It has never been difficult to see the late George Romero’s masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. A must for any horror film fan, it is also a staple in college film courses, and young fans of The Walking Dead know where they need to start when looking for the genesis of the modern zombie genre. Because of a legal oversight, Night of the Living Dead has been in the public domain since its release, meaning that it has been available to the public in virtually every format—16mm, VHS, DVD, etc.—from a host of distributors, typically with poor image and sound. Some companies have tried to give it a quick digital scrub, stripping the film of its vitality and even diminishing the ghostly residue of its no-frills production.
Because of this history, the new Museum of Modern Art-supervised 4K restoration, and release by Janus Films, of Night of the Living Dead is one of the most anticipated film events in recent years. The MoMA restoration is from the original camera negative, the gold standard when trying to resurrect a film and make it look as it did when originally released. We’re very excited to be able to share this classic with our audience like you have never seen it before January 11-12. MoMA’s Katie Trainor, who supervised the project, will join us on the 12th to discuss the restoration.
In anticipation of her visit, Katie spoke with me about her involvement in Night of the Living Dead’s restoration.
A friend in Pittsburgh tipped me off that between [Producer] Gary Steiner and [Co-writer] John Russo, the original negative elements existed. With my friend acting as a go-between, I reached out to them and started massaging them, trying to see if they would be open to working with us on restoring the film. This went on for roughly two years with me following up again and again through my friend. They were wary about surrendering the material to anyone given the film’s public domain status and history of being copied and exploited with no benefit to them. But, they had been holding on to the material for so long, I think they felt the time was right to do a definitive restoration to their satisfaction and be done with it. When we approached The Film Foundation about restoring NOTLD, they immediately said yes, and everything came together after that.
Gary and John also were happy that they could drive the elements to our restoration facility in Pennsylvania as opposed to shipping it. Now, they know the film is stored in a safe place.
What was the condition of the elements when you received them?
Pretty good. There was no smell of vinegar or anything like that. They had been stored in John’s cool, dry basement which is a great storage environment. Some material—outtakes, sound elements—has been lost over the years, but the negative was complete and in good shape.
How closely was George Romero involved in the restoration project?
Gary kept George abreast of the project’s status as we proceeded. Near the end, we flew him to New York and he spent a day going through the picture. He suggested a few changes here and there and gave us his blessing. There were actually a few “non-restoration” things he wanted to change. He asked about removing what we came to call “Easter eggs”—small things like a script sitting in the picture, or other small continuity errors that fans of the film know well and view as almost cherished mistakes. We convinced him that it was important to keep the film as it was, and he ultimately relented. He was more involved with the restoration of the sound. We flew him to California where he spent two days going through the sound with a fine-tooth comb. Part of the process was just making the overall sound more consistent from shot to shot, scene to scene. But there were also some things that had always bugged him. For example, they used canned cricket sounds in parts of the film, but there might be a shot in one room of the house where you can hear crickets and then there would be no cricket sound in the next shot. Or there is a scene near the end of the film where we see a gun fire, but there is no sound. That moment really bothered him over the years and he said, “That is why I wanted to do this, because of that!”
Was Night of the Living Dead a favorite of yours before the project began?
I had certainly seen it, but it wasn’t necessarily a favorite. But having spent so much time with it I see that it is really artistic, very special. After seeing it so many times it has really grown on me.
We’ve always had a print of the film, from Romero, in our collection. He remembered showing it at MoMA in the 1970s. It was a really big deal for him. He figured, if MoMA is showing it, it must be art.
How do you prioritize projects and decide your project schedule?
It’s really case-by-case. Our projects tend to be exhibition driven. If our curators really want to include a title in a future program it is put into the preservation pipeline. The second factor is funding, often from The Film Foundation. But, if material suddenly presents itself, or if a timely collaboration emerges, a film can move to the top of the list.
Image courtesy of Janus Films.