The videocassette is a “dead” media format in every sense of the word.
Want proof? Meet Geoff Turner.
The Ohio native owns more than 200 variant releases of “Night of the Living Dead” on VHS and Betamax. And much like zombies in an apocalyptic movie, more keep popping up.
Due to an error by the distributor, George A. Romero’s locally shot monster flick was left without enforceable federal copyright protection. Over the years, home video companies have released bootleg versions on VHS, Betamax, LaserDisc, DVD, Blu-ray and other niche formats, making “Night of the Living Dead” the most widely distributed film in motion picture history.
Turner immortalizes this strange aspect of the creature feature’s legacy in the book “Night of the Living Tapes.”
In October, the compendium will be released in print and digital formats through Death Cult Press, Amazon and Apple Books. The publication also features video box art, promotional materials, newspaper clippings and distribution details gathered from collectors around the world.
Although “Night of the Living Tapes” has been in the planning stages for five years, a recent Kickstarter campaign surpassed its $3,000 goal in less than 16 hours and was selected by the crowdfunding platform as a “Project We Love.”
To entice potential backers, Turner gave away ghoulish goodies. The incentives included the Museum of Modern Art’s 4K digital restoration of the film on VHS and a limited-edition T-shirt designed by Fright-Rags, a New York-based company that sells horror apparel and collectibles.
Ben Scrivens, founder of Fright-Rags, was eager to contribute to the project as an ode to the film and to the format, which, if you grew up in the ‘80s, was probably the vehicle that introduced you to “Night of the Living Dead.”
“We were that first generation to watch movies at home,” Scrivens says. “VHS brings back a lot of memories from that era. You’d go to the store on a Friday night, check out the box art, get the popcorn. It was a ritual. And VHS has kind of a gnarly quality to it that, I think, enhances the viewing experience.”
The book is also authorized and approved by the film’s creators, Image Ten, Inc.
Image Ten Co-director Gary Streiner, who worked as a sound engineer and an extra in the film, says the book is the epitome of fandom — a tangible tribute to a piece of cinematic art that means so much to so many.
“Image Ten’s mission is to supply fans with as much solid, reliable information as we can. That’s why we jumped all over Geoff’s book,” says Streiner, an Evans City resident who launched the Living Dead Festival in 2008 for the movie’s 40th anniversary. “There are so many fans out there who really dig these VHS copies.”
With the launch of a new website, Image Ten hopes to connect with enthusiasts and collaborate on more fan-based “Night of the Living Dead” projects, whether it’s a children’s book, board game or other collectibles.
Reclaiming and preserving “Night of the Living Dead’s” history is important to Image Ten, says Co-director Jim Cirronella.
“We’re not just sending cease and desists all over,” Cirronella explains. “Our goal is to nudge the property into its rightful place and give the customer a little more of that feeling that they got the first time they saw the movie.”
It’s all a dream come true for Turner, who is a diehard horror enthusiast.
On his 11th birthday in 1994, he went to Camelot Music and bought a 25th-anniversary special edition VHS tape of “Night of the Living Dead.”
“No one showed me the movie beforehand; I found it on my own and really liked the cover art and the fact that it had bonus material, which was unheard of at the time,” Turner says. “I was both frightened and fascinated by it. I had never seen a movie quite so raw before.”
He’s been collecting “Night of the Living Dead” memorabilia ever since. Prize pieces include posters autographed by 26 cast and crew members and a 16 mm film print, but he’s always on the hunt for more obscure releases. In fact, since the book was finalized, he has discovered 11 additional tapes.
Turner isn’t alone when it comes to hunting down these ghoulish relics.
The book started as a simple checklist but quickly evolved into an in-depth examination of the movie’s distribution history and the cult following that’s keeping dead media alive.
Like vinyl, analog video has a nostalgic feel to it. Films of the era – especially horror films – seem grittier and scarier when the image isn’t crystal clear. In this digital age, when every movie can be accessed with the press of a button, a VCR might as well be a time machine.
“I love watching the dead formats, it’s like stepping back in time,” Turner says. “That being said, I do love my Criterion Blu-ray. The film has never looked better and it’s nice to see movies how the artists had always intended them to be seen.”
So why are there so many rabid fans of “Night of the Living Dead?”
“Short answer: because it is a genuinely good film,” Turner says.
“Long version: The movie was groundbreaking and unlike anything that came before it. People often attribute the ‘public domain’ status to its longevity, but I would argue that it ultimately has little to do with it. If you compare it to two other films of the same time period, ‘Dementia 13’ and ‘The Terror,’ all three pictures were made within a few years of each other; they had theatrical releases, television syndication and fell victim to the public domain home video market.
“Those films are largely overlooked while ‘Night of the Living Dead’ continues to thrive.”