Blu-ray Review: Night of the Living Dead (1990) - Twilight Time Limited Edition

An objective assessment of Twilight Time's controversial release of Tom Savini's remake.

By , Contributor

The furor over the color-timing changes found in this first-ever Blu-ray release of Tom Savini’s 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake has underscored the excitement surrounding this title. For those who don’t know, Twilight Time is a small boutique label that specializes in true limited edition releases of vintage films on DVD and Blu-ray. They issue 3,000 copies of a given title, available exclusively through their distributor, Screen Archives, and once they’re gone—they’re gone. Twilight Time retains exclusive rights to each title they issue for three years.

When they made Savini’s Night of the Living Dead available for pre-order, the 3,000 copies sold out in just over a week’s time, far in advance of its scheduled October 9 release date. Since all the copies were spoken for, orders were fulfilled early. The response was immediate. Unbeknownst to fans of the film, this Blu-ray utilizes a 20th anniversary transfer that Sony Pictures Entertainment made in 2010, reportedly with the approval of the film’s cinematographer, Frank Prinzi. The appearance of the film has been altered, with an overall darker look, desaturated color, and a bluish tint applied to most scenes.

For anyone expecting a picture that is consistent with the way the film has looked for the past 20-plus years, the disappointment is understandable. Savini’s film, produced with the approval and cooperation of the original film’s creator, George Romero (who adapted his own screenplay for this remake), has developed a deserved cult following in the years since its original release. When Barbara (Patricia Tallman) and Johnny (Bill Moseley) drive out to the cemetery to lay flowers on their mother’s grave, the sun is shining and the picture is very bright. So far, so good. Tallman’s red hair looks as it always has. However, once the first zombie attacks, killing Johnny and sending Barbara running for her life, that’s when the changes occur. To my eyes, there are some real inconsistencies in how noticeable the altered tint really is, but up until around the 27 minute mark, the change is undeniable.

Depending on how well you know the movie, it may be highly distracting. I will admit, without having seen the movie in a number of years, I wasn’t bothered as I screened the Blu-ray for the first time. It was apparent that the picture was significantly darker, but I was still able to get involved in the film and enjoy it as I always had. After directly comparing the Blu-ray to the DVD, it sank in just how different the two presentations actually are. The scenes in and around the farmhouse, before moonrise, are the most striking. Ben (Tony Todd) arrives at the house and begins helping Barbara fend off zombies. The blue tint and darker picture, turning daylight into a dusk-type look, seem to have been added with the intent of creating a more chilling atmosphere.

Interestingly, the altered appearance seems to revert back to the familiar old look once Ben and Barbara discover the farmhouse’s other inhabitants, Harry (Tom Towles), Helen (McKee Anderson), Tom (William Butler), and Judy (Katie Finneran). The former couple is married, while the latter are boyfriend and girlfriend. They were holed up in the house’s basement, hoping to ride out the zombie attacks without being discovered. Harry and Helen have a sick daughter with them. For a short while, the color saturation goes back to normal and the actors’ faces revert to a rosier, more natural appearance. But the changes do come back. As the story progresses, with ever-increasing numbers of the walking dead attempting to break through the boarded up windows and doors, I didn’t notice the color change as much. Maybe I had just adjusted to it, because after I did a side-by-side comparison with the old DVD release, I realized the “blue look” was still a factor. However, scenes taking place in the basement always seemed to be much closer to the DVD.

Ultimately, the changes did not impede my ability to enjoy the film. I love the way Romero tweaked his original 1968 version (written with John A. Russo), empowering Barbara by allowing her to be proactive. Tallman’s performance is strong, effectively selling Barbara’s slightly trippy philosophical epiphany, “They're us. We're them and they're us,” near the film’s end. Todd is also great as Ben, commanding but sympathetic. Only Tom Towles’ over-the-top-hysterics, as the constantly dissenting Harry, come across as silly and unbelievable. Savini’s film never quite reaches the tautness of Romero’s classic original, but he crafted a very worthy remake.

As for the positives of Twilight Time’s 1080p Blu-ray, the clarity is excellent throughout. The source print was very clean, without any problems such as scratches or dirt specs. I was surprised by how much detail is still visible even with the darker look. Objectively speaking, this is a very good presentation of a transfer that had already deliberately altered the look of the film’s cinematography. Some have called into question whether or not the changes were, in fact, intentional or if they were a technical error. After watching the DVD synced up with the Blu-ray, and noting the areas where they look alike as well as different, I can only conclude that they were choices made on purpose (for better or worse).

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack works well, with crystal clear dialogue. Music and effects are well balanced, though it should be pointed out that there are a couple of foley effects that have disappeared. I admit that these omissions escaped me completely when I first watched the disc. They’re subtle (such as the click of Harry’s gun when he tries to fire after emptying it) and catching them will likely require a high level of familiarity with the original mix. But again, some have justifiably complained that these minor omissions add insult to injury when coupled with the visual changes. The surround channels are not overly active, but the score spills over in a supportive way and ambiance comes through as well. Aside from the couple of missing sound effects, this all sounds good for a 20-year-old, low-budget film.

Carried over from the previous DVD is a director’s commentary by Tom Savini. The only other extras are an isolated score track, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, and the theatrical trailer. The isolated score is a standard feature of Twilight Time’s releases and will be a welcome treat for any fans of Paul McCollough’s work here. The trailer provides a quick way to glimpse the original look of the film for anyone who doesn’t have the old DVD handy.

Twilight Time is standing by their release, citing in an official statement that Sony delivered an approved transfer. They also have reported that Tom Savini has dubbed the Blu-ray presentation “fantastic.” At this point, you either have your Blu-ray or are eyeing premium-priced copies on the secondary market. If I had the capability to do Blu-ray screencaps, I would. But there are plenty of them floating around the web, so I recommend a quick Google search if you are considering paying top dollar from a reseller.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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