I try to only write positive reviews, even about terrible movies. It’s a challenge that I enjoy, taking a bad movie and finding the good in it. That said, I’m about to run this one as far into the ground as possible in the hopes that it will NEVER resurface again. Folks, prepare yourselves for the gut-churning, cringe-inducing schlock that is the Night of the Living Dead 30th Anniversary Edition. Why, you might ask, am I dredging up the corpse of one of the worst films ever produced? Well, in all the recent moving I’ve done over the last year, I’ve come across a treasure trove of old VHS tapes and this one, almost pristine in the original case, was sitting in the bottom of a dusty cardboard box in my garage like some ancient mummy’s cursed treasure.
I bought a VHS copy of this movie in 2003 for five bucks at a local thrift shop because it sounded amazing at the time. Thanks to George Lucas and his late 90’s obsession with needlessly remastering and rereleasing his classic Star Wars Trilogy to the tune of an ungodly amount of money made in ticket sales and merchandising, producers and copyright owners saw the chance to make a quick buck off of titles they’d owned for decades. With the 30th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead fast approaching and the unfortunate circumstances that have always surrounded the rights to the movie, producer and co-writer John Russo was blinded by the potential to cash in on the craze. As I hefted the plastic case -because a cardboard sleeve was clearly insufficient for such precious cargo- the description written across the back suggested a remastered cut of one of my favorite and arguably one of the most important horror movies with an additional 15 minutes of brand new footage. I mean, how could it possibly be anything but amazing?!
I miss being so young and naïve.
That night, sitting on my bedroom floor with a pizza and a bottle of soda, I found myself almost giddy in anticipation of a film I would later rename John Russo Needs Money! What I had expected to be a remastered print of the original film in the same vein as the recently rereleased Star Wars Trilogy was in fact, a poorly shoehorned in B-story about a priest who looks like an off brand Anton LaVey who somehow survives a zombie bite to the face without any adverse effects. To add one must first subtract and, in order to make this special edition extra special, they cut scenes from the original movie to fit in all their newly produced footage. The story also alludes to the destruction of Beekman’s Diner and shows us the truck that Ben steals to make his escape to the farmhouse in while attempting to make the graveyard ghoul (played in both the original and new footage by Bill Hinzman) into a more developed character. In short, this was an egotistical attempt to make a quick buck that backfired spectacularly as the torrent of angry letters, calls, and emails sent to Anchor Bay combined with practically non-existent sales lead to the 30th Anniversary Edition’s ultimate demise.
I wanted to write something positive about this movie in spite of the full on shit show that it quickly became and, I will say, there was a single scene in which the waitress from Beekman’s and several other zombies approach a car wreck and feast on the dead driver inside. That said, absolutely nothing else added to this movie did anything other than piss me off and make me lament the loss of my five bucks. Now, I’m going to pass over the most egregious sin that Russo committed by cutting out bits of the original film to add his new scenes and just hammer the top three problems that this version suffers.
To begin with, the acting was flat and monotonous. There was no emotion, there was no depth. It was just the exaggerated repetition of lines off a sheet of paper by C-list actors who thought they were going to be a part of something history riding on the legacy of Night of the Living Dead. And, unfortunately for them, they did. That said, an actor is only as good as a director and a director is only as good as the script. In this case, John Russo was responsible for all of it. We all know the basic story of Night of the Living Dead which, again, Russo co-wrote with director George A. Romero who was not involved at all with the 30th Anniversary Edition. For those of you who may not know it, though, gather round and I’ll tell you a little tale.
A space probe explodes in orbit on a return trip from Venus. A mysterious radiation floods the world. The bodies of the recently deceased rise and go on a murderous, cannibalistic rampage across the nation. In an isolated farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, a group of unlikely survivors battle their own fears and prejudices as well as an unstoppable army of the undead to try and survive through the night until help arrives. While the origins of the zombie plague are alluded to in news broadcasts, there is never a definitive answer as to how or why the ghouls came to be. Though we get a bit of background on how all our survivors ended up in the house, we have to rely on their retelling of events rather than have them played out before our eyes with the exception of Barbara who was in the cemetery nearby with her brother when a ghoul attacked them. Russo took a story about human beings surviving a completely inhuman situation and did what, as a writer, you should never do once a piece has published or gone on film: he decided to write more. Adding new characters and backstory that was totally unnecessary to what was already being recognized as a classic in the late 90’s, he produced based on, from a viewer’s perspective, felt like an incomplete and unpolished script.
This leads us to issue number two that I have with the film. The new footage was shot on high-quality film that, even 18 years later feels like it could have been produced within the last few years. It has a quality akin to what you’d expect from student films or current low budget productions. The difference between NotLD30 and a low budget film is that a low budget film can be phenomenal. The high-quality black and white did not blend well with the classic black and white from the 60’s. From my perspective as a film fan, writer, and amateur filmmaker, I would want to try and find the same kind of film and cameras used in the original production. I understand that 30 years later that might be hard but it was the late 90’s and film was still plentiful. Something similar could have given it that grainy, late 60’s-70’s feel that would have at the very least concealed some of the poorly costumed ghouls and the 30 years’ worth of change that the Evans Cemetery had undergone since Hinzman’s ghoul had first stalked Barbara.
And there’s my chance to segue to my final gripe about this movie. Everything felt out of place. The costumes look fresh off the rack, in some cases from the local Halloween pop-up’s that start to appear in late September. None of the ghouls had the disheveled, straight from the grave look about them and few actually looked like they belonged in the 1960s as they slouched and shuffled across the screen. Meanwhile, our featured zombies were of the same dubious design and with gore and effects that felt disingenuous compared to the original. The waitress from Beekman’s had a gouge in her face and a missing left arm with the blood tubes still visible in a couple of shots while another of our gravediggers turned cadavers had his face partially bitten off in an effect that looked more like a kid’s makeup job for a party than it did a professional appliance. The most baffling, however, was the graveyard ghoul played by Hinzman.
In the original film, the ghoul was gangly with bulging eyes and a gaping jaw full of teeth. There was this raw desperation in his facial expressions, this crazed look that made the otherwise disheveled but banal Hinzman truly terrifying. In the 1999 edition, his face is bloated and void of any emotion whatsoever. Appliances and makeup designed to make him look younger, like the ghoul he was in 1968 instead make him look like a man in a mask, a caricature of the creature he once portrayed. While his movement and presence are still much the same, the expressiveness that made him fearful was completely hidden.
I’ve never heard one good word spoken about Night of the Living Dead 30th Anniversary Edition and when I found my copy of the VHS I wanted to turn around and be able to change that. I wanted to find some good in the “new” footage and be able to put a positive spin on an otherwise abysmally dismissed movie. It holds a place of honor beside such classic bombs as Plan 9 from Outer Space and Manos the Hands of Fate. I guess if there was one nice thing I could say about it, it would have to be this: at least it’s not Children of the Living Dead.
The fiftieth anniversary of Night of the Living Dead is coming up in 2018. Let that stew for a moment. For half a century this film has given us all the blood sick fiends feasting on the flesh of the living that we could handle and gave birth to an entire generation of films and filmmakers as well as a subgenre that has permeated every facet of society. For a low budget picture that had to struggle to even be made, let alone released, it tackled issues of race and social turmoil using the living dead as a backdrop for some truly remarkable characters.
Let’s just hope they’ve learned a thing or two about toying with perfection.