new blu-ray releases

(Welcome to Not Dead Yet, a feature dedicated to new Blu-ray releases and what special features you should be excited about. Because yes, some of us still like to own physical copies of our movies.)

What a great week for Blu-rays. The Criterion Collection has two must-have releases this week: Jonathan Demme‘s Silence of the Lambs and George A. Romero‘s Night of the Living Dead. Beyond that, we have The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Re-Animator from Arrow Video, the under-seen drama Only the Brave, and the Lyndon Johnson biopic LBJ. Last but not least, we have an exclusive clip from Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Here are the new Blu-ray releases you should check out this week.

The Silence of the Lambs

It’s a minor miracle that Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars, taking home trophies for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Not because the film didn’t deserve those awards, but simply because Silence of the Lambs is not your typical Oscar film. It’s a dark and disturbing portrait of almost preternatural evil, brimming with truly gruesome sequences.

Yet despite all the horror lurking within the frames of this film, Silence of the Lambs is a fiercely, yet subtly, feminist film. Silence’s heroine Clarice Starling (played to absolute perfection by Jodie Foster) doesn’t have big, dramatic speeches in which she declares herself a female in a man’s world, but almost every action she takes represents this. This is heightened by Jonathan Demme’s wonderful direction – one of the most memorable images in the film isn’t a moment of graphic horror, but rather the image of the petite Starling surrounded in an elevator by tall, indistinguishable men.

No matter how many times I’ve seen Silence of the Lambs (dozens, if not more), I never fail to be taken aback at what flat-out masterpiece this is. In the years since the film’s release, there’s been a tendency to label Anthony Hopkins’ take on Hannibal Lecter here “hammy.” While Hopkins did indeed adopt a full-blown porcine treatment when he reprised the role in Hannibal and Red Dragon, his work here is far more nuanced; far more incredible. The animalistic way he sizes up Foster from the get-go is a treat to behold.

As magnificent as Hopkins and Foster are (ditto Ted Levine as the nightmarish-yet-tragic Buffalo Bill), what makes Silence shine is Demme, The late filmmaker’s direction elevates what could’ve been a standard pulpy thriller into something far more intimate. Demme’s point-of-view camera shots – where every actor, except Foster, talks right to the camera – is jarring at first, but the more you watch, the more natural it seems. It effectively puts us within Foster’s head, carrying us through her journey from beginning to end.

Notable Special Features:

The Criterion Collection originally released The Silence of the Lambs on laserdisc, approximately 100 years ago, and then DVD. Now, they’ve thankfully updated to a wonderful new Blu-ray that comes packed with previous features, and some new ones to boot.

An engrossing interview with critic Maitland McDonagh walks through both Silence of the Lambs and serial killer cinema in general. McDonagh is informative and charming, and my only complaint is this featurette isn’t longer. I could’ve sat through a full hour of this.

Beyond this, there are several making-of documentaries about the film. Technically, none of these are new, and if you’ve owned Silence of the Lambs in the past on Blu-ray or DVD, you might have already seen some of these. Still, it’s nice to have them all in one place. Through these documentaries, one can learn some interesting bits of trivia about the film. For instance: Jonathan Demme originally wanted his Married to the Mob star Michelle Pfeiffer to play Starling, but Pfeiffer passed. Foster, meanwhile, continued to lobby for the part until she got it. As for Lecter, Demme wanted Anthony Hopkins, but offered the part to Sean Connery, assuming that since Connery was a bigger name at the time, it would be better for box office. Connery wanted no part of the film, Hopkins got the part, and the rest is history.

There’s a slew of deleted scenes on the disc, some of them quite raw and unfinished. None of the deleted scenes add much, and in some cases, having them in the film would completely destroy the perfect pace of the final cut. Still, it’s fun to watch some of them, particularly a moment after Lecter’s famous escape sequence – the one where he wears another man’s skinned face. After the good doctor kills ambulance workers and makes off with their ambulance, he sings to himself as he wipes blood from his face.

This release is a must-have for any film fan, or fan of Silence of the Lambs. One of the best elements of the release is the transfer itself: a new 4K digital restoration, approved by director of photography Tak Fujimoto, which maintains the original film’s grain. It’s gorgeous to behold.

Special Features Include:

  • 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: A book featuring an introduction by Foster, an essay by critic Amy Taubin, pieces from 2000 and 2013 by author Thomas Harris on the origins of the character Hannibal Lecter, and a 1991 interview with Demme

Night of the Living Dead

George A. Romero’s immortal classic gets the Criterion treatment it so richly deserves. Here, in 2018, where zombie-based entertainment is a dime a dozen, it’s easy to forget how wildly influential Romero’s film was. With a small crew, a cast of unknowns, and a paltry budget, Romero birthed an entirely new genre of film – a genre that still resonates to this day.

Night of the Living Dead’s set-up is deceptively simple: a group of strangers get trapped in a house during a zombie outbreak. But from this simple premise springs a film bursting with social commentary and brilliant on-the-fly filmmaking techniques. Romero always claimed that casting a black actor (Duane Jones) in the lead was a simple decision. To hear Romero tell it, Jones was the best actor he knew, and that’s why he got the lead. Still, whether or not Romero intended it, Johnson’s presence – the lone black man, keeping his calm in a house full of hysterical white people – creates an entirely new subtext to Romero’s zombie narrative.

Romero’s zombie films would go on to be bigger and bolder, but Night of the Living Dead remains the gold standard. Few low budget horror films pack as much punch as this. But beyond the shuffling, flesh-eating ghouls that swarm through the film there’s a bleak, nihilistic message undercutting the proceedings. Try as we might, human beings are no match for themselves. No matter how calm and level-headed we try to remain, our bickering and prejudices will ultimately bring about our doom.

Notable Special Features:

Romero and company accidentally forgot to copyright Night of the Living Dead, and as a result, the film entered the public domain after it was released. Because of this, there have been countless home video releases of the film. Yet the new Criterion Collection release is unquestionably the best of the bunch.

For one thing, the film has never looked better. A new 4K digital restoration, supervised by director Romero, co-writer John A. Russo, sound engineer Gary R. Streiner, and producer Russell W. Streiner, restores the film to the point where it almost looks as if it were filmed yesterday.

On top of that, there is a solid collection of special features here. The most interesting of the bunch is Night of Anubis, which is essentially a recreation of the original workprint of the film. Rough, uncorrected, and not even close to pristine, this is still a fascinating look at the very raw elements that eventually created the film as we know it.

An interview with co-writer John A. Russo details both the making of the film, and the early commercial work Russo and Romero did together. Here, we get to witness some of the early TV commercials Romero directed, which have more energy and clever editing than most modern feature films.

There’s also a great, but sadly far-too-brief, featurette in which filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez discuss the legacy of the film. All three filmmakers are suitably respectful and in awe of Romero’s work, and I wish I could’ve listened to them – particularly del Toro – talk about Living Dead in much greater depth.

Special Features Include:

  • 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

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