Most everyone I know who is any kind of a zombie freak will say that Night of the Living Dead is one of their favourite films of that genre. There were tons of films featuring zombies that preceded the cult classic, but this was the first film to really treat them seriously and present it in a coherent story with flawed characters and solid craftsmanship.
Any zombie freak will probably also tell you that George A. Romero is one of their heroes, a zombie guru if you will. This is the man who took $114,000 and made one of the most influential films of the past fifty years, Night of the Living Dead, in 1968 with a small crew and a small group of talented yet unknown actors. From there, he went on to do Dawn of the Dead (probably my favourite of the series), Day of the Dead (an underrated gem), Land of the Dead, and Diary of the Dead.
With all this in mind, one can only imagine that when the headline popped up (it probably read something like this: “GEORGE A. ROMERO’S CULT CLASSIC SET TO BE SHAT ON”), people were none too happy about an all-time favourite being remade into a modern film. I had my doubts too before settling in to watch this film. Were they warranted?
Well, not really. The 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead was directed by horror makeup guru Tom Savini, who did a pretty admirable job in his directorial debut particularly with the moments he liked to refer to as ‘chair-jumpers.’ There’s a good use of night scenes and moonlight to elicit the mood and Savini orchestrates these fairly well.
It’s also a good thing that Romero himself came back on board to write the script again (this time by himself; the original was also co-written by John A. Russo) and it definitely shows as much of the dialogue has been lifted from the original film. I won’t bother going into detail about all the little nods to the original film he throws in there, but suffice to say there’s quite a few of them and they’re fun to spot rather than being in-your-face like some remakes.
The story is pretty basic. A number of survivors set up shop in an abandoned farmhouse to escape the oncoming zombie invasion that’s taken over a small area of land in Pittsburgh, PA among other locales. It pretty much follows the original film to a tee despite some minor changes which I won’t bother going into detail about for fear of creating spoilers.
One thing about the original that was somewhat lacking was the character of Barbara. In the 1968 classic, she is relegated to not much more than a yelping banshee rather than a character that serves any kind of real purpose in the crux of the storyline. In this version, Barbara starts out like you remember her originally entering the first film, as a fragile woman helpless towards everything, but that all ends fairly abruptly. Barbara instead becomes an ass-kicking machine that tries to point out some of the stupid logic employed by the other survivors throughout the film. She almost acts as the cynical member of the audience watching the film and almost makes it easier to digest some of the actions of the characters. It doesn’t hurt that actress Patricia Tallman plays her with a lot of humanity and really nails the part.
Tony Todd is someone else who deserves a mention as an actor who really nails the ‘Ben’ role to a tee. He has a lot of the same mannerisms and looks a lot like Ben too, but it doesn’t stop there. Tony makes the character his own and imports a lot of humanity into him as well. Although one of the weaker points of this version of the film is that compared to the original incarnation of Ben, I don’t care for this character nearly as much. This is probably intentional though as the real star of this version of Night of the Living Dead is Barbara rather than Ben. Besides that, there are no real downsides to his performance aside from one really strange “theatrical” moment near the beginning of the film where he seems to channel Charlton Heston and screams at the heavens.
The rest of the cast is fairly okay. Tom Towles chews the scenery as Harry Cooper a little too much for my liking and William Butler does alright as another one of the survivors.
Of course, you’d expect the directorial debut of a man like Tom Savini to be a film filled with blood and gore, but surprisingly the man holds back quite a bit. Even more surprisingly though, it actually helped more than it hurt in several scenes. In some scenes, however, it would’ve been nice to get a big gory pay-off, but the film doesn’t show us diddly squat and it feels a little weak.
So what to give this film as a rating? Well, despite some of the problems with the acting (excluding Patricia Tallman and Tony Todd) and the lack of gore sometimes becoming a little distracting, I give this film a rating of:
If you’re gonna watch either this or the original, watch the Romero classic. This one is still worth peepin’ though as it does a decent job of attempting to recreate the magic from the original and bring in some new elements that don’t feel too contrived for the most part.