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‘Night of the Living Dead’: Zombies Restored to Their Full Beauty

Glenn Kenny

2/15/2018 12:00:00 AM

On Feb. 13, just in time for Valentine’s Day, the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck debuted “Night of the Living Dead,” George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic. The posting is notable for several reasons.

For one thing, if you stream a lot of video, you know that “Night of the Living Dead” is everywhere. There are three versions, including a colorized one, free to Amazon Prime members. So you may well ask why the FilmStruck/Criterion Channel offering is a big deal. It’s because the version appearing on the site is a new restoration from the film’s original negative, produced by the Film Foundation (the preservation nonprofit founded by the director Martin Scorsese) and the Museum of Modern Art, which put “Night of the Living Dead” in its permanent collection. The restored film was shown in November 2016 at MoMA and later in repertory and art house theaters all over the country.

For another, this is the second time Criterion has put up a film on the site the same day as its release on physical media, in this case a two-disc Blu-ray on the Criterion Collection label. (The first time this happened was with “Desert Hearts,” released and posted last November.)

Some skeptics online who haven’t seen the restoration ask “how good can the new version look?” After all, “Living Dead” is one of the original low-budget horror movies that morphed into a classic. The answer lies in part with just how bad the versions you can watch on Amazon Prime look. There’s one with a “Fisher Klingenstein Films” logo before the opening shot. The image is blurry, with the whites far too bright, washed-out and lacking in detail. A “50th Anniversary” edition, touting the movie as “Now Available in 1080p High-Definition-2K HD transfer from a rare film print” may well be as advertised. Yet however “rare” the print from which the version was scanned, it wasn’t in very good shape. A lot of scratches and blotches, and overly high contrasts that deepen the blacks into nothingness while distorting the whites. We shall not even speak of the colorized version.

These various iterations exist because the movie’s original distributor failed to copyright it. Once it went into the public domain, anyone with a print of the movie could distribute it anywhere, produce video versions, and more, free. The creators of the movie didn’t make any money. The Film Foundation and MoMA allowed Image Ten, the original company behind the film, founded by the director, Mr. Romero, the producing brothers Gary and Russell Streiner, and the writer John Russo, among others, to register a copyright for this restoration. And Janus Films and its sister company Criterion licensed the movie from Image Ten. So this is the only edition of the film that yields revenue to all its original creators.

And it does, in fact, look amazing. “Night of the Living Dead” broke new horror ground with its story of a group of strangers trying to work together to fend off a mysterious attack by risen corpses determined to feast on the living. Its influence is felt on just about every zombie movie since. Yes, it was a low-budget picture, but it was made by artists who knew what they were doing.

The restoration doesn’t make the movie look slick, but it gets the true, sharp contrasts of the cinematography. This imbues much of the movie with what was then recognized as a documentary-style realism, which bolsters the emotional power of the tale. When I interviewed Mr. Romero about the restoration, he said, with affection in his voice: “The movie’s pimples do show. There’s a copy of the script visible in one of the frames! I won’t tell where. It will be a little challenge for the fans to spot it.”

On a recent viewing of the restoration, I was able to spot it — although for a while I didn’t think I would, so engrossed was I, even after probably dozens of viewings. I won’t reveal its exact whereabouts, except to say it’s after the movie’s 75-minute mark.

And the FilmStruck/Criterion Channel presentation also offers some supplements that are on the Blu-ray package. There’s a nearly half-hour video featuring the filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro and Robert Rodriguez,
expounding on the movie’s influence. You can also watch “Night of Anubis,” a 16-millimeter “work print” of “Living Dead” under a different title. It’s raggedy looking and only minimally different in content to the finished film, but it’s of interest to fans who want to peer into the filmmakers’ process; Russell Streiner, one of the film’s producers, who also plays the memorable role of Johnny, who has the car keys, gives a thorough introduction to the supplement.

So yes — the FilmStruck/Criterion Channel “Night of the Living Dead” is the one to see. And it is, in the parlance of Criterion, “director approved” — Mr. Romero, who died in July 2017, did sign off on this version. You will not be disappointed to see the movie as he intended.

A version of this article appears in print on February 18, 2018, on Page AR14 of the New York edition with the headline: George Romero’s Vintage Zombies Are Resurrected.

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Interview: Gina Telaroli on Republic Rediscovered

Caroline Golum

1/30/2018 12:00:00 AM

The Museum of Modern Art's hotly anticipated series Martin Scorsese Presents Republic Rediscovered: New Restorations from Paramount Pictures begins this week with a lineup designed to enrapture and entice! These long-unavailable titles will make their triumphant return to the big screen in handsome new restorations, the product of a years-long effort spearheaded by Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation and Paramount Studios.

Unfamiliar with Republic Studios? To bring you up to speed, Screen Slate chewed the fat with Gina Telaroli, filmmaker, woman-about-town, and video archivist of Scorsese's Sikelia Productions. Her handiwork can be seen in the series trailer and its accompanying photo essay.

Screen Slate: I think it's safe to assume that Screen Slate readers are familiar with the concept of "Poverty Row" in general, but they might not know where studios like Republic Pictures fit into the larger Hollywood ecosystem. For the uninitiated, can you tell us a little bit about where Republic Pictures stood in relation to other, bigger studios like MGM, Warner Brothers, and Paramount? 

Gina Telaroli: In 1935, Herbert J. Yates, a former Tobacco employee who was born of a bible salesman, combined six smaller poverty row studios—Monogram, Mascot, Majestic, Liberty, Chesterfield, and Invincible—and thus, Republic Pictures was born. The kind of content they produced was largely based on what the six studios had already been doing. At first there was a lot of independence and more resources for all of the players, but Yates eventually began to increase his authority, and as time went on it really started to become one studio that yielded to Yates’s vision. Monogram pulled out pretty quickly, and eventually the previous owners of the smaller studios, who had stayed on to work for Republic, pretty much all left, too. I think what sets them apart from the larger studios is possibility. Every time I watch a new Republic film, it just feels like there is a larger chance to see something different or weird or to discover something or someone new. When you’re making smaller genre films, directors can often work in new ideas or try new things, because the formula still remains intact and makes the film viable. The history of the studio is fascinating though, and for anyone who is interested, I recommend tracking down Jack Mathis’s masterwork Republic Confidential: Volume 1: The Studio , an insanely in-depth book about every possible aspect of the studio. Regardless of one’s interest in Republic, it’s an amazing book about what it takes to make movies, then or now. It might just be the best guide to filmmaking out there.

Ive Always Loved You
I've Always Loved You (Frank Borzage, 1946)

Within the Poverty Row tier, Republic held a unique distinction—the quality of the films seemed to be a bit higher than the "competition," and they routinely nabbed well-known names: directors like Lewis Milestone and Frank Borzage, and actors like Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, and John Wayne, to name a few. How did they manage to secure this kind of talent, and what do you think made Republic such an attractive studio to work for? 

In the 50s you started to have a lot of big stars who were starting to get older, past their Hollywood prime, acting in B movies, genre fare, etcetera. They weren't young enough for a lot of roles at the major studios, and the smaller studios and independent producers saw an opportunity to have an impressive name attached to their project. In August we’ll be screening a great Ray Milland movie called A Man Alone that he not only stars in, but it was also his first directorial effort. (He also directed Lisbon for the studio.) Beyond Republic, you had someone like Benedict Bogeaus basically building an entire output around this concept with the series of films he made with Allan Dwan, who went straight from making films at Republic to making them with Bogeaus.

Other cases are a little more individual, though it often came down to Yates wanting to raise the profile of the studio beyond their serials and other standard genre fare. Borzage was likely swayed by a deal that would allow him a large amount of creative freedom, which resulted in two of his strangest and most “Borzage” films: the obsessive I’ve Always Loved You (February 10 and 14) and the bizarre Moonrise(screening in August). The Red Pony (February 4 and 12) gave Milestone another chance to work with John Steinbeck and Aaron Copland and was actually pretty early in Mitchum’s career. Likewise, when John Wayne started acting for Republic, he wasn’t the big star we know him as today. In the end, not unlike today, I think a lot of it simply came down to going where the work was, whether it was any work, or simply the opportunity to do a more specific kind of work.

Hellfire2
Hellfire (R.G. Springsteen, 1949)

Republic Pictures was based in Studio City, and they had a ranch in Encino. (Disclosure: both of these places are in the San Fernando Valley, where I am from!). With this in mind, it's not surprising that their filmography features a wagon-load of Westerns. Other than the real estate, why do you think Republic made so many oaters? And, as an aside, how does their output in this genre stack up against the other studios—both in Hollywood proper and on Poverty Row? 

I've never been a good numbers person in terms of quantity, and I’m sure some wonderful person out there has already done that math, but to look at a different aspect of the word, I do think Westerns used to be a known quantity and have a kind of built in audience, which studios like Republic, who are producing small movies quickly, really rely on. What I've noticed watching so many of the Republic Westerns over the past few months is that often the Republic directors used genre to allow them to make some pretty interesting pictures. When people are wearing cowboy hats and there are gun battles, you can do a lot with the characters’ interpersonal relationships, because there's always a level of remove. You can go a little deeper and darker with explorations of human behavior, because on the surface, it’s always a fun cowboy movie with a woman who sings in a saloon, etcetera. The Plunderers(February 5 and 11) and Hellfire (February 2, 6, and 13), two of my favorites in the series, are two prime examples of this.

Plunderers
The Plunderers (Joseph Kane, 1948)

Can you tell us about the series—how it came about, and what the process has been like restoring and programming these titles? I know it's the product of an extensive effort, spearheaded by the Film Foundation. Why dedicate the time and resources to restoring these films? What about them makes them so special? 

It's been a labor of love between all the parties involved: Paramount Pictures, MoMA, The Film Foundation, and, of course, Marty. Paramount owns the Republic catalog, and the work they’ve done on these preservations is nothing short of incredible. So many of these films have only been available to the public in extremely subpar conditions and mostly illegally (YouTube or taped off of television years ago), and to see these new transfers has truly been a revelation to me. I kind of can’t get over how lucky we all are to have a studio putting so much care into this kind of catalog: one of B-movies, westerns, noirs, serials, and so on.

We’re also so lucky to have a film program at MoMA that remembers that films from the 30s, 40s, 50s and earlier are the very definition of modern art. So often they are cast aside as old and outdated and out of touch in the public consciousness, but in the context of art, they are extremely modern, and that is especially true of these Republic films—from the special two-strip color process they used for five years to the kind of plots the were dealing with. I think if people approached them in this context they’d be really wowed by everything that is going on in them.

Then there is the heroic work of The Film Foundation and Marty. Along with their World Cinema Project, they do such tireless work to restore such a vast variety of films, from well-known classics to Edgar Ulmer rarities to things like their most recent partnership on the African Film Heritage Project to something like Juan Bustillo Oro’s Dos monjes that is currently screening in To Save And Project. And then there’s Marty. What’s so special about this series is that it isn’t just a random assortment of films or an academic look at an old Hollywood studio, but it’s a selection of films that have been a part of his life, that he has watched again and again over the years. The selection is definitely representative of the studio, but they’re also coming from the specific point of view of someone who really knows and cares about the films and that kind of filmmaking in general. There are some real treasures in the series, and I can’t wait for more people to be able to see them!

Accused Of Murder
Accused of Murder (Joseph Kane, 1956)

BONUS QUESTION: What are you favorite titles in this series? Screen Slate readers face a glut of options on any given night, so what should our readers prioritize when staring down such a comprehensive line-up? 

Honestly, everything is pretty great. I know there’s a ton of stuff screening in February, so I would say just go whenever you can! But the real discoveries for me have been house director Joseph Kane’s The Plunderers (February 5 and 11) and Accused of Murder (February 5 and 7); John H. Auer’s Angel on the Amazon (February 3 and 7) and The Flame (February 3 and 6); and the religious trilogy of Driftwood (February 2 and 8), Hellfire (February 2, 6, and 13), and Stranger at My Door (February 10 and 12). Basically, all of the films I did a series of image essays on, which can be seen at http://republicpictures.tumblr.com.

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TO SAVE AND PROJECT MARKS MOMA’S 15TH ANNUAL FESTIVAL OF FILM PRESERVATION; INCLUDES FILMS FROM AKERMAN, FASSBINDER

Joshua Brunsting

1/19/2018 12:00:00 AM

Where can you find films from directors like Chantal Akerman and Ida Lupino, paired off with masterworks from the likes of Jackie Chan and Rainer Werner Fassbinder? No, I’m not talking about your local library, instead that just happens to be four of the names attached to this year’s edition of To Save And Project, MoMA’s long running festival of newly preserved motion pictures.

Now in its 15th and arguably one of its strongest season, To Save and Project returns with a lineup that spans genres, decades and subjects. Running January 18-February 1, the festival focuses on newly restored films, with restorations come from MoMA themselves all the way to major studios like Paramount. Split between two theaters and running just about half a month, this lineup is dense and features some truly startling discoveries.

One of those discoveries comes from The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project (glad I finally have your attention, welcome), which itself has three films showing during the series. The most interesting of the lot happens to be the 1970 Med Hondo-directed Soleil O (Oh, Sun). Hondo’s work is relatively unknown to most cineastes, yet this new restoration aims to change that for good. A crowning achievement from the Third Cinema movement, Soleil O tells the story of an African ex-pat trying to make the most of life in France during the 1960’s, told as an almost surrealist piece of protest fiction. Blending documentary and fiction aesthetics, this is a gorgeously composed and brazenly confrontational meditation on race, colonization and religion. With funds from the George Lucas Family Foundation and the WCP, the film was restored by the Cineteca di Bologna with assistance from Hondo himself, and this new restoration is an absolute beauty. The photography is truly stunning, particularly the contrast created by the bright whites and inky blacks. It’s an expressionistic piece of filmmaking, almost akin to German Expressionism, and this new print is quite stunning.

Speaking of German Expressionism, another WCP-backed restoration, this time one they restored first hand, is Dos monjes (Two Monks). Profoundly experimental, this 1934 film is a leading example of early Mexican cinema, and tells the story of two monks and the exorcism that changes their lives. A shockingly terrifying tale, this experiment in horror is a visual feast that uses the dual narrative structure in ways rarely seen. Directed by Juan Bustillo Oro, Monjes is a briskly paced thriller that’s as high on style as it is on genuine chills.

That all being said, the real cornerstone of this series is its focus on female filmmakers, from throughout film history. Directors like Akerman and Lupino are central to this section of the series (Les rendez-vous d’Anna and Outrage are showing, respectively) but it is the focus on lesser known entities that is truly exciting. A program of films restored by the Women’s Film Preservation Fund, films from directors like Barbara Hammer, Victoria Hochberg, Peggy Ahwesh and Sheila Paige are front and center, all given the respect they rightly deserve. Placed in context of one another, these four filmmakers are subject of an experimental short film sidebar, all newly restored and rightly put side by side. These are some truly powerful pictures and seen collected is absolutely rapturous.

Finally, there are the headliners. While the films mentioned above are the real meat of the series, the films you’ll be running to your friends to talk about, there are a handful of films here that will be tough tickets to find. Leading this collection is the mammoth restoration of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s hard-to-see TV epic Eight Hours Don’t Make A Day. One of the great auteurs underrated masterpieces, Eight Hours is a breathtaking look at life in West Germany through the guise of a generation-spanning familial epic. This screening marks the first US showing of the new digital restoration, itself drawn from a 16mm reversal positive. Along with it, a pair of films from director William K. Howard, and even Victor Eurice’s brilliant Under The Quince Tree Sun, and you have a lineup that rivals any you’ll find this year.

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Martin Scorsese, Paramount Back MoMA Republic Pictures Screening Series

Dade Hayes

1/11/2018 11:00:00 AM

EXCLUSIVE: Martin Scorsese and Paramount Pictures are backing the Museum of Modern Art’s screenings of 30 restored films from Republic Pictures, a small but creatively resourceful studio that turned out a range of influential genre films from 1935 to 1959. The screening series will run in two parts, in February and August.

Martin Scorsese Presents Republic Rediscovered: New Restorations from Paramount Pictures is a two-part series organized by MoMA in association with Paramount and The Film Foundation, a preservation outfit created by Scorsese in 1990. The 30-film program begins on February 1 with Alfred Santell’s seldom-seen That Brennan Girl, and continues through February 15; the second installment is scheduled for August 9 to 23.

Curated by Scorsese, the program marks a rebirth for the Republic library, which is being restored and returned to wide distribution by Paramount. Republic Rediscovered is organized by Dave Kehr, a longtime film critic and historian who is now curator of the film department at MoMA.

“From the ’30s through the ’50s, the different studio logos at the head of every picture carried their own associations and expectations,” Scorsese said. “And for me, the name Republic over the eagle on the mountain peak meant something special. Republic Pictures was what was known as a ‘poverty row’ studio, but what their pictures lacked in resources and prestige they made up for in inventiveness, surprise, and, in certain cases, true innovation. Among the many ‘B’ pictures produced at Republic in the studio’s heyday, there are so many titles that have been overlooked or forgotten; waiting for decades to be seen again.”

Jim Gianopulos, Paramount’s chairman and CEO, said the studio has devoted resources to the Republic titles. “As part of our commitment to honor the art of cinema and our legacy, Paramount Pictures has preserved more than 800 Republic Pictures films,” he said. “Thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese and The Film Foundation, audiences will see Paramount’s work to restore these films has been done with attention to every detail. The world will get to see them as they have not been seen since their original release.”

Often described as the “biggest little studio in Hollywood,” Republic is largely remembered today for its Saturday matinee serials and B Westerns shot in Encino and Studio City before suburban sprawl overtook the San Fernando Valley. (Its former lot in Studio City is now CBS Studio Center.) The studio had a far broader range than cowboy pictures, however, producing films across genres and budget levels, from gritty crime films like John H. Auer’s City that Never Sleeps to lush Technicolor romances such as Frank Borzage’s I’ve Always Loved You.

In the 1940s, Republic became a haven for several leading directors, including Borzage, John Ford and Allan Dwan. It also popularized a two-color process called Trucolor, a low-cost alternative to the three-color Technicolor process.

Andrea Kalas, VP of the archives at Paramount, will present “Republic Preserved,” a lecture with film clips on the Republic library and the process of revitalizing it, before the 2PM ET screening of Trigger, Jr. on February 4.

Here is a trailer for the program:

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