Just as it wouldn’t really feel like Halloween without reviewing at least one of the films in John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s venerable Halloween slasher series, the season wouldn’t feel complete without reviewing a zombie flick of some sort or other as well, and this year I’ve chosen to revisit one of my personal favorites — 1990’s remake of George Romero’s seminal “walking dead” film, Night Of The Living Dead, written (and overseen to one degree or another) by Romero himself and directed by former special effects wizard and all-around horror legend in his own right Tom Savini.
Am I going to attempt to argue here that this version is in any way, shape, or form better than the original? Of course not, that would be an absurd proposition, but it’s certainly stands head and shoulders above the bumper-crop of horror remakes that followed in its wake (and continues unabated to this day), stands as a damn fine film in its own right, and is a special treat for those of us who are devotees of the first movie in that it remains absolutely true to its roots while simultaneously being unafraid to toy with our expectations almost from the get-go.
I assume the basic plot needs no real recap here — besieged folks hole up in a farmhouse while the dead return to life and start to attack and feast upon the living — so let me just jump right into the meat of things and talk about why I think the changes Romero and Savini made here work , since that’s the subject that gets most horror fans worked up anyway. First off, Patricia Tallman’s iteration of Barbara is certainly no deranged or shellshocked “shrinking violet”-type here — anything but, and that marks a welcome departure since even by 1990 that sort of portrayal of your lead female character was going to seem hopelessly out of date. Instead, she’s more akin to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character from the Alien series and isn’t just unafraid to mix it up and “get her hands dirty,” so to speak, but welcomes the chance to do so. It’s a stark contrast to what we knew about the story — our thought we know — and Tallman pulls it off remarkably well.
Less obvious, but equally as notweworthy in its own right, are the subtle changes the Candyman himsef, Tony Todd, makes in his portrayal of Ben. With Tallman’s Barbara picking up a good deal of the slack as far as the action is concerned, he’s not called upon to be the “hero,” in a the traditional sense, in the same way that Duane Jones was in the original film, yet he is every bit the “glue guy” who holds the group together and functions as both its collective clear head and its conscience, leading by example in a group of strong-willed, industrious people who could all lay claim to the mantle of “unofficial leader” in their own right if they so chose. He’s steady, grounded, and carries on Jones’ legacy with distinction, even while being less a “man of action”-type than his esteemed predecessor in the role.
And while the Harry Cooper of 1990 is still largely an asshole, thanks to a nice turn from Tom Towles in the part he’s a more multi-faceted and all-too-human asshole than he was in the original script.
There are changes I don’t particularly care for — I would have loved for this film to be in black-and white, for instance, and I’m ambivalent about the re-worked ending (I don’t absolutely despise it as some purists do, but I have a certain amount of sympathy for their viewpoint), but on the whole I think Savini does a really nice job of contemporizing a story that didn’t necessarily need it, but was bound to get it anyway given the first film’s — ahem! — “copyright-free” status that insured that somebody, somewhere was going to remake the thing (as others have, unfortunately, since). In short, given that Night Of The Living Dead was essentially guaranteed to be remade, we should all be grateful that the remake that ended up happening first was this solidly-done, respectful, and professional — and that it didn’t just content itself with those things but was willing and able to successfully update many of the key concepts, characters, and themes carried over from the original, as well. I can’t think of many horror remakes of more recent vintage that have managed to both remain true to their origins while subverting audience preconceptions at the same time; it’s definitely a tricky balancing act to pull off, but Savini and company were more than up to the task.