Thursday, December 5, 2019

Off Script: Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Films: Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Format: DVD from Richard A. Mautino Memorial Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

There are few more seminal works in the horror genre than George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead. I suppose it was only a matter of time before it was remade. In a way, it’s kind of impressive that no one tried for more than 20 years. Eventually, that remake became a reality under the hands of Tom Savini, someone much more known as a creature creator and master of practical effects. This was his first feature-length project, and his first not for television. He’s an interesting choice for director. While he was inexperienced, he certainly had a great deal of first-hand knowledge of how to work in the genre.

I’m not going to spend a great deal of time here dealing with the story. There are two reasons for this. The first is that, frankly, you should already be familiar with Night of the Living Dead. Savini’s version doesn’t really do anything that Romero’s didn’t do first. This is a straight retelling of the story with the changes existing only in a couple of the characters and in the third act. The second is that there really isn’t a lot of plot. Some people end up trapped in a rural house while the recently reanimated dead attempt to break in and eat them. Most of the tropes of the subgenre were founded in the original—slow zombies, creatures that can only be stopped by destroying the brain or lighting them on fire, bites infect the victim and eventually turn them into zombies, etc. In that respect, there’s nothing new here.

That being the case, I’ll keep this short. Barbara (Patricia Tallman) and her brother Johnnie (Bill Moseley) go to visit their mother’s grave. While there, they are attacked, and in the attack, Johnnie is killed when he is tackled and his head strikes a gravestone. It’s soon evident that there are several attackers, and since at least one is bearing a fresh autopsy scar, that they are undead. Barbara runs and eventually comes to a farmhouse inhabited by a couple more of the creatures. It’s here that she meets Ben (Tony Todd), whose truck is just about out of gas. He informs her that the problem is evidently not an isolated one.

Eventually, Barbara and Ben discover five people hiding in the basement. Tom (William Butler) and Judy Rose (Katie Finneran) are locals—Tom claims that the house is his uncle’s. Also in the basement are Harry (Tom Towles) and Helen Cooper (McKee Anderson) and their daughter Sarah (Heather Mazur), who has been bitten. Harry is convinced that the basement is the safest place, because they can wait until help comes. Ben is convinced that the basement is a death trap because there is no way out if the creatures get in. Barbara, realizing that the undead are incredibly slow, wants to leave, but Ben opts to board up the house, with Tom, Judy Rose, and Barbara helping (and eventually with the help of Helen).

The third act deviates significantly from Romero’s original. The biggest deviation in the film is the role of Barbara. In Romero’s original film, Ben is absolutely the main character, and the only one who seems to have a decent head on his shoulders. Barbara in that version is almost completely catatonic for much of the film. That’s not the case here. Initially she is certainly emotional, but with reason. While there are moments that recall the original Barbara, this version is absolutely a fighter and absolutely someone willing and able to take charge of a situation.

What I mean is this: there is a great deal of conflict in the original film between Ben and Harry Cooper, but it’s clear that Ben is the one thinking straight. In this version, that same conflict exists, but it’s far less obvious that Ben is the sane one in the argument. In fact, Barbara is clearly the most sensible person in the house, and unlike her original film inspiration, this version of Barbara is a crack shot and willing to demonstrate her ability with a firearm.

I was very interested in seeing this version of the story for a number of reasons. The original is such a classic that I didn’t know if there was a great deal that could be added to the story, and this doesn’t really add anything. It merely reinterprets, which is fine. I was mostly curious to see this in color and under the direction of someone known for special effects, particularly in horror movies. For a guy who made his bones as a gore creator, Savini doesn’t really bring a great deal of it here. It’s a legitimate choice, and I think it’s the right one.

Is it good? It’s not bad. It’s not going to replace the original any time soon (or ever), but it’s an interesting interpretation of the story.

Why to watch Night of the Living Dead: It’s a much more feminist version of the story.
Why not to watch: If you haven’t seen the original, this one will not replace it.


  1. I saw that pic of Patricia Tallman at the top of your post and thought, at first, that it was a very young Tig Notaro.