Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tuesday Terrors - Night of the Living Dead (1968)

You know, Kiddies, it occurs to me upon thinking about the upcoming release of George Romero's latest "living dead" project, Survival of the Dead, that the franchise has actually become not unlike its eponymous monsters - a thng that is not-quite-living, not-quite-dead; seemingly unstoppable as it continues its progression across the landscape; stirring up memories of things that once were; but ultimately, by this point, brainless and simply out to consume.

Ok, prehaps that's actually a bit harsh. One certainly has to respect Romero for staying true to his vision and for keeping the franchise low-budget and independent. Oh, certainly he's done his share of big-budget movies, and his share of Hollywood just-for-a-paycheck films, but recently, in his later years, he seems to have re-embraced his independent spirit, taking the franchise which made him a major player back to its roots and at the same time trying to update and innovate within it.

But we're not really here to talk today about the entire franchise, or even the latest installment. Instead, we're going back to the beginning, the grandaddy of the modern zombie genre, 1968's Night of the Living Dead.

This movie is always a tricky one to cover, because there are so many spects one can talk about - the black and white photography, the origins of the zombies and of the idea, the use of Duane Jones as the lead and the symbolism of his death at the end of the movie, the fact that it was shot in and around Pittsburgh for a budget just around $113,000, the influences, sequels, remakes, and the split between Romero and partner John Russo which resulted in Russo spinning off his own set of "living dead" movies, and so much more. But at the same time, those topics have been done and done and done, and probably better elsewhere than yer Ol' Professor would in this limited space. So instead, since this is the Public Domain Treasure Chest, what I want to spend just a few minutes on is the p.d. status of the film and the impact that that has had not only on the film itself, but on its legacy and the legacy of George Romero.

So how does a film like Night of the Living Dead end up in the public domain in the first place? Well, it's pretty simple, actually. In 1968, when the film was made and released, one of the copyright requirements was that prints of the film had to carry a proper copyright notice. The thinking was that if the producers didn't even care enough to put the notice on the film, then they didn't care enough to maintain the copyright. This also provided a way for people to know who to contact in caase they wanted to license the film, to perhaps reuse part of it, or even if there was some kind of copyright dispute with the film itself. Unfortunately for Romero, a last minute title change insisted upon by the film's distributor meant that the copyright notice, which had previously appeared in the same frames as the title, was left off of the prints, resulting in the film immediately entering the public domain.

Considering the impact and legacy of the film, George Romero has at times been understandably bitter about this development, even claiming that the distributor "ripped us off." (Note, by the way, that it is the distributor that Romero blames, not the copyright system. Everyone knew what needed to be done, and had the distributor followed through on placing the proper notice on the prints, things would have turned out differently.) However, over the years he also seems to have mellowed his stance some, realising that it is the public domain aspect of the film that has, in large part, led to its fame and ubiquity. Had the film retained its copyright status, it's likely to have been just another forgotten little horror film among many from that era. However, during the home video boom, when releasing companies were looking for anything that they could throw onto VHS (and later DVD) for cheap, they found this absolute gem of a movie. Therefore anyone who had access to the equipment was putting out their own print of the film. According to Wikipedia, as of 2006, the IMDB listed 23 copies of NOTLD being sold on DVD and 19 on VHS. Also, as of this writing, the film was the second most dowloaded film on the Internet Archive with almost 650,000 free downloads. It's also a late-night perennial, and a film that I dare say almost every horror host in the country working since its release has featured on his or her show.

Certainly, this is the film that (deservedly) made Romero's name, and led him to go on and make a whole string of other films besides the sequels, and it's doubtful that we'd be sitting here 42 years later waiting for the latest of those sequels if the original had not gained the kind of widespread viewership and appeal that it has through these many viewings and showings and incarnations made possible through the public domain.

Ok, enough talk. Let's have a peek at the film itself:

And here's the skinny:
Title: Night of the Living Dead
Release Date: 1968
Running Time: 96min
Black and White
Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea
Directed by: George Romero
Produced by: Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner
Distributed by: The Walter Reade Organization

Night of the Living Dead is available to watch or dowload for free here.
amazon has lots of different versions of it on DVD. Here's one: Night of the Living Dead (Enhanced Edition) - 1968.

And, of course, Netflix has it available to rent of for instant viewing: Night of the Living Dead.

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian


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