As a horror movie fan, we all know about “Night of the Living Dead.” We all know the plot. We all know the lines “They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara.” We all hear the screams. We all see the flesh being eaten. It has become part of our shared consciousness as horror film lovers.
So, to discuss the merits of the film and its place in the cosmos of horror would be foolish.
I’m not here to discuss this. Instead, I am here to praise an entity, namely, The Criterion Collection and to suggest the concept of a Film Library.
Before I dig into the flesh of the subject, let’s talk about DVDs, Blu-Rays and their future and their past.
Being a Baby Boomer (born before 1964), I am a collector, an acquirer, a “matter junkie.” I am told that most of the younger set (I hear they are called Millennials) don’t collect anything. They don’t buy CDs or DVDs. All their music is downloaded. All their films are streamed. It has gotten to a point where Best Buy has announced that they will no longer carry CDs. Sam’s Club and Costco, once havens for discounted new releases of CDs and DVDs, may only carry ones that will sell thousands at a clip (“Rogue One” is a good example of this). And I have nothing against this practice. Times change.
I watched VHS rise against BETA and win. The first VCR I owned was a top-loader, one speed, all steel and weighed about 20 pounds. I bought it at an auction for a song and huffed and puffed carrying it three blocks to the car. Sorry, no upper body strength here.
I had vinyl music. I loved cassettes. Never had 8-track, but some of my friends did. Of course, I also had friends who had a working Victrolas and played 78s. I still have a few Spike Jones records in sweet shellac.
I was a member of Video Rental Clubs like Erol’s, West Coast Video, Hollywood Video, Movies Unlimited Video and others. I had a three tape a week habit.
I realize that some of you will have to look up some of these terms. I don’t really apologize. It is a good thing to learn a second language.
Streaming movies and downloading music are just part of the natural progression of technology. I will be curious to see what replaces them one day if I live long enough. And you, out there, will have to change along with it.
But, for me, I am a firm believer in having a Film Library. I would like to point out that many films didn’t go from the theater to VHS. And I have experience knowing that some films on VHS never made it to DVD. I also know that DVDs go “out of print.” If you didn’t get it when it came out, it’s gone. I know that the classic of bad taste “Pink Flamingoes” was one of those films.
Yes, there is Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and cable. But what about films that you might want to see that don’t get repeat showings? What about films that only Turner Classics shows? I have four Japanese feudal era ghost films on my DVR that I have never seen anywhere else. Buying these and other films make access easier. Waiting for them to reappear on your cable system, or your streaming service may be a long and painful wait. A library full of your favorite films gives you instant gratification.
When I talk about films and related topics, I like to use a mountain range as symbolism. I have been known to point to the peaks of the Anime range like “Akira”, “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Grave of the Fireflies.” These are the “high points” of the genre.
In the case of DVDs, there are two peaks: The Criterion Collection and Kino Video. Both carry the best selection of films, many of them rare or groundbreaking. Each are often coupled with film restoration projects. Criterion works with Janus Films, which was legendary for its preservation of cinema even back when I was a kid (yes, that long ago). Kino works with the Murnau Foundation, named for the director F.W. Murnau of “Nosferatu” fame, which brought us a fully restored copy of “Metropolis.” Films from these two companies are generally treasures. Many times, they give us things that we will see nowhere else.
Now, I’m not espousing buying everything that these company’s put out on DVD. I am saying that they should be considered and their catalogs should be perused on a regular basis. Kino is more of an online service. Only occasionally do you find their films in the stores. But if you are a student of European films, they are amazing. They have a great catalog of German cinema, beginning with Fritz Lang and going to Lina Wertmuller, with side trips to Werner Herzog and Werner Rainer Fassbinder. I just looked at their website and a number of American films are making inroads there as well.
The Criterion Collection is for the film addict. They get the best available print and then add anything they can find about the film. This means trailers, interviews, essays, documentaries, anniversary specials…you name it!
The films that Criterion carries have to have a certain relevance to film history. Yes, they carry everything that Kurosawa, Fellini and Bergman have made. That’s a no-brainer. But they also look for the most interesting reasons for putting out a film on their label.
Let’s take the case of a mediocre horror film from 1972: “Equinox.” Now, I have seen this film a number of times. It really isn’t the best of movies. Yet, this is part of the Criterion Collection! But why? It turns out that the folks who do the special effects on this movie would go on to do the effects for “Star Wars” and other great sci-fi films of that time.
This was the film they cut their teeth on. Therefore: Relevant.
“Night of the Living Dead” changed the landscape of horror and made the word “Zombie” part of the world’s vernacular. But the film has been in public domain for so long, everyone who could make a DVD of it did. I caught some of it recently on a premium cable channel. You could see the splices, the cracks and tears, and the worn parts of the film. How could this be treated in such a manner?
Last year, a new 4K restoration of the film was created and shown at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. The project included help from George Lucas and Janus Films. Of course, Criterion called “dibs” and on February 13th, released it on Blu-Ray. It lists for $39.95. Of course, Amazon had it for more than 50% off, not counting shipping and tax (Editor’s Note: click the NOTLD movie poster at the top of this page if you want to get it from Amazon. It’ll take you right to the webpage). If you prefer to wait, Barnes & Noble often has a Half-Off Criterion sale, both online and in their brick-and-mortar stores. So, it didn’t set me back all that much.
I got a chance to view it. It was everything I wanted it to be. The print was pristine. Not visible break, no dirty or worn frames. You could read the license plates on the cars. The dirt road to the cemetery looked like loose dirt, not solid concrete. The body on the second floor was even scarier. That’s how sharp and fresh the film looked! Even the soundtrack was tweaked. No one sounded like they were mumbling. The radio could be clearly heard in the background.
Obviously, the restoration was a labor of love. Best money I have spent on a Blu-Ray in years! It also comes with scenes filmed for Romero’s original vision of the film, “Night of Anubis” and so much more; two discs worth. Criterion has outdone themselves.
Spend the money!
But, what if you want some more common films and don’t want to go broke getting them? The answer is simple. Many people are divesting their DVD collections. The most likely place to find them is your local thrift shop. Used DVDs are just as good as new ones and only cost a fraction of their original list price. Find your local Goodwill or Salvation Army store. They usually have 50 to 100, or more, DVDs for sale. My local Goodwill only charges $2.97 for a DVD. More for boxed sets, like full seasons of a TV show. And that isn’t to say that Criterion or Kino discs don’t show up there too. They have and many of them I was able to snap up. And you wouldn’t believe how much Anime you can find.
Remember to inspect the DVD before you purchase it. Some scratches are too deep to get buffed out. (I have a guy at work how can do that. That’s how I salvaged a copy of “Suicide Club.”)
We all have favorite films. We all like to revisit them whenever we want to. Having a Film Library in conjunction with cable and steaming, is the best answer to this situation. Get yourself a Blu-Ray player with built-in WIFI and you have the best of both worlds.