Widget Image

Blu-ray Reviews for March 13, 2018

Selections from this week’s Blu-ray releases can be found below in this ongoing weekly summary of reviews. Click on any of the following titles to navigate directly to that review. This week’s releases (which include many reissues of George A. Romero’s earliest works) are: the video store staple Basket Case; the poignant and dark animated feature Bird Boy: The Forgotten Children; Romero’s The Crazies; the wickedly and uncomfortably funny I, Tonya;  the newest stumble for Warner Bros. DCEU Justice League; the Criterion Collection release of Romero’s game-changing classic Night of the Living Dead; another early Romero effort Season of the Witch; the Criterion Collection’s reissue of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs; and Shout! Factory’s 2-disc reissue of the quiet 2008 horror/thriller The Strangers. A list of other titles also available this week, including another Romero film, can be found at the end.

Distributor: Arrow Video / MVD Entertainment

The feature debut of director Frank Henenlotter (Brain Damage, Frankenhooker), 1982’s Basket Case is perhaps his most revered – a riotous and blood-spattered midnight movie experience, now immortalized in a lavish new 4K restoration by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Duane Bradley is a pretty ordinary guy. His formerly conjoined twin Belial, on the other hand, is a deformed, fleshy lump whom he carries around in a wicker basket. Arriving in the Big Apple and taking up a room at the seedy Hotel Broslin, the pair set about hunting down and butchering the surgeons responsible for their separation. But tensions flare up when Duane starts spending time with a pretty blonde secretary, and Belial’s homicidal tendencies reach bloody new extremes. Filmed on a shoestring budget against the backdrop of 1980s New York (where the movie would become a staple of the infamous 42nd Street grindhouse circuit), Basket Case has clawed its way from its humble origins to become one of the most celebrated cult movies of all time.

For those old enough to remember a time before streaming video — when you would walk the aisles of these antiquated institutions called “video stores” to grab a VHS or two that would serve as your night’s entertainment — certain horror titles are likely burned into your mind thanks to their ghoulish box art. Dead Alive, I Spit on Your Grave, The People Under the Stairs…and Basket Case. Made by filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, whom I’d previously described as 42nd Street’s David Cronenberg with less of a budget but more of a sense of humor, Basket Case is an assortment of philosophical and traditional tropes all piled into one perplexing film: it’s a fairy tale, a vigilante revenge thriller; it’s horror, comedy, and grindhouse; it’s a little bit Hitchcock, De Palma, Cronenberg, H.G. Lewis, and Larry Cohen. It’s purposely eclectic as to be utterly indefinable; it may as well have created its own sub-genre called “basket horror” — as in, everything thrown in.

If upon your first viewing of Basket Case you don’t know whether to laugh or scream, don’t worry — that’s pretty much the intended effect. Henenlotter knows his concept is ludicrous (a concept that would somehow spawn two sequels) and he has fun with having this barely humanoid thing that looks like a piece of chewed gum fly across the room and latch onto his victim’s neck, but all the while at least offering the illusion of terror. Belial is kind of creepy to look at — a different sort of creature from the director’s similarly wackadoo film Brain Damage — and he’s mostly brought to life through puppetry, but also sometimes in stop motion animation, the likes of which is so haphazardly done that it’s a total hoot to witness.

What’s nice about Basket Case is that once you push aside the sheer audacity of its silly plot and its frank presentation, the backbone of the story is about two brothers and their sickly dependence on each other. Before Elliot and E.T. ever met amidst a trail of Reese’s Pieces, Duane and Belial’s bond had each of them able to experience the emotions and impulses of the other — right down to Duane going on a date with a pretty girl in the park, and his being turned on setting off Belial and causing him to trash the brothers’ hotel room. (This is where the aforementioned hilarious stop motion animation comes into play.)

The greatest thing about the horror genre is that it’s the one which can most easily be used to convey whatever message you wish, and you can wrap that message in the most outlandish way possible without ever risking the watering down of that message. Basket Case could easily be viewed as an allegory for breaking free of your unhealthy familial bonds and learning to live for yourself — about becoming self sufficient and finally unafraid to live life on your own terms. Or maybe it’s just about a monster brother slashing doctors’ faces and eating hot dogs in a wicker basket. You don’t necessarily have to put any kind of weighty meaning on it — Basket Case is easily enjoyable either way.


The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • Brand new 4K restoration from the original 16mm negative by MoMA
  • Original Uncompressed Mono Audio
  • Brand new audio commentary with writer/director Frank Henenlotter and star Kevin Van Hentenryck
  • Basket Case 3-1/2: An Interview with Duane Bradley – Frank Henenlotter revisits Duane Bradley decades after the events of the original Basket Case
  • Seeing Double: The Basket Case Twins – a brand new interview with Florence and Maryellen Schultz, the twin nurses from Basket Case
  • Brand new making-of featurette containing new interviews with producer Edgar Ievins, casting person/actress Ilze Balodis, associate producer/effects artist Ugis Nigals and Belial performer Kika Nigals
  • Blood, BASKET and Beyond – a brand new interview with actress Beverly Bonner
  • Belial Goes to the Drive-In – a brand new interview with film critic Joe Bob Briggs
  • Outtakes Featurette
  • In Search of the Hotel Broslin – archive location featurette
  • Slash of the Knife (1972) – short film by Frank Henenlotter
  • Belial’s Dream (2017, 5 mins) – brand new Basket Case-inspired animated short by filmmaker Robert Morgan
  • Behind-the-scenes of Belial’s Dream
  • Trailers, TV Spots and Radio Spots
  • Extensive Still Galleries
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Michael Gingold

Distributor: Shout! Factory

There is light and beauty, even in the darkest of worlds. Stranded on an island in a post-apocalyptic world, teenager Dinky and her friends hatch a dangerous plan to escape in the hope of finding a better life. Meanwhile, her old friend Birdboy has shut himself off from the world, pursued by the police and haunted by demon tormentors. But unbeknownst to anyone, he contains a secret inside him that could change the world forever. Winner of the Goya Award for Best Animated Feature (where co-director Alberto Vázquez won the Best Animated Short Film prize in the same year) and full of unforgettable characters, Birdboy: The Forgotten Children is a darkly comic, beautiful and haunting tale of coming of age in a world gone to ruin.

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children is one of Shout! Factory’s recent quieter releases and comes courtesy of their partnership with GKIDS, a distributor of animated indie features. Despite their name and the animated nature of their acquisitions, GKIDS don’t distribute your typical animated kids films. Their past releases, such as The Girl Without Hands, have been of a dark nature, and sometimes even disturbing. GKIDS’ daringness to release films that are challenging and bleak, but which seem to be geared toward younger audiences, comes to a fever pitch with Birdboy, an extremely dark tale that includes drug abuse and addiction, terminal and mental illness, depression, and suicide, all playing out between warring animals who engage in bloody and violent warfare. (You know, for kids!) Maybe I’m just not understanding GKIDS’ mission statement. Maybe the “kids” part of GKIDS stands for something else. But Birdboy, though it’s an excellent and eerie animated horror/fantasy/drama, is not for kids — not unless you want to scar them at a young age. My age is somewhere between 33 and Skeleton, and there were moments where even I was unnerved, or disturbed, or saddened. (Pretty sure one of the more angry adolescent characters drops the fuck bomb at some point, and not too long after a dog humps his owner’s leg and reveals his big red dog boner.)

The animation is beautiful and there’s an inherent sadness which drapes over every frame, and I’m not talking about the occasional Pixar sadness, but a more powerful one that goes for the throat and doesn’t let up. Tonally it’s similar to the animated adaptation of Watership Down, while stylistically there’s a slight Burtonesque look and feel that should appeal to those who prefer their art a little darker a la The Nightmare Before Christmas. (The titular character even has a slight Slenderman appearance, complete with large black expressionless eyes and a plain black suit.)

The synopsis refers to Birdboy: The Forgotten Children as “darkly comic,” and while there are moments of levity, they are very few and far between. I can’t promise that anyone will have a good time watching it, but it’s a dark and affecting tale which pretty much accentuates the sadness and complications of childhood and presents the pretty blunt statement that some children are doomed — in one way or another.


The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • Interview With The Filmmakers
  • Birdboy Original Short Film
  • Decorado Short Film By Alberto Vázquez
  • Theatrical Trailer

Distributor: Arrow Video / MVD Entertainment

When a plane carrying a secret biological weapon crash-lands in the vicinity of a small, rural town, the area descends into chaos. Infected with a virus that sends them into a homicidal frenzy, the locals turn on each other in an orgy of bloody violence. As the army cordons off the town and government agents clash with scientists over the appropriate course of action, a small band of survivors attempt to make their way to safety. Starring cult icon Lynn Lowry (Shivers, I Drink Your Blood), the influence of Romero’s The Crazies can be felt in everything from the director’s own subsequent work – many commentators have noted the stylistic and thematic similarities to his zombie classic Dawn of the Dead – right up to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and beyond.

The Crazies is unofficially looked upon as a spiritual prequel to Night of the Living Dead, even if it followed on that landmark film six years later. But the idea of a toxen leaking into the earth and infecting the people of a small town and turning them into drooling, primitive monsters seems to go hand in hand with Romero’s already established ghoulery. Take that, add a batch of in-fighting that begins to plague our band of survivors traversing the countryside and trying to survive this radical transformation of their world, and the two films seem very spiritually linked. Whereas Night of the Living Dead purposely kept the potential causes for the zombiegeddon vague, having newscasters speculate on-air about all the different potential catalysts, The Crazies points its finger directly at the U.S. government first, and then the military later. Even if, when compared to Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies doesn’t seem as ghoulish or eerie, it’s a whole lot more angry, and Romero, ever the socially conscious filmmaker, knows what he’s doing.

Romero is most well known for his long-running zombie series, with films like The Crazies (or Season of the Witch, or There’s Always Vanilla — both below) sometimes falling by the wayside. And there’s a combination of reasons why, first and foremost being that his zombie films had a huge impact on the zeitgeist at the time, and attracted audiences who didn’t normally like horror films and tempted them into a theater showing Dawn of the Dead. Except for his non-zombie centric (well, mostly) Creepshow, Romero only seemed to fire on all cylinders when it came to his shuffling undead. The Crazies contains that same sense of renegade spirit and a socially important message, but its biggest detractor — the worst you can have in any film, but especially horror — is its languid pace. The Crazies, after a strong opening and slices of now-iconic imagery — all those faceless men in Hazmat suits — meanders from point to point, struggling to find ways to keep this cross-countryside night-time journey consistently thrilling. It’s why — and you won’t hear me say this often — its 2010 remake is actually the superior film. Sure, like the Dawn of the Dead remake, it sidestepped social commentary in favor of creating a more viscerally entertaining B-movie, and considering that was its only goal, it was a success.

As an early Romero effort, it’s interesting to see the early formulation of ideas and his anti-establishment persona, and it’s also neat to see Romero and co. actors pop up with whom he had already worked or with whom he’d eventually work (the biggest probably being Richard Liberty, who would play Dr. “Frankenstein” in Day of the Dead.) These days, The Crazies is looked upon more as a curiosity than even a minor classic, and it’s for good reason. It’s undistilled Romero, and for that alone it’s worth seeing, but it lacks the gut-punch of Night of the Living Dead and the confidence of its mall-set sequel. It makes its high-def debut in a single release after Arrow’s previous limited edition George A. Romero box set.


The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • Brand new 4K restoration from the original camera negative
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original Mono Uncompressed PCM Audio
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Brand new audio commentary by Travis Crawford
  • Romero Was Here: Locating The Crazies – Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz takes us on a guided tour of Evans City, PA and the locations used in The Crazies
  • Crazy for Lynn Lowry – cult star Lynn Lowry discusses her early career including her role in The Crazies
  • Q&A with Lynn Lowry filmed at the 2016 Abertoir Film Festival
  • Audio interview with producer Lee Hessel
  • Behind-the-scenes footage with optional commentary by Lawrence DeVincentz
  • Alternate Opening Titles
  • Image Galleries
  • Trailers & TV Spots
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx

Distributor: Universal Studios

Based on the incredible true events, I, Tonya is a darkly comedic tale of American figure skater, Tonya Harding, and one of the most sensational scandals in sports history. Though Harding was the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition, her legacy was forever defined by her association with the infamous attack on fellow Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan. Featuring Oscar-nominated performances by actress/producer Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad) as the fiery Tonya Harding, and Allison Janney (Girl on a Train) as her acid-tongued mother (2018 Golden Globe® Award-winner), I, Tonya also stars Sebastian Stan (Captain America franchise) as Tonya’s impetuous ex-husband, Bobby Cannavale (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Julianna Nicholson (August: Osage County), and is directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) from an original screenplay by Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You). The film offers an often absurd, at times irreverent, and always piercing portrayal of Harding’s life and career in all of its unchecked––and checkered––glory.

One of the critical pull quotes that appears on the home video release of I, Tonya, calls it “the Goodfellas of figure skating,” and at first that sounds like one of those random and purposely unique lines a critic conjures in hopes of being quoted. But that’s before you’ve seen the film for yourself. Once you have, the comparison actually becomes pretty apt, in that both films are about detestable characters doing detestable things and riding high on their stolen lives before everything comes crashing down. That Allison Janney’s LaVona Harding is as equally foul-mouthed as Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito is just one more thing which links the two seemingly unlinkable films.

The biopic is nothing new to the Hollywood system, and many subjects have had their stories told, from the obvious (this year’s The Darkest Hour with Gary Oldman) to the not-so-obvious (Paul Giamatti in American Splendor). I, Tonya, however, not only makes for an atypical biopic subject, but is also told in an atypical way. Biopics are rife with drama, peppered with moments of comedy in between their subject’s rise and fall in order to make him or her feel more human. I, Tonya, is a dark comedy from beginning to end, and with nearly every character on screen being utterly despicable, it’s as if the dark comedy sub genre would have been the only genre to explore such a twisted real-life story. (A dramatic, humorless retelling would have been the most depressing film since 21 Grams.) There’s a purposeful sense of wryness and cynicism that permeates every page of the script, and brief instances of genuine empathy displayed toward or between any of our characters are immediately undone by something awful — a profane response, a punch to the face, a reminder why Harding’s life was pitiful and bleak, etc.

Dark comedies are tough to pull off, and when applied to a biopic, that’s almost unheard of. Somehow, I, Tonya, manages to be one of the darkest comedies you’ll ever see, solidified by scenes of a mother verbally abusing her very young daughter or kicking her off a chair, or a husband throwing his wife into a mirror — all done for comedic effect. Much of I, Tonya, is the kind of comedy that causes you to laugh from sheer shock — the kind of laughter caused by something being so terrible you have no recourse but to laugh. It’s a conflicting laugh, to be sure — a six-year-old girl shooting rabbits with her father is the last thing you’d expect a six-year-old girl to do, and seeing her do so with such a matter-of-factness is morbidly funny. I, Tonya, is out to shock you in the same way that news of “the incident” in which she was (or wasn’t) involved shocked America and the world when it occured in the mid-’90s.

The entire cast do amazing work. Robbie imbues Tonya Harding with as much humanity as can be reasonably expected, considering the real Harding has been relegated to caricature status ever since “the incident” — nothing more than a curious footnote in history and a terrible In Living Color skit. Allison Janney, who at the time of this writing has just won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work as LaVona Harding, is a force. She marvels at playing such a vile, terrible character, and it’s through her talents that she’s able to elicit laughs while acting so detestable. She is the Bad Santa of mothers — foul, bitter, profane, and hateful, and she’s exemplary at playing that. Sebastian Stan as Tonya’s husband, Jake, and especially Paul Walter Hauser, Tonya’s dimwitted bodyguard, do great work and easily contribute to the degradation and mean-spiritedness that wraps around I, Tonya. Hauser, especially, derives most of the film’s more broad comedy, especially post-incident.

Besides the crack to the knee, I know nothing about the “real” story of the incident, the ensuing fallout, or who Tonya Harding actually is as a person. A disclaimer opens the film that states the events depicted within are based on “contradictory” information as presented by several people involved in the incident. Did Tonya suffer as much abuse from her mother as presented, or from her husband? Did she tell off judges after receiving an undeserved poor score and tell them to suck her dick? I have no idea. And I don’t know what I’d rather believe. But I do know that I, Tonya — comedy aside — can be difficult to watch. Sometimes uncomfortable. Even if in the guise of a comedy, we must always remember these people — even if exaggerated — were real, as was the incident that took place. I don’t know how guilty Tonya Harding is, and how much of her awful looking life was embellished, but what I do know is that she now has a biopic of her own, and — for better or for worse — it’s probably the one that the shamelessness of “the incident” — deserved, along with everyone involved.


The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • Deleted Scenes
  • All Sixes: The Perfect Performances of I, Tonya
  • Irony Free, Totally True: The Story Behind I, Tonya
  • Working with Director Craig Gillespie
  • The Visual Effects of I, Tonya
  • VFX: Anatomy of the Triple Axel
  • Feature Commentary with Director Craig Gillespie
  • Theatrical Trailers

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy.  Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to find and recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly awakened threat. But despite the formation of this unprecedented league of heroes—Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash—it may already be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions.

By now, the behind-the-scenes troubles of Justice League are fairly well known. I won’t speculate too much on them because, to be fair, I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what really went down, and frankly, it’s too sad to even delve into. All that’s known is Justice League director Zack Snyder left (or was perhaps removed from) the production before shooting was completed, and the studio brought on Avengers director Joss Whedon to finish. As you might imagine, and if you’re familiar with the work of both filmmakers, then you know the two have very different styles and very different tonal approaches. If you’re thinking this has left Justice League feeling schizophrenic, then you’re correct, but it’s also not the total disaster you’ve been led to believe.

Justice League proves to be a very vanilla experience, not offering anything terrible enough to be offensively memorable, nor displaying any kind of spectacle that feels fresh and unique. It doesn’t offer the controversial decisions of Man of Steel nor the gimmick of finally, after years of false starts, teaming up Batman and Superman on screen for the first time. Justice League is just…there…stocked with characters (and the actors who have so far been able to play them) along with newcomers who have yet to have their own solo experiences. The differing tones of Zack Snyder (he of the stone-serious school of speed ramping) and Joss Whedon (he of “let’s have fun!” university) collide, and can feel at odds, but they gel together in such a way that they almost (though not successfully) mimic the tone of your typical Marvel movie.

As to be expected from this genre (and it is a genre now, I guess), there’s some heinous dialogue on display (mostly from Gadot and Affleck) and some wooden performances (Affleck and Cavill), along with actors far more interesting and talented and given way less to do (Simmons, Morton, Irons, and Adams). Ezra Miller injects the only amount of fun to be seen, and the actor is willing, but his plucky enthusiastic performance echoes the schtick that Justin Long waved bye bye to almost ten years ago now.

I’ve never shied away from my indifference to this brave new world of comic book movies, but regardless of the genre, I can at least recognize when one is done successfully and when one isn’t. Besides the triumphant Wonder Woman, Warners/DC Films continues to prove they don’t know what they’re doing with their properties, and that they were in far too much of a hurry to achieve their own juggernaut Avengers franchise. Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and Suicide Squad have each squandered the rich mythologies and more marquee-famous characters contained within, and Justice League is just one more bland title to add to the mix. In terms of cinematic superiority, Wonder Woman continues to stand alone.


The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • Road to Justice:  Journey alongside DC comic creators as they explore over fifty years of the Justice League, from comic books to animated adventures to their cinematic debut.
  • Heart of Justice: Discover the heart, soul and mind of the Justice League, as the cast and filmmakers share their admiration for DC’s iconic Trinity: Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman.
  • Technology of the Justice League: From Batman’s arsenal to Cyborg’s alien tech, interface with the Justice League database to learn their most advanced secrets.
  • Justice League: The New Heroes: Join Ray Fisher on a personal tour to meet the newest members of the Justice League: Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg.
  • The Return of Superman: Bonus scenes not seen in theaters
  • Steppenwolf the Conqueror: Join actor Ciarán Hinds and the filmmakers as they reveal the story behind mankind’s ancient enemy and the Justice League’s greatest challenge.
  • Scene Studies: Revisiting the Amazons:  Take a closer look at the filmmaking process behind Justice League’s most visually exciting and action-packed sequences
  • Scene Studies: Wonder Woman’s Rescue: Take a closer look at the filmmaking process behind Justice League’s most visually exciting and action-packed sequences
  • Scene Studies: Heroes Park:  Take a closer look at the filmmaking process behind Justice League’s most visually exciting and action-packed sequences
  • Scene Studies: The Tunnel Battle: Take a closer look at the filmmaking process behind Justice League’s most visually exciting and action-packed sequences
  • Suit Up: The Look of the League:  Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson explores the innovation and artistry that goes into creating the costumes of DC’s iconic heroes.

Distributor: Criterion Collection

Shot outside Pittsburgh on a shoestring budget, by a band of filmmakers determined to make their mark, Night of the Living Dead, directed by horror master George A. Romero, is a great story of independent cinema: a midnight hit turned box-office smash that became one of the most influential films of all time. A deceptively simple tale of a group of strangers trapped in a farmhouse who find themselves fending off a horde of recently dead, flesh-eating ghouls, Romero’s claustrophobic vision of a late-1960s America literally tearing itself apart rewrote the rules of the horror genre, combined gruesome gore with acute social commentary, and quietly broke ground by casting a black actor (Duane Jones) in its lead role. Stark, haunting, and more relevant than ever, Night of the Living Dead is back.

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead changed everything, and I’m not just talking about the advent of “the zombie” as we know it. I’d go further and argue it planted the seed for the idea that cheap horror films usually destined for drive-ins and double-feature theaters could smuggle themes relating to the social experience. For anyone who has closely followed Romero’s career, or at least the genesis of Night of the Living Dead, then you already know Romero has spent his entire life modestly dismissing the idea that he purposely cast a black man (Duane Jones) as Ben, the lead, as nothing more than critics reaching for something that wasn’t intended. “He was the best actor we knew,” was Romero’s go-to line, and the film’s “upstairs” versus “the basement” argument — segregated worlds — that reached a fevered pitch between two dominant men of different races, or the hordes of cops and rednecks with their snarling german shepherds, or the very end when Ben is shot down in the house in too casual of a manner, or when his dead body is handled with hooks and chains, was all just a coincidence. Romero asserts that the script was the same during production as it had been before they’d cast Jones in the lead. I can take Romero at his word when it comes to all this. I can accept Jones got the job for his acting alone and not for what his casting would symbolize. But I can’t believe that Romero didn’t know, deep down, that audiences wouldn’t walk away from Night of the Living Dead without reading into all of that themselves, anyway. With a grin, Romero would admit he was fine with people calling him a prescient and philosophical storyteller — and if we’re being honest, he was — but he still cast an African-American man in the lead during a time when that wasn’t happening, which was further bolstered by the character of Ben being much more than just “the black guy.”

From a construct point of view, Night of the Living Dead isn’t within throwing distance of polished. It’s hasty, at times disarmingly edited, and offers a few instances of weak performances from its cast (almost all of whom doubled up in other behind-the-scenes production roles). It very much feels like a stolen film — something shot on weekends (it was) with scenes picked up guerilla style. (Romero and co. having stolen an exterior Washington D.C. interview sequence, with Romero cameoing as a reporter, while the Capitol Building looms in the background, is one of the ballsiest moments of guerilla filmmaking I’ve ever seen.) All of this aids Night of the Living Dead’s purposeful design, which was to deny the polished look of other genre films from that era or earlier (Psycho had been released eight years prior, but looked like a newer production) and instead present as newsreel footage. It was documentary-like in its use of a static camera, serving more as a witness to the tension and terror unfolding in that house without ever distracting with its fluid or showy presence. Romero wanted Night of the Living Dead to feel raw and real, and because it was made with the intent of highlighting experience over entertainment, it does.

What’s perfect about Night of the Living Dead is that you, the viewer, can manifest your own allegories about what it’s really about: racial unrest, generational rebellion (the hippie movement was in full swing), a reaction to the Vietnam war, communism, anti-establishment, and who knows what else? In the excellent documentary The American Nightmare, Romero referred to Night of the Living Dead as “one culture devouring another and changing everything,” and while he meant this about the film’s themes, he very well could have been talking about genre filmmaking in general. Like most genre filmmakers, Romero fell off his game in later years, going back to the same zombie well too many times, but that will never diminish his mark on the horror genre, and it will never change the fact that phenomena like the Resident Evil franchise (film and video game), The Walking Dead (and its spinoff), IZombie, Z Nation, and so many other shows and film series wouldn’t exist without him.


Night of the Living Dead may very well be the most victimized film in existence. An innocent mistake caused by the filmmakers relating to a last minute title change relegated the film to public domain status right off the bat, and since then, home video distributors have been running rampant. Hundreds of releases on VHS and DVD and Blu-ray are available across the world. YOU could start a home video company and release Night of the Living Dead and no one would stop you. Normally you’d think, “Cool, lots of options to choose from!” but there arose a problem: none of the releases reflected the film in its best light. And there was always trepidation among distributors to pour money into a restoration because there’s a lot of policing involved in trying to maintain one’s hold of a transfer for a film that’s not legally protected. Basically, it would be insanely difficult to prevent a shady distributor from stealing the remaster and passing it off as their own.

Enter the Criterion Collection.

No way in hell another unscrupulous distributor could say with a straight face that the pristine 4K transfer they’re bandying about wasn’t stolen. Criterion’s exhaustive restoration looks so good it might as well be a different film. It boasts tremendous stability, tedious repair of previous print maladies, and a very clean and faithful presentation. Audio is less obviously improved, but technical blips from the previous releases have been removed with dialogue sounding very clear and natural.

This message preempts the opening of the film:

Night of the Living Dead was restored by the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation. Funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation.


Criterion’s release as far as supplements is nearly comprehensive, with several different aspects of the production as well as its legacy being explored. One of the most interesting is the tri-interview featurette with Frank Darabont, Robert Rodriguez (both of whom who have done their own zombie projects) and Guillermo del Toro, who has been a prolific and artistic voice in the fantasy/horror genre. They bring the genre filmmaker’s perspective to an iconic title and a pioneering filmmaker, and they seldom get the chance to share their thoughts on such an esteemed distributor’s release.

What’s sadly missing from the supplements, however, is the feature length retrospective “Another One for the Fire,” which was produced by the Weinstein Company for their prior DVD release of the film to coincide with their release of Romero’s Diary of the Dead. Otherwise, there’s no better package in terms of supplements to be found.

The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director George A. Romero, coscreenwriter John A. Russo, sound engineer Gary R. Streiner, and producer Russell W. Streiner
  • New restoration of the monaural soundtrack, supervised by Romero and Gary Streiner and presented uncompressed on the Blu-ray
  • Night of Anubis, a never-before-presented work-print edit of the film
  • New program featuring filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez
  • Never-before-seen 16 mm dailies reel
  • New program featuring Russo on the commercial and industrial-film production company where key Night of the Living Dead filmmakers got their start
  • Two audio commentaries from 1994 featuring Romero, Russo, producer Karl Hardman, actor Judith O’Dea, and others
  • Archival interviews with Romero and actors Duane Jones and Judith Ridley
  • New programs about the film’s style and score
  • New interview program about the direction of ghouls, featuring members of the cast and crew
  • New interviews with Gary Streiner and Russell Streiner
  • Newsreels from 1967
  • Trailer, radio spots, and TV spots
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Stuart Klawans

Distributor: Arrow Video / MVD Entertainment

Perhaps the most unclassifiable of filmmaker George A. Romero’s works, 1972’s Season of the Witch sees the Night of the Living Dead filmmaker returning to the realm of the supernatural for this bewitching tale of a housewife driven to an interest in the dark arts. On the surface, Joan Mitchell has it all – family, friends, and a beautiful home equipped with all the latest appliances. But when a neighbour educates her on the practice of witchcraft, Joan believes she’s discovered the perfect antidote to her monotonous suburban existence, and embarks upon a dark path that will lead to a shocking conclusion. Filmed as Jack’s Wife and subsequently cut down and retitled Hungry Wives for its theatrical release in an attempt to market it as a sexploitation film, Season of the Witch is arguably one of Romero’s most overlooked films – an intimate and thought-provoking character study that serves as the perfect companion piece to his later Martin.

In terms of social consciousness, Romero always thought big. In his horror films, he was skewering culture, government, militaries, communication, and societal responsibilities. He was always thinking and depicting things on a grand scale. With Season of the Witch, a much more intimate film than even Night of the Living Dead, he’s turning an eye to the life of domesticity among the woman half of a relationship, and is doing so through the eyes of exactly one bored housewife: Joan.

For a while now, Romero has regretted his inadvertent portrayal of women in Night of the Living Dead as weak-willed shrews either babbling incoherently on a couch, being bossed around by her domineering husband, or running brainlessly out into the thick of danger. Season of the Witch, an entirely female-centric satire on housewife culture, is obviously a direct response to that, but it also threatens to go a bit too far in that direction. Joan’s husband is a dismissive, angry, and demeaning man far more interested in his job then in being a loving partner to her or a patient father to their daughter. When Joan later meets another potential suitor, Gregg, a sort of free-spirited pot-smoking rebel, he does challenge her philosophically and provide to her the quasi sexual awakening she didn’t know she’d been seeking, but he still treats her dismissively and with a detectable air of pity. The men are broad representations of stifling male archetypes, which, sure, enables Joan’s transformation from victim to victor, but it’s handled in just a bit too heavy handed of a notion.

Season of the Witch is more engaging as a character study than as a horror film (it’s probably the least horrific of all Romero’s films while still being cataloged as a horror film), but it also plods along at its own pace, occasionally lapsing into sequences where the film can feel like it’s stopped altogether. In their synopsis, Arrow describes Season of the Witch as “the perfect companion piece to [Romero’s] later Martin,” a film in which a young and confused man so identifies as a vampire that he begins attacking people and drinking their blood with the help of a razor blade. Both films are about lonely souls looking to reinvent themselves as something more powerful in order to escape the mundaneness of their unfulfilling lives, and while Martin has gone on to maintain a fairly loyal cult following, Season of the Witch has fallen into obscurity, likely thanks to its less horrific atmosphere and somewhat discomforting environment. It makes its high-def debut in a single release after Arrow’s previous limited edition George A. Romero box set.


The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • Brand new 4K restoration of the original theatrical version from the camera negative [90 mins]
  • Alternate extended version [104 mins]
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original Uncompressed PCM Mono Audio
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Brand new audio commentary by Travis Crawford
  • When Romero Met Del Toro – filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro in conversation with George Romero
  • The Secret Life of Jack’s Wife – archive interview with actress Jan White
  • Alternate Opening Titles
  • Location Gallery with audio commentary by Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz
  • Memorabilia Gallery
  • Trailers
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx

Distributor: Criterion Collection

In this chilling adaptation of the best-selling novel by Thomas Harris, the astonishingly versatile director Jonathan Demme crafted a taut psychological thriller about an American obsession: serial murder. As Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee who enlists the help of the infamous Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter to gain insight into the mind of another killer, Jodie Foster subverts classic gender dynamics and gives one of the most memorable performances of her career. As her foil, Anthony Hopkins is the archetypal antihero—cultured, quick-witted, and savagely murderous—delivering a harrowing portrait of humanity gone terribly wrong. A gripping police procedural and a disquieting immersion into a twisted psyche, The Silence of the Lambs swept the Academy Awards® (best picture, director, screenplay, actress, actor) and remains a cultural touchstone.

At this rate, Hannibal Lecter has achieved pop culture status, and when a horror figure reaches those heights, that’s pretty big. By now, he’s the James Bond of horror, having been played three times in three very different takes on the character, but all of them appropriate for the mood of the film — or television series — utilizing him. (I’m not commenting on anything having to do with Hannibal Rising, the very film about which you’ve forgotten. In my mind, it doesn’t even exist.)

The Silence of the Lambs is looked upon as the definitive adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel series while also introducing the definitive depiction of Hannibal Lecter, as essayed by Anthony Hopkins. Both are correct. Though my love and respect for Manhunter has increased over the years, and though I’m sort of in love with Mads Mikkelsen’s version of Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs’ legacy is the most deserved. And there are many reasons to proclaim its superiority over the remaining explorations, due in no small part to its willingness to embrace the dark subject matter of the source novel (something Manhunter shied away from), it’s across-the-board tremendous performances, and its immortal design. I say immortal because The Silence of the Lambs looks like it could have been shot yesterday, rather than thirty years ago. Where Hannibal moved the titular character front and center into a sillier and more visceral experience — a reflection of the source novel — and 2003’s Red Dragon seemed like a move more obligatory than artistic (and a bit too familiar), The Silence of the Lambs was a filmic pioneer in that it plunged into the world of real, actual crime investigations with an emphasis on forensics and postmortem techniques. The source novel for Manhunter, Red Dragon, had its fair share of this as well, but Michael Mann shed much of it from his screenplay, choosing to focus more on the psychological implications suffered by Will Graham (William Peterson) from his uncanny ability to deeply engage with the mind of the serial killer he was hunting. The Silence of the Lambs, both novel and film, resurrects this emphasis on federal investigation, almost feeling like a do-over of the previous novel and film. It is, after all, about someone working on behalf of the FBI to interview a known serial killer in hopes of catching another serial killer. Because of this, it feels more scientific, and hence, more intellectual. And the relationship between FBI Agent Trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and the cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, offers a very different vibe. If ever there were a film about serial killers and cannibals and mutilation and psychosexual perversions that could also, just faintly, just minutely, be sexy, it’s The Silence of the Lambs.

Speaking of psychosexual perversions, Hopkins and Foster walked away with best actor and best actress statuettes at that year’s Academy Awards, and I’m over the moon that a genre picture was recognized by the typically anti-genre organization in any capacity, but having said that, Ted Levine gives the film’s best performance, period, and that he didn’t come home with his own statue is a shame (although he would have been in direct competition with Hopkins, which would been interesting). Levine’s contributions to The Silence of the Lambs’ enduring legacy is often swept aside in favor of Hopkin’s flamboyant and lovably sadistic Hannibal Lecter, but it’s Levine’s bravery and unhinged performance as Buffalo Bill that gives the film its real sense of danger. Your monster movie (and this is a monster movie) is only as scary as its monster, and in this regard, The Silence of the Lambs is brutally scary. “I ate his liver with some fava beans” might be a popular quote, but, “It puts the lotion in the basket” is the line that’s far more quoted (for some reason).

I’m in a current state of malaise as I write these reviews for both The Silence of the Lambs and Night of the Living Dead, in that the passing of Romero and Demme are still recent losses for the horror genre and the filmmaking world at large. It’s been especially sad seeing Demme appear in the recycled supplements looking young and healthy and knowing that the director of one of the most respected genre pictures of all time is gone. Both this and Night of the Living Dead are two of the most mainstream releases that Criterion have released in a while, and it’s kind of fitting that both have been released at the same time — as if in a way to honor both directors who are no longer with us, and who will both be sorely, sorely missed.


The Silence of the Lambs has had a spotty home video record ever since entering the digital age. Criterion themselves even released a respectable DVD prior to its two-disc special edition DVD from MGM, which was showcased as a randomly cropped image that left the picture missing information at the top of the picture. The first Blu-ray release, also from MGM, corrected this cropping issue but the video presentation left a lot to be desired. Appropriately, The Silence of the Lambs has returned home to Criterion, who have gone back and done a full 4K digital restoration, creating a striking image that the film has deserved for a long time. By design, The Silence of the Lambs isn’t attractive. It’s dour, dark, and bleak — not a single sequence shows the sun, nor takes place in any kind of bright and welcoming environment. And once the film is approaching the final act, dealing with Buffalo Bill’s dungeon and house of horrors, the amount of scum and ugliness is at its fever pitch. Color is almost nonexistent. Everything is brown and gray and beige and neutral, although Demme finds ways to play around with colors to a purposely nauseating effect, most notably in the pre-interview sequence where Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) is walking Starling to Lecter’s cell and showing her photos of the nurse he’d viciously attacked, all of which is bathed in a sickening red hospital light. Additionally, Criterion pulls the audio back a bit by creating their own 2.0 Stereo Master Audio track, a presentation that hadn’t been available on previous releases. (The 5.1 carryover remains.) Everything sounds great, with an emphasis on ambience, which increases as Agent Starling gets closer and closer to her man.


The amount of supplements on hand don’t boast too much newly produced material, but to have everything carried over from prior releases now officially rules everything that’s come before as irrelevant. There are literally hours of supplements included on this release, including “Inside the Labyrinth,” the revered feature length retrospective created by MGM to celebrate the film’s tenth anniversary.

The complete list of special features is as follows:

  • New 4K digital restoration, approved by director of photography Tak Fujimoto, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Alternate 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary from 1994 featuring director Jonathan Demme, actors Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, screenwriter Ted Tally, and former FBI agent John Douglas
  • New interview with critic Maitland McDonagh
  • Thirty-eight minutes of deleted scenes
  • Four documentaries featuring hours of interviews with cast and crew
  • Behind-the-scenes featurette
  • Storyboards
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An introduction by Foster and an essay by critic Amy Taubin, and (Blu-ray only) pieces from 2000 and 2013 by author Thomas Harris on the origins of the character Hannibal Lecter and a 1991 interview with Demme

Distributor: Shout! Factory

Explore your worst fears with this shocking suspense thriller inspired by disturbing true events. After a 4 a.m. knock at the door and a haunting voice, Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler, The Leftovers) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman, Underworld) find that their remote getaway becomes a night of psychological terror as three masked strangers invade. Faced with inscrutable tormentors, Kristen and James must go beyond what they think they’re able to endure if they have any hope to survive.

Following on the heels of a creepy marketing campaign, and the immortal line “because you were home,” The Strangers packed a wallop that audiences didn’t see coming, while providing a shot to the arm of the small but ever present home-invasion subgenre. (It did, however, follow a couple years after the French film Ils, aka Them, which told a similar story using the same approach.) Told in a slightly nonlinear manner, The Strangers’ “present” is juxtaposed with events from earlier that evening which saw our leads as guests at a wedding while also showing things between them weren’t exactly comfortable. There’s tension there for reasons that become clear later, and they arrive back home and their night-long victimization begins, they’ll have a lot more to contend with beyond their relationship woes.

The Strangers, written and directed by favorite Bryan Bertino, relies on the old school tricks of Robert Wise’s The Haunting, using mostly sound and accumulating tension to create its atmosphere. Unlike The Haunting, however, we do see the force threatening our characters, although mostly in fleeting glimpses. One of the eeriest tricks that The Strangers likes to pull is when a sequence reveals that it’s not so much of the attackers is there, but that they had just been there, in the form of a scrawled message, a missing phone, or a smashed windshield. The attackers’ presence is felt nearly the entire time in the form of ominous knocks at the door, shattering windows, moved or missing items, or offscreen footsteps. It’s not until the end when the trio of mysterious, masked, and anonymous psychos stalking and terrorizing Kristen and James are revealed in all their unobscured glory, but even then, behind their doll-face masks, their normal voices sound both perfectly normal and inexplicably chilling at the same time.

The Strangers is also pretty rife with substance, even if it’s subtle. Yes, it’s established from the start that James and Kristen aren’t doing well as a couple, and this helps to offer a bit more characterization than just your typical well-to-doers in their fancy country home so often seen in genre films. Their struggle to reinvigorate their relationship is embodied by their fight to survive against their attackers, and like all other relationships with rocky foundations, sometimes that love can be salvaged, but sometimes it can’t and no one walks away from it.

Despite the ending, during which disturbing and somewhat graphic violence occurs and seems to fly in the face of the very non-flashy and non-visceral experience that Bertino had purposely curated, The Strangers proves to be an effective horror-thriller built much more on suspense and tension than body-drops and blood ‘n guts. It’s restrained and maturely executed — something seldom seen in the genre anymore. It’s much shorter than your typical horror flick, running in at a pre-closing credits 76 minutes, and even by then you can feel the premise starting to run out of steam, so it ends before all momentum can be lost.

The Strangers may not be one of the more talked about horror offerings from the 2000s (critics weren’t terribly impressed), but it does offer a fair share of ingenuity and confidence that helps it to stand apart from all the other deservedly forgettable titles from this era. This fancy new edition, and a long-mooted sequel released just this week called The Strangers: Prey at Night, prove that it hasn’t been totally forgotten.


The complete list of special features is as follows:

Disc One:

  • NEW HD Master Of The Theatrical Cut Taken From The 2K Digital Intermediate
  • The Element Of Terror – Interviews With The Cast And Crew
  • Strangers At The Door – Interviews With Writer/Director Bryan Bertino And The Cast
  • Deleted Scenes
  • TV Spots
  • Theatrical Trailer

Disc Two:

  • NEW HD Master Of The Unrated Cut Taken From The 2K Digital Intermediate
  • NEW Defining Moments – An Interview With Writer/Director Bryan Bertino
  • NEW All The Right Moves – An Interview With Actor Kip Weeks (Man In The Mask)
  • NEW Brains And Brawn – An Interview With Actress Laura Margolis (Pin Up Girl)
  • NEW Deep Cuts – An Interview With Editor Kevin Greutert
  • Still Gallery

Also Available This Week:

Distributor: Twilight Time (limited to 3,000 units)

Based on Anya Seton’s gothic-historical bestseller, Dragonwyck (1946) was the first film in the storied directorial career of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve); it tells the spooky tale of an innocent country girl, Miranda (Gene Tierney), summoned to work as a governess at the magnificent estate – the eponymous Dragonwyck – of a distant cousin, the imperious Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price).  Despite the luxury of the surroundings and the romantic attentions of Nicholas, things soon begin to take a more sinister turn for our heroine.

Special Features:

  • Isolated Music Track
  • Audio Commentary with Film Historian Steve Haberman and Documentary Filmmaker Constantine Nasr
  • A House of Secrets: Exploring Dragonwyck
  • Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait
  • Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain
  • Two Dragonwyck Vintage Radio Shows
  • Original Theatrical Trailer

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

From the creators of Ice Age and Rio comes the most love-a-bull family comedy of the year! Ferdinand (John Cena) is a giant bull with a big heart. After being mistaken for a dangerous beast and torn from his home, he rallies a misfit team of friends for the ultimate adventure to return to his family. Based on the classic children’s book, Ferdinand proves you can’t judge a bull by its cover!

Special Features:

  • Featurettes:
  • “Ferdinand’s Guide to Healthy Living” with John Cena
  • “A Goat’s Guide to Life”
  • “Ferdinand’s Team Supreme”
  • “Spain Through Ferdinand’s Eyes”
  • “Confessions of a Bull-loving Horse”
  • “Creating the Land of Ferdinand”
  • “Anatomy of a Scene: The Bull Run”
  • “Learn to Dance with Ferdinand”
  • “Ferdinand’s Do-It-Yourself Flower Garden”
  • “Creating a Remarka-Bull Song”
  • “Home” Music Video
  • Gallery

Distributor: Arrow Video / MVD Entertainment

Available for the first time on Blu-ray, Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero’s second feature film, There’s Always Vanilla – a biting satire of early ’70s American society and an unjustly overlooked entry in the late director’s filmography. When young drifter Chris meets beautiful model Lynn by a chance occurrence, the pair hit it off and a romantic relationship ensues. But with their wildly contrasting outlooks on life, it soon becomes clear that the coupling is doomed from the outset. Starring Judith Streiner (born Judith Ridley) from Night of the Living Dead and Ray Laine, who would go on to appear in Romero’s next film, Season of the Witch, There’s Always Vanilla is a unique entry in the director’s canon and one that’s ripe for reappraisal.

Special Features:

  • Brand new 2K restoration from original film elements
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original Uncompressed PCM Mono Audio
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Brand new audio commentary by Travis Crawford
  • Affair of the Heart: The Making of There’s Always Vanilla – brand new documentary featuring interviews with producers John Russo and Russell Streiner, stars Judith Streiner and Richard Ricci, and sound recordist Gary Streiner
  • Digging Up the Dead – The Lost Films of George A. Romero – archive interview with Romero discussing his early films There’s Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch
  • Location Gallery with audio commentary by Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz
  • Memorabilia Gallery
  • Trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx


Share Post
Written by

J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.

No comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.