Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Synopsis: It’s a new night for terror… and a new dawn in horror movie-making when special-effects genius Tom Savini (creator of the spectacularly gruesome make-up in FRIDAY THE 13TH and CREEPSHOW) brings modern technology to this colorful remake of George A. Romero’s 1968 cult classic.

Seven strangers are trapped in an isolated farmhouse while cannibalistic zombies – awakened from death by the return of a radioactive space probe – wage a relentless attack, killing (and eating) everyone in their path. The classic for the 90’s: graphic, gruesome and more terrifying than ever!

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Night of the Living Dead (1990) 8.25

eyelights: its updated take on the original. its twists. its special effects.
eyesores: some of its performances.

“This is Hell on Earth.”

I’m a big fan of the original ‘Night of the Living Dead‘. George A. Romero’s 1968 motion picture, though flawed, is a superb low budget horror film: tense, topical, scary and engrossing. I have five different editions of it, something that I can’t claim for any other film (I have an aversion to double-dipping!).

After exploring it as fully as it was possible to (for me), I felt the urge to finally give the 1990 remake a chance. Though it might seem like a scandalous idea to remake an all-time classic, when I realized that Tom Savini, the make-up and special effects legend who worked with Romero, directed it, I was curious.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Firstly, the script was written by Romero himself, based on the original that he and John A. Russo cowrote. He updated it for a more modern audience, keeping some of the text, jettisoning the rest and even moving some of it around. He also reworked the characters to better reflect modern attitudes and sensibilities.

The story remains the same: a handful of people find themselves trapped in a small farmhouse when an inexplicable phenomenon brings the dead back to life. Surrounded by the undead, they have to quell the tensions between them to work together. Soon they realize they have to find a way out if they’re to survive.

The biggest change in the script is that Barbara, who was nearly catatonic and utterly useless in the original, is now a take-charge character with tremendous tenacity and survival skills. It shifts the balance of power dramatically because now, instead of Ben being the lead, we have co-leads of pretty equal measure.

Though it took me aback the first time I saw the picture, I very much embraced it this time.

The thing is that Romero and Savini simply couldn’t just remake ‘Night of the Living Dead’ frame-by-frame, but in colour, as Gus Van Sant did with ‘Psycho‘; they would have been raked over coals for it. So they threw red herrings at fans of the original right from the start, zipping when they should have been zapping.

For instance, much of the opening dialogue taking place in the cemetery, now takes place in the car on the way there. And the first scares are changed just enough that audiences know to expect something familiar and respectful – but different. In fact, in some instance, they actually improved on scenes that didn’t work.

They also injected little nods to the original film. For instance, the first time that we see Ben, he’s coming out of a pick-up truck carrying a crowbar – except that he’s holding it in such a way that it sort of looks like he’s handling a meat hook, which is a direct reference to the last time we see Ben in the original.

(It also reminds one of ‘Candyman’, which also starred Tony Todd – but that’s pure coincidence, as it was made later.)

There’s also the death of Ms. Cooper at the hands of her undead daughter: instead of redoing the awkward scene with a spade, they went with a more organic death – but sprayed blood on a spade hanging on the wall. There are also references to ‘Dawn of the Dead’, which Savini worked on, but I didn’t catch them.

The second reason I was pleasantly surprised is that, though this was the perfect excuse for Savini to show off his skills, he decided to keep much of the violence and gore relatively subdued for the genre and period. This kept the film much more in line with the original: gory and gruesome, but not atrociously so.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s tons of zombie action here. It’s just not as nasty as you’d expect from Savini, who’s done some terrifically horrific work for Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Day of the Dead’. Instead, he focused on making it as realistic as possible on a budget (and without CGI). The effects look great.

Overall, the cast is an improvement over the originals, who couldn’t always deliver their lines adequately (and, in some cases, never at all). But it’s a give-and-take situation, in that, while none of the new actors are nearly as terrible, there are also no powerhouse performances either. There’s a greater balance.

Ben: Tony Todd plays Ben this time and he’s rock solid, but he doesn’t have the fire that Duane Jones had. In my eyes, Jones had star caliber: he had charisma and imbued Ben with an intelligence and confidence that made a hero of him. Todd’s Ben is a good, honourable man, but he doesn’t inspire as much confidence.

Barbara: Patricia Tallman’s Barbara is a completely different beast from the original, so it’s hard to compare the two. But the fact is that Judith O’Dea was really quite horrible at playing the panicked and nearly catatonic young woman. Tallman gives attitude and savoir faire to this version of the character.

Harry Cooper: Tom Towles’ Harry is grating because he just shouts at and blocks everyone, and Towles’ performance is shaky, unrealistic. But Karl Hardman’s Harry was also shouty and difficult. The difference is that Hardman had a presence that Towles doesn’t; he was a spitfire whereas Towles is more of a sleezebag.

Helen Cooper: McKee Anderson gives a TV-worthy performance. Enough said. Marilyn Eastman made the original endearing. The biggest difference here is that the dynamic between the Coopers here is dialed up; Harry tries to assert his dominance more, relegating Helen into the background. She stays in the cellar.

Tom: Keith Wayne wasn’t exactly stellar as Tom, but he was likeable. William Butler’s Tom is a bit of a hick loser, which is uninspiring. At least he kicks into gear under Ben’s direction and works hard to help. He’s still an idiot, though, and remains the cause of his and Judy’s ghastly, fiery deaths.

Judy: Judith Ridley had given a limp performance as Judy; she was sweet, but totally vacant. Katie Finneran serves up a spunkier version of Judy and does so adequately. This Judy speaks her mind and rethinks Ben’s plan for getting gas, offering her help driving the truck – which she does with much zest.

The biggest change in the picture is probably the ending, which is justified by the dramatic character shifts. I actually quite liked this new take, because the picture resets the dialogue from racial tensions to gender relations. It’s not nearly as nihilistic, but it still proposes a gloomy take on humanity.

All told, I really enjoyed this version of ‘Night of the Living Dead’. While the other one is ground-breaking, is far superior at tension-building and has meatier interpersonal dynamics, this one doesn’t suffer from the same inadequacies. I still much prefer the original, warts and all, but this is quite excellent.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t at all received well at the time, with many critics feeling that it was exploitative and/or redundant – which is unsurprising given the stature of the original. One can only hope that, with the distance that time provides, its virtues will be reconsidered and it’ll be given a new lease on life.

It’s not Romero’s classic, but it’s an excellent horror film in its own right.

Story: 8.5
Acting: 7.5
Production: 8.0

Chills: 4.0
Violence: 4.0
Gore: 5.0

Date of viewing: July 23, 2017

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