Many horror fans are aware of the sad distribution story surrounding George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead. The film’s credits were finished with the original “Night of the Flesh Eaters” title, but the feature’s distributor requested the title changed since surprisingly another film was already entitled that. The title was changed to the now iconic “Night of the Living Dead” as the film went off to do giant theatrical success both domestically and abroad. The problem was the copyright was mistakenly left off the credits after the title change, advantageous distributors soon realized the grave error, and this classic slid into public domain. Anyone can release Night theatrically or on home video with no problem. This is why there’s currently twenty-six unwanted copies at your nearest Dollar Tree and even Night‘s extensive restorations by Elite Entertainment, who essentially saved the vault materials from being lost forever, and the Weinstein Company are in the same sinking boat.
This brings us to the newest home video format, Blu-ray, promising far greater image and sound quality than any previous consumer format. Despite being a fairly recent format, Night of the Living Dead has already been released on BD twice, with both editions hailing from the United Kingdom. First, Optimum Releasing issued a Region B Blu-ray in 2008 of a well restored high definition source that was strikingly better than ever seen prior. All seemed so great, in spite of the region locking, but the bite came in the form of image cropping. All four sides of the frame exhibited noticeable slicing away of picture information seen on the restored DVD releases. The following year, Network released their region free BD and while the presentation was uncropped–the source was a dirty beat up print with wonky contrast. The film was also mysteriously missing about thirty seconds of footage here-and-there throughout. It should go with saying fans with Blu-ray capability were again miffed at the situation.
Then suddenly, a PD distributor, “Forgotten Films”, began selling North American Blu-rays of Night on eBay about two weeks ago. I was admittedly skeptical, believing it was a snake oil salesman pushing off DVD (or worse) transfers on Blu-ray, but temptation led to an order. I just received the disc and to my surprise its a factory pressed 25GB single layer BD disc in a “real” Blu-ray case. The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 full frame ratio and encoded in MPEG-4 AVC with a high bitrate consistently hovering around thirty megabytes a second. The 1080p/24fps picture quality is unmistakably high definition with a nice layer of fine grain over the entire presentation and very minimal print damage. Detail isn’t consistent, this is a low budget feature from the ’60s after all, but it really shines when it decides to and looks noticeably superior to both Elite Entertainment’s Millennium Edition and Dimension Extreme’s matted 1.85:1 DVD edition.
Yet here’s the thing, the picture is cropped much in the same way as the Optimum (a little less actually) and missing at least one snippet like the Network. Though I don’t believe this is a direct rip from either of those Blu-rays. It looks far too good to be the Network transfer, but it’s missing a few seconds when Barbara recounts her ordeal with Johnny to Ben unlike the “uncut” Optimum disc. The seconds where Barbara says something to the effect of “it’s hot in here” and unbuttons her jacket are missing, so there’s a sudden jump from her jacket being closed then opened. I didn’t notice any other cuts and the film runs exactly 95 minutes, 19 seconds. Audio quality is a relatively clear 640kbps standard Dolby stereo track, there’s eighteen chapter stops, and the only “extra” is a slideshow of captures from the disc.
So Forgotten Films’s Blu-ray is kinda tough to recommend even with the somewhat modest $20 price tag. It’s cropped a little and cut a little, but trust me, it certainly has impressive image quality regardless. I’ll leave it up to you to dig around on eBay for it and decide whether it’s worth it to you. As a sidenote, Dimension Extreme has noted they will release an “official” North American Blu-ray sometime in the future, but their DVD is, like mentioned, not in the film’s original aspect ratio (or at least the ratio everyone’s used to).