Much like almost every horror fan out there, I’ve seen “Night of the Living Dead,” and had my cherry busted by it when I was five. Since being in the public domain, Romero’s movie has been open to many, many re-workings, one of which occurred in 1990 when his protégé Tom Savini got the wild idea to remake “Night of the Living Dead,” and you know what? It wasn’t bad. In fact his remake stands as one of the better remakes of a Romero film to date, and Savini enlists much of the same dread and horror and instills it with a bleak tone of greens and dark blues to invoke a film that’s quite gritty, bleak, and hopeless even in spite of changing a lot of character actions and increasing the tension. It also helps that he enlists the talents of special effects guru Gregory Nicotero to turn the walking dead in to shambling harbingers of death that I still have difficulty looking at to this day. The song is almost like what you’ve heard in the original.
Barbra and Johnny are driving to the grave of a recently deceased relative, Johnny taunts Barbra about the walking dead, lightning strikes and Barbra is attacked by one of the shambling corpses they mistake for a funeral goer. The 1990 remake manages to increase the tension and violence by making the zombies much more gruesome, so the zombies that looked like sleep walkers in the original, now are just monsters who are mangled, and often times disfigured. While many devotees of the original will have a problem with this since Romero’s whole idea for making the zombies mostly average looking to act as a metaphor for us, Savini’s intent is to tell a scary story first and leaves the social commentary as a backdrop. If you can accept that, then you’ll enjoy what he puts down for us. The zombie in the opening of the film is much more disturbing to watch and Savini manages to quite sharply relive the events from the 1968 film by speeding the pace up a bit. Patricia Tallman is something of an eighties stalwart who looks much like someone you’d see from that decade with short hair and something of a limber figure who quite strongly responds to the horror happening around her with the exact amount of lunacy you’d expect. She screams, she cries, and (fitting to the mind set of the new generation) she manages to kick some undead ass.
The original Barbra did nothing but sit around crying about the walking dead (which I would also be doing, I admit), and moaning about being molested by a corpse, but this new Barbra is changed for better and for worse. Depending on how you want to see this new version. Savini provides a controversial alteration by taking Barbra and transforming her in to a warrior woman who takes it upon herself to fight back mid-way in to the movie. Another brilliant casting decision involves Tony Todd as Ben, and he grabs on to the role and makes it his own. True no one can remotely top Duane Jones’ strong groundbreaking performance, but Todd makes this character in to a likable anti-hero, one who has seen more than anyone has in the entire house explaining a horrifying story that takes place in a diner that leads him in to the house, while couping up with other survivors holed up in the basement of the farm house, all of whom have their share of stories and are nursing to health a girl who was bitten by a zombie. Most of the film involves the same tropes as the original. Ben and Hooper argue and bicker, they can never stop long enough to focus on the real enemy, Johnnie and his wife try to keep the peace and Barbra learns how to become Xena, by shooting and bashing the walking dead whenever possible.
While everyone knows the surprise ending to the original, Savini dodges that quicksand trying to top Romero’s masterstroke by pretty much enlisting his own little dark twist. The entirety of this new version involves Ben and co. trying to find keys to the gas pump that would allow them the ability to fuel their cars and drive out of the death zone in to the city, but… by the end of the movie when people have been killed and Barbra opts for running for her life, we learn that if they would have stopped arguing long enough, they could have saved everyone in the house. Never prone to just delivering a story, Savini garners some sick jokes with a Nicotero cameo, a look at Ben’s fate after being shot, and Barbra’s realization in the finale of the film that we’re all monsters underneath and we’ll just cannibalize one another until the end of time. While Tallman’s observation in the final scenes are very on the nose, it’s an interesting bit of philosophy from Savini who just creates his own take and never tries to top what was already perfected. Sadly Savini just could not perfect what Romero mastered thus his remake falls short on many instances.
For one, the movie never quite knows where to go once Savini seems to be aware that he has to deliver one hell of a punch in the climax rivaling Romero’s own so it’s clunky and otherwise very disappointing. Romero seemed to want to reflect much of the audiences expectations in the original, while Savini just dives head first in to predictable material by making it much too easy to escape what we were told were inescapable monsters, all the while Ben’s ultimate fate in the finale is just about as drawn out and cliché as you’d expect. Savini also pretty much holds our hand through most of the symbolism and metaphors in his version actually allowing Barbra to talk to herself observing what we as the audience should already and probably already know by now if we’re smart enough to look between the lines. Zombies and humans. There’s no difference. You really don’t have to point that out to all of us.
Barbra’s transformation is pretty rapid thus clunky nine times out of ten. Savini and Tallman can never decide if they want to make Barbra vulnerable or aggressive, so she shifts back and forth from a screaming and crying maniac, to a female Rambo that seems to know how to fire a gun at just the right times and practically flips over the dead. I didn’t mind Barbra becoming a much more politically correct female protagonist, but consistency is everything when you’re offering a new version of an important horror film. While Savini’s version of the horror classic is lacking in social commentary, even characterization, and a gut puncher of an ending Romero brought to the genre, this 1990 remake is about as good as it can be… especially if you saw “Night of the Living Dead 3D.” Savini offers up his own twist on Romero’s premise with gore, disturbing special effects, sharp performances, and a gritty bleak atmosphere that keeps this remake admirable and entertaining. If you can detach yourself from the original, you may just have a blast with this one.