will never forget. I only wish that George Romero were still around to witness the effect his film had on all of us last weekend.