Night of the Living Dead (1990 Remake): 21st Century Film Corp/ Columbia Pictures
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Rating: USA: R/ Australia: R
Why is it that people look upon remakes with such disdain? In the land of moviedom, talking about remaking a film is akin to telling a racist joke—people blanche and head in the other direction, or they berate you for your lack of taste. Now, I’m the first to admit that there have been some awful remakes (Psycho, anyone?) but for the most part, horror remakes have been far better films than the countless number of sequels each hit spawns. Cronenberg’s The Fly, Carpenter’s The Thing, and even the updated version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers were all decent films—movies that paid homage to their inspiration while presenting an updated version of the tale in the process. Truth be told, I think most remakes are better than any given sequel (with a few notable exceptions), and I think Tom Savini’s updating of George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead is a pretty decent film in its own right. Certainly not better than the original, and not better than Dawn or even Day, but a nice addition to the zombie canon overall.
The new NotLD was made largely as a means for Romero to gain some financial compensation for the success of the original (apparently, Romero’s been cut out of a lot of the money that the original has made over the years). While I’m usually opposed to films made solely for financial reasons, I can empathize with Romero here. As a maverick filmmaker who’s never been comfortable working within the Hollywood system, Romero needs all the money he can get in order to finance his newer films—and I think we’re all pretty interested in seeing a fourth Living Dead film. Also, NotLD was made in the late 60’s, shot in black and white, and relatively goreless—which makes it pale in comparison to the two sequels. It seemed that an updating was not only inevitable, but also at least somewhat in order.
NotLD tells roughly the same story as the original. Seven strangers come to be trapped inside a deserted farmhouse while the recently risen dead try to get in and eat them alive. And if the threat of the dead weren’t enough, factor in that the occupants of the house are incapable of getting along and are constantly at each other’s throats. Like the original, it’s a simple story that works mainly because it never bothers to explain the zombies in a definitive sense. Romero and Savini simply show you that the dead are indeed alive, and you either go with it, or you watch a different movie instead. These guys clearly understand that willing suspension of disbelief is a fragile and tenuous thing—and once they’ve gotten you into their world, they don’t do anything to shatter the mood.
However, unlike the original—which worked because of the inherent tension between the diverse survivors and the allegorical nature of the story as a whole—the remake simply tries to be a gore film. Sure, there are a lot of the same shouting matches between Ben (Tony Todd: Candyman) and Cooper (Tom Towles: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) but the dynamics have changed. This isn’t the 60’s anymore, and while race is still an issue in this country, it’s not the same powderkeg it was thirty some years ago. Factor in that the performances themselves aren’t as good as the original (especially Towles, who chews the scenery big time) and the whole emotional undertone of the film is compromised.
Other things are changed as well. Barbara (Patricia Tallman) is no longer a meek woman who needs those around her to save her, but instead appears to be a Ripley clone from the Alien films. Barbara runs around killing zombies with shots to the head and even eventually joins up with a militia type group of redneck zombie killers. It’s an interesting change for a character who was little more than annoying in Romero’s original film, but ultimately, the idea seems too borrowed to be truly effective.
The ending of the film is different too, which is sort of a mixed bag. Romero’s film had a powerful ending that was little more than thinly veiled social commentary. Savini ends his update on a different note, but one that still manages to be satisfying. It may not happen often in real life, but at least some people get their just desserts here.
Savini’s direction is better than one would expect, but that could be due to the fact that he had Romero around the set to help him out. Savini manages to film some intriguing shots (particularly the scenes of zombies encroaching on the house), but he never does anything too flashy. It’s a workmanlike production that shows some solid craftsmanship throughout.
Surprisingly, the film isn’t very wet (which is doubly surprising when one considers that Savini directed it). Tom’s FX are solid, but not as bloody as one would hope. NotLD certainly pales in comparison to his splattery work on Dawn and Day. Still, there should be enough shots to the head, zombie bites, and re-animated decomposing corpses to satisfy the average gore fan. Savini fans, on the other hand, might be a bit let down.
In the end, Night of the Living Dead (1990) is a solid remake of a classic film. It never rises above its inspiration, simply because it tries to play it too safe in most of the scenes. It’s a film that’s content to recreate most of the original, while never trying to update the themes so that they apply to a modern day audience. Instead, it relies on a fair bit of gore and updated special FX in order to thrill fans who may not have ever seen the original. And if you haven’t ever seen the original, then the remake is a pretty decent film. Of course, you can’t call yourself a horror film fan if you’ve never seen Romero’s masterpiece—it’s essential viewing for fright fans. NotLD never rises to the level of a "must see" film, yet it’s still a solid little exercise in survival horror. If you’re a fan of Savini, Romero, or zombie films in general then you should seek out this title. You won’t be disappointed.
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