Onextra is a Canadian company which creates Described Video/Audio Description for an array of broadcasters.
The classic public domain title “Night of the Living Dead” HD is our first release of in a series meant to celebrate the art of DV and give back to our audience. Many classic movies that have earned a place in film history and in our hearts remain inaccessible to blind and partially sighted audience because they are in the public domain. Most companies will not take the time to script, perform, mix and release content they can’t make a return on. Onextra presents these films with Described Video to thank our viewers and to celebrate our shared love of film.
March 2020 RELEASE – NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
“Night of the Living Dead” was a challenging movie to work on, and the challenges didn’t end when the final mix was completed. Onextra has been planning this release for several months, but the week we completed coincided with the time when everyone here in Canada started to realize how serious the COVID-19 virus situation was.
As we scrambled to get as much of our team working from home as possible while providing uninterrupted service to our clients, we also struggled with this question: is this the right time to release a movie about a dangerous global contagion?
We erred on the side of caution and postponed our release. But since then, we’ve read many stories about how movies such as “Contagion” and “Outbreak” are experiencing a massive surge in popularity. We shouldn’t be surprised – we look to art not only for entertainment and distraction, but to help us process our emotions and anxieties.
With its themes of contagion, isolation, racism and fear of the unknown, this 52-year-old classic could hardly be more relevant today.
We hope you enjoy it. Our best wishes for your safety and health,
The Onextra Team
What is Described Video (DV)?
Think of Described Video as subtitles for blind people. A film with DV has narration added between gaps in dialogue to describe the visual elements. It helps the visually impaired audience to follow the action and create a mental picture of what is happening.
Without described video, they would
- have no idea that someone is sneaking up behind the hero with a gun.
- miss the longing gaze exchanged by two star-crossed lovers
- have no idea what the drooling, bug-eyed alien menacing the Earth looks like
DV fills in the blanks and provides the information a blind person needs to understand what’s happening on screen.
Described Video is known as Audio Description in countries outside of Canada.
DV NOTES BLOG POST: DESCRIBING THE LIVING DEAD
This classic horror film presents some real challenges for the described video script writer.
1) To Zombie or not to Zombie
Even though “Night of the Living Dead” is widely considered the “grandfather of all zombie movies”, director George Romero never uses the word “zombies”, and horror buffs love to correct anyone who does!
It could be argued that we are given license by the title to assume right away that the lurching attackers are “the living dead”. But if we only use the action and dialogue on screen without adding in outside information – a basic tenet of DV – there is no indication in the first hour of the movie just what is wrong with the shambling figures who attack our protagonists. We don’t see them rise from the grave or come back from the dead. That uncertainty is part of the terror the protagonists, and by extension, the audience, experiences.
In addition, the choice to name the monsters as such right away would rob us of moments of suspense that a viewer watching the film undescribed experiences. At several points, a character is suddenly confronted with a new arrival, and they don’t immediately know whether this is a living human or someone who’s about to try to eat them! If we call the zombies ‘zombies’ the line “A man appears from the glare of truck headlights” tips us off right away that this is a friend, not a foe.
Instead, we need to find ways to describe what we see without giving anything away. When the first one appears, we say “In the distance, a gaunt figure walks stiffly amongst the stones.” Once he attacks Johnny and Barbra, he becomes “the attacker”.
Things get more difficult when they start arriving in droves, and it took some extra work to get around this problem, but the results are worth it. And it allowed us to write evocative lines like “Four shambling figures encroach upon the house” and “A blonde woman with a decaying face gropes a tree. She picks off a wriggling bug….and shoves it in her mouth.”
2) Shambling, stumbling and lurching
During our first screening of the movie, it became quickly apparent that without excellent writing, the description would become unbearably repetitive. A character running from a dead attacker can be played a thousand ways, but we have far fewer ways to describe it that will fit in the short gaps between dialogue. How many times can you hear about a character “running” or “rushing” before the audience becomes utterly bored?
Before we started writing we came up with several pages of words to use. A small sampling:
Fear reactions: Shuddering / Trembling / Shivering / Quaking / Starting / Flinching /
Fighting words: Fights / Grapples / Wrestles / Struggles / thrashes / wrenches free
Running words: Charges / Darts / Hurtles / Shoots / Pelts / Sprints / Pounds / Races / Rushes / Tears / Careens / Careers /
Living Dead movement words: Stalks / Staggers / Stumbles / Shambles / Skulks / Lumbers / Trudges / Prowls / Reels / Lurches / Pitches / Lunges / Clawing / Clutching / Grasping / Groping / Pawing / Snapping / Jerking / Flailing / Floundering
Once we were finished our first draft, we searched through and highlighted any repetitive verbiage which drained the drama out of the action and replaced it from our list.
3) The Unnamed Protagonist and the Question of Race
An additional challenge arises when you realize that the hero of the movie is not named for the first 53 minutes of the film!
The Canadian DV Best Practices guidelines (link to here www.ami.ca / described-video-dv ) developed by Accessible Media Inc. (AMI) and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) states that unknown characters should not be named until their name is established within the story.
Since there’s only one other character, Barbra, when our hero arrives on the scene, we started out simply calling him “the man”. But that became too confusing as more people join the action, resulting in lines like “The man wrestles the balding man, as a third man attacks.”
Then we considered calling him “Barbra’s rescuer”, as it seems at the beginning that Barbra is the focus of the film. “The rescuer” would work for a short time, but not for an hour, and especially not since Barbra’s character is quickly sidelined, so defining the main character by his relationship with a minor one doesn’t make sense.
In a situation like this, some describers are tempted to cheat – to say “the man, Ben, goes to Barbra”. In some cases that wouldn’t materially change one’s enjoyment of the film. In this case, however, Romero very deliberately does not name Ben in his script until late in the game. The fact that he’s unnamed and disregarded by the others is important to the subtext of the story.
The DVBP recommends that “Unknown characters should be described by their physical appearances until a name is established for them.”
In a movie where all the other characters are white, Ben is Black. This is the physical characteristic that most distinguishes him from the other characters.
But the DV world has until recently gone out of its way to avoid the description of race unless it’s explicitly relevant to the plot.
The only other described version of the film online (link here https://vimeo.com/96825274 ) simply describes Ben like this: “another man appears, shirt open at the collar, close-cropped hair.” This seems like a slightly misguided “I don’t see colour” approach.
How do we determine when race is “relevant”? Even though it’s never mentioned in the film, and Romero says he didn’t write it with a Black actor in mind, it was inevitable that the racial tensions of the Civil Rights era would become part of movie with a Black lead and a white supporting cast.
The simple fact that a Black man is locked up in a house alone with a white woman played into the fears and prejudices of centuries. For a fascinating discussion of this, see Richard Newby’s excellent article “The Lingering Horror of ‘Night of the Living Dead’”. (link here https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/why-night-living-dead-is-more-relevant-ever-1145708 )
Nevertheless, given the reluctance of describers to mention race at all, it could be argued that to call Ben “the Black man” 37 times emphasizes the racial subtext too heavily.
The described version of the movie then calls Ben “the gentleman”, but this word seems to conjure up a picture of an upper-class dandy. Romero’s script calls Ben “the truck driver” – but this too conjures up the wrong idea – Ben isn’t a truck driver by profession – he has simply borrowed a truck to get away from the attackers.
Another option is to call Ben “the protagonist” or “the hero” – but this both takes us outside of the world of the story, and gives some of the plot away.
In the end, we compromised by calling Ben “the driver” until he is named. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the best one we could find.
A DV script can be written much more quickly if you ignore these considerations, but our goal is to immerse the audience in the atmosphere of the movie and give them the richest experience possible. At Onextra we think the extra work is worth it.
Watch “Night of the Living Dead” with AD/DV