The parallels are simply too good to pass up: like a sunken-eyed ghoul crawling out of its own grave, George A. Romero’s 1968 homemade horror show Night of the Living Dead has returned to wreak havoc. It’s been a long road through hell for the cult film, but with a ravishing new 4K restoration from the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Foundation debuting at the MoMA on November 5th, one of horror cinema’s most seminal works has risen again to stalk the Earth.
Scrubbed of its scratches without sacrificing an ounce of its gritty essence, the 48-year-old film looks like it could’ve been shot earlier this year. The eerie, reverb-heavy soundtrack has never sounded crisper or more mesmerizing. (You can practically hear Judith O’Dea’s vocal cords quivering every time she screams.) And the high-contrast black-and-white photography has gained a terrible, brutalist beauty. The clarity of the images has a curious effect on the zombified extras in particular — the enhanced detail reveals the bare-bones artifice of their costuming and makeup, which only makes them more disturbing. But it’s vital to clarify that while this is a fresher Night of the Living Dead, it is by no means a cleaner one. And rightly so, says MoMA’s Department of Film curator Josh Siegel.
“It’s always important to honor the way a film looked when it was released theatrically,” Siegel says. “When we work with living filmmakers, we gently admonish them not to try to improve on the original, but honor the aesthetic of their original. Filmmakers want to make changes to their work, and that’s understandable. But the point is to have the experience that people had in ‘68, when they saw this in a startling way. There’s a rawness you don’t want to lose.”
The restoration team painstakingly ensured that the revitalized print wouldn’t lose any of the grit that initially gave it its edge. Remaining true to the spirit of Romero’s source material meant retaining what producer Gary Streiner calls “the pimples” of the film.
“The intention of the restoration was not to vacuum up all the dust particles,” he says. “More than the images themselves, we wanted to restore what the images were trying to tell. It shouldn’t be clean and pristine. It should look how it felt 48 years ago, and the professionals did exactly that.”
“What we have now, for good or for bad, is exactly what I shot,” director George Romero says. “This is closer than anything we’ve seen to the definitive version of the film. It’s in the right format, 1.33:1, and that’s never been seen before either.”
When Romero and his ragtag crew set up shop in rural Pennsylvania nearly 50 years ago, they weren’t setting out to cannibalize the wheel. Given their meager $114,000 budget, their concern was getting the footage as cheaply as possible, shooting on nights and weekends over the course of months. Even on a shoestring, however, the production couldn’t help but break new ground, both in the story they chose to tell and their visual approach. Pitting a horde of flesh-eaters against living stragglers may be a sure payday now, but in 1968, structuring an entire feature around personality-free, slow-moving, unsexy zombies was a dicey proposition.
“Zombies weren’t heavyweight fright material like vampires and werewolves were,” Night of the Living Dead co-writer John Russo says. “They just kind of shambled around, maybe tried to strangle someone, weren’t that scary. But making them flesh-eaters, that combined the werewolf myth with the zombie myth.”
Romero and Russo’s script trapped a loose collection of backroads travelers in a country home and sicced a new breed of undead on them. They were violent, gaunt, inexhaustible killing machines, and they boldly contrasted with the era’s familiar monsters: the debonair Dracula, conflicted Wolfman, and tragic Frankenstein’s monster.
The jagged, modern style Romero brought to his low-rent horror flick was game-changing as well. With harsh shadows, dramatically canted shots, and riveting camerawork that puts the audience into the drag-down fight to survive, Romero coined a new filmic vernacular for raw fear. Siegel traces Romero’s harshly realistic aesthetic back to early cinéma vérité and the New Journalism of Norman Mailer and Truman Capote.
“Romero was experimenting with what was possible with handheld camerawork,” Siegel says, “an urgent sort of editing, interesting camera angles. Things that were less classically Hollywood.”
Siegel’s high esteem for the film is evident, and not at all out of place at the MoMA, where a copy of the original filmstrip has been kept in secure storage since the year after its 1968 premiere. But legal squabbles between Romero’s Image Ten production company and the Continental Pictures distribution outfit allowed the rights to the film to fall into the public domain. The distributor failed to add a proper copyright indication to the film, having accidentally dumped the necessary legalese printed on its Night of the Flesh Eaters title card after switching to the punchier Night of the Living Dead. To this day, there’s still bad blood between Image Ten and its former distributors.
“Beyond the initial glad-handing and claps on the back, I must say they didn’t treat this film with much respect,” Night of the Living Dead producer Russ Streiner says. “They didn’t even do press screenings.”
However, this bungled release turned out to be a blessing as well as a disaster. “The lack of copyright enabled millions of people to see it without anybody having to pay royalties,” Romero says. “I honestly think that’s a big reason the film’s still around.”
Although the public-domain predicament made it difficult for Image Ten to make money off Night of the Living Dead, the freedom to show it year after year in late-night screenings turned the film into a cult sensation. Copies of the reels spread widely, passed between projectionists like a secret. It grew from an underground phenomenon into one of the most readily accessible horror films on the market. But there was an unfortunate side effect: “It’s never looked the way we wanted it to look,” Romero says. “Even the original print — it must have been printed on toilet paper.”
Finding a copy of Night of the Living Dead was easy, but finding one that didn’t look like it had been dragged around a parking lot was another matter. Viewers expected to see Romero’s film with scratches, warped audio, missing frames, and dirt-poor picture quality. So MoMA’s cinephiles teamed with the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Martin Scorsese-fronted Film Foundation, spearheading an ambitious project to return the film to its original glory.
Major film restorations work like elaborate puzzles, with technicians piecing together a complete reel from surviving sources around the globe. For decades, original negatives for the film had been gathering dust at John Russo’s house in Glassport, PA. They were the foundation for the restored version. Russo, Streiner, and others personally transported the canisters to MoMA’s secretive restorations and storage facility. There, technicians employed state-of-the-art digital technology to brighten, sharpen, and clarify the filmstrip on which Night of the Living Dead was printed. Meanwhile, audio mechanics in California touched up the sound, patching in some missing dialogue tracks (“lost in a black hole somewhere,” Streiner speculated) from a remaining master mix.
For the moment, MoMA can’t speak to long-term plans for the 4K restoration, or whether it might see broad release someday. But the new version does prove Night of the Living Dead is unkillable, at least as long as we have professionals dedicated to maintaining celluloid. Romero shaped the zombie tradition — an irony that now annoys him, as he’s forced to scrounge for a budget. “Zombies are hot, we’ve got The Walking Dead and World War Z, and I can’t raise two million bucks!” he says. Nonetheless, he’s prepared to bring his brainchild into the future he’s created for it. Birth, death, and suspended animation, with a dying print yanked back from beyond the veil by technological ingenuity — that’s how the cycle of life works in Romero’s eternal nightmare world.