‘There is a fate worse than death!’
Night of the Living Dead is a 1990 American horror feature film directed by Tom Savini. It is a remake of George A. Romero’s 1968 horror film of the same name. Romero rewrote the original 1968 screenplay co-authored by John A. Russo.
Barbara (Patricia Tallman: Army of Darkness, Monkey Shines) and her annoying brother, Johnnie (Bill Mosely: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2; The Devil’s Rejects) travel by car to visit the grave of their mother. At the graveside, Johnnie’s taunts of, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara”, are interrupted by not one but two shambling corpses, a tussle between corpse and male sibling leaving Johnnie dead with a cracked skull. Barbara flees but after crashing her car, is forced to sprint to the nearest dwelling, a large, remote farmhouse.
Once there, she finds several previous occupants dead but mobile but is soon aided by another living person seeking sanctuary, Ben (Tony Todd: Candyman; Hatchet). Ben has just about kept his cool whereas Barbara is a gibbering wreck. With the house barricaded up, they are surprised to find five other survivors, Harry Cooper (Tom Towles: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer; The Borrower; ) and his wife, Helen (McKee Anderson), who, despite the racket, had opted to stay out of sight in the cellar.
Also holed-up are their daughter, Sarah, who has been bitten and is out cold, plus young locals, Tom (William Butler: Friday the 13th Part VII; Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3) and Judy Rose (Katie Finneran).
None too impressed at the lack of assistance, it is soon clear that common ground will be hard to find – the Coopers are insistent on locking themselves in the cellar to wait for help to arrive, the others more keen to escape by getting the truck outside to the nearby petrol station and heading for a safer, built-up area. With Barbara, who is starting to come back to her senses, staying to guard the house, the other three set off on their quest, only for a series of mishaps to leave two dead and the chances of escape even slimmer.
Back at the farmhouse, tensions have now reached unmanageable levels, squabbles over the TV and more importantly, gun rights, leaving more injured and the walking dead outside gathering in ever-greater numbers. It becomes a clear choice or fight or flight but unlike the original film, the survivors and the resolution may come as some surprise…
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Such was the farcical nature of Romero’s rights issues with the original masterpiece, it achieved an unwanted notoriety in the industry as a film anyone could release or lay claim to. Under these circumstances, it is understandable that Romero and many of his crew from 1968 felt compelled to throw their own hats into the ring, especially now more respectable budgets and film-making techniques were available.
With Russo out of the way, Romero was able to stay far closer to his original vision, fortunately at a time when he was still capable of being innovative and thoughtful without causing howls of derision. Savini, though fully immersed in the lore of the dead films, was a risk, given that it was his first directorial work but the remake can largely be hailed as a success, though the caveats to this would be the hindsight of truly horrendous horror remakes and how awful Romero’s own directorial additions to the saga are.
The primary differences are the semi-role reversals of Barbara and Ben, a nice enough device, though Barbara’s transformation from sobbing hysteria to crack-shot marksman and voice of society, literally overnight, is somewhat over-played and hollow. The character of Ben is more successful, less tragic than the original and slightly aloof, a pleasing antidote to the traditional saccharine Hollywood treatment which one may expect.
Similarly, Cooper has far more about him and is more dis-likeable than in the ’68 version. He remains fundamentally correct in his decision to keep safe and out of sight, an always pleasing aspect of the first, though Cooper’s self-preservation here makes it more understandable that others may choose the other route. Despite an almost identical role to the original, Mosely is pretty unbearable as the unlucky Johnnie.
There are numerous nods to both the ’68 film and Dawn of the Dead; aside from on-camera appearances from original cast members such as “Chilly Billy” Cardille, again interviewing locals and the original Johnny, Russell Streiner, as the sheriff, we can see the early red neck collectives taking great pleasure in dispatching the shuffling corpses. Allegedly planned for Romero’s version, the ending shows ‘lynched’ zombies strung up in trees for the locals to abuse, a jarring image and perhaps the biggest hang-over to the initial implied criticisms of human behaviour and racism.
There are also hints at the cause of the zombies – a TV broadcast quickly dispels fears that the issue lies with chemical spills, perhaps a dig at John Russo’s work on 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, whilst a photograph of the USS Eldridge in the farmhouse hints at the possibility that the so-called Philadelphia Experiment carried out by the military, may have had some influence.
The zombies themselves are superb and reason alone to give this version a chance. It is not only the make-up which elevates them to near the top of the living dead league but their individuality and costumes. The early stages of the outbreak allow for naked zombies, seen in Romero’s original but rarely otherwise, as well as junkies, children and neighbours and family members of the trapped survivors. There is a reprise of the bug-eating zombie, though this is expanded to a ghoul eating a live mouse, one of the only times any film concerning zombies has tackled the fate of other living mammals.
The electronic score by Paul McCollough works best when straying away from attempts at sustained melody and theme and instead creates oily and atmospheric musical vignettes, suggesting gloom without resorting to ham-fisted, obvious cues.
The film suffered heavily at the censors, being cut to avoid an ‘X’ rating, the outtakes still not replaced but occasionally shown by Savini at horror conventions.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA