Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

In the good old days of movie-going, especially in the years prior to the early 2000s, one did not have to worry about watching a rehash of what was already a success years ago.  Yes, I’m speaking about the epidemic that has been plaguing Hollywood for the last decade or so—taking an original concept that was done perfectly already and put it through the ringer to just squeeze more money out of moviegoers.  Many names have been given to this pusillanimous art form, like “remake” or “reboot” (although movie studios already dislike having those movies labeled as such, so they prefer “reimagining” or “retelling”), but there was a time when there were very few of these films.  When one was released back before this craze became the norm, these remakes were usually done with care and the utmost respect for their predecessors.  One such film was the remake of the 1968 George Romero classic, 1990’s Night of the Living Dead.

As it turns out, 1990, I believe, was the actual year I had discovered the original 1968 film.  I was already on my way to becoming the horror aficionado that I am today, so it was a no-brainer that I would enjoy that influential cult classic.  Of course, for me, the natural progression was to seek out and watch the remake, which is what I had done…although, not until it made the rounds on VHS.

I guess it was fitting that special effects magician, Tom Savini, took the directing reigns for this film, seeing that he had worked with George Romero on a number of movies since the early 70s.  However, it seemed like it would be a big risk—for the studio and producers—to give Savini the chance, considering that this was his directorial debut.  But, in my opinion, he nailed it and gave the modeled story a fresh take—for 1990 standards anyway—and reintroduced this benchmark film to a new generation of horror fans.

The film begins, like the original, with brother and sister, Johnnie and Barbara (Bill Moseley and Patricia
Tallman), visiting their mother’s grave at the cemetery.  A man staggers up (as Johnnie teases his sister with the famous “they’re coming to get you, Barbara” line) and grabs Barbara.  Johnnie pulls the man off and struggles, falling down and striking his head on a headstone, killing him.  Barbara gets away and finds herself in an abandoned farmhouse.  Soon, a man, Ben (Tonny Todd), arrives, as well as a small group of people that were hiding in the basement the whole time.  They all try to fend off and protect themselves from the zombies outside…seeing if they can make it through the night.

Although the film is nearly a shot-for-shot redo, much of the dialogue and actions the characters go through are a little different than what they had done in the original film.  Like I’d mentioned, the story is updated with a contemporary interpretation, so I’m sure it was refashioned in order to compete with the horror films that were playing in those days.  Although the 1968 film shows some horrific scenes that audiences of that era may have gasped at, this new film had to take some measures to be on equal terms with the popular slasher films of the late 80s.  Especially since this film was to be shot and released as a color film, unlike the 1968 version which was filmed in black & white, make-up and special effects needed to be perfected to get its realism across for believability purposes.  And speaking of the make-up and special effects of this film, I’m surprised that Savini didn’t have a bigger hand in that department.  As that’s his specialty within the movie business, you’d think he would’ve performed double-duty and involve himself in some of the effects gags throughout the film.  Who knows?  Maybe he had, but I can’t find any info that he actually did, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Although the whole movie seems to be some sort of do-over for Romero (he acted as producer of the film after all), it’s quite enjoyable and gives you the musing of the late 80s of horror movie-making.  I’m betting the real reason for this remake is the resurgence of interest for the original film and how popular it had become after its rediscovery by a new generation of horror fans of the late 80s.  In any case, most of us know the tragic history of the 1968 film and how Romero didn’t receive any money for it because the film had forgotten to be copyrighted, sending it straight to the public domain.  So I see this 1990 version as a way to correct the wrong 22 years prior and for him to give us (and himself) a retry of a quintessential Night of the Living Dead.

A few things about this update of the 1968 film, Savini was able to include some scenes and plot devices that were written for the original film that wouldn’t have fared so well in the 1960s.  A scene that was shown in this film was a quick sequence showing zombies hanging from a tree and being shot at by some people.  With the racial tensions going on in the late 60s, seeing images of people hanging from a tree would probably be quite uncomfortable with audiences during that time.  Another aspect of this film is the strong-willed version of Barbara and how she joins Ben with fighting back the zombies.  It’s been said that Romero wanted these two things to be in his 1968 film, but couldn’t be included because of the time it was filmed.  I guess this just proves that George Romero was a man way ahead of his time.

One portion of the plot that is glaringly different than the original is how the film ends.  I don’t want to spoil the film for anybody, so I won’t give it away, but I felt it was a bold move to finish this one differently and it was probably done to leave room for a direct sequel (that never happened).

I really have no qualms about this movie and thought it was done with the highest reverence for George Romero and his original film.  But there’s one thing I’d like to point out and it’s such a blatant and obvious part of the film that really takes you out of it when viewing.  It’s right at the beginning where Barbara first
encounters a zombie and Johnnie goes to help her.  After struggling with the walking dead man, he’s knocked to the side and falls, slamming his head into the corner of a gravestone.  The shot is quick, but it’s so obvious—even if you’re a first-time viewer—it’s a dummy that falls against the stone.  I’ve thought about this a lot—probably too much, for it’s not that important—and began to understand that maybe Savini noticed but didn’t want to undo the trouble of making a life-sized dummy and demean the effects crew of their hard work.  However, they could’ve re-filmed the scene with the head turned away so we don’t see the fake-looking face…I don’t know.  Nevertheless, that’s my one gripe and it’s not that big of a deal.  It happens early on in the film and can be forgotten by the time Barbara reaches the farmhouse.

Anyway…my final “bit” on Night of the Living Dead?

It’s a fun film and you get the sense you’re watching what George Romero originally intended if he’d had better cameras and special effects and more money.  The film is certainly a gorier and more realistic vision, with the rules of zombism clearly in place.  Although I highly recommend this film, I’d watch the original first (if you haven’t already) and then this one a few days later.

As a side “bit,” once again, Twilight Time had released a limited edition Blu-Ray for this film.  Just like Fright Night and Christine, they had released only 3,000 copies, so good luck finding a disc under $50.  I didn’t even hear about the release, so I’ll still be watching my bare-bones DVD until something else comes around.

That’s it for now…thanks for reading!

Cinema Bits is on Twitter and Facebook.

No comments: