Review: Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Night of the Living Dead

Directed by Tom Savini
Starring Patricia Tallman, Tony Todd, Tom Towles, William Butler

The Internet hates remakes more than Indiana Jones hates snakes. Most movie bloggers are so attuned to Hollywood gossip that they can smell a reboot in the night wind like a bloodhound catching the scent of an escaped convict. As I write, Michael Bay‘s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reimagining is on the horizon, and someone named AlphaOmegaSin (sporting a razor blade choker and a six-inch goatee) has recorded an 18-minute YouTube tirade based on the release of its 90-second trailer.

The outrage directed towards remakes can be blamed entirely on nostalgia. Even Roger Ebert, in his review for Tom Savini’s 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead, can be found fondly reminiscing upon a memorable 1968 screening of the original film. A movie is only as good as memory permits it to be, and the older the memory, the more monumental it might seem. AlphaOmegaSin isn’t disappointed that Michael Bay won’t deliver a perfect film; he’s disappointed that what he’s been presented doesn’t hold a candle to his years of cradling what seems today like an important memory. A remake isn’t going to sully the rose-tinted contents of your hippocampus; it will only fail to live up to your impossible standards.

That being said, this Night of the Living Dead can’t help but fail to live up to its name. The 1968 black-and-white George A. Romero original isn’t only a fond memory; it’s one of the most influential horror films – nay, motion pictures – of all time. As a blood-and-guts treatise on international Cold War politics and racism in the United States, it not only raised the bar in terms of cinematic depictions of extreme violence, but also opened the floodgate for a more intelligent kind of horror film. It presented a counterargument to the simple-minded politics of sci-fi scare films of the 1950s by making the divisive nature of America itself the biggest threat to its protagonists, not otherworldly monsters or thickly-accented foreigners harboring nuclear weapons. Plus, the film’s accidental fall into the public domain made it free to broadcast on television, lending itself to repeated Halloween screenings for decades. It’s an invaluable piece of pop culture that maintains relevance today.

Despite all this, Tom Savini’s remake (with an updated screenplay from Romero himself) manages to expand upon the original story, surprisingly spending less time showing off more sophisticated gore effects (Savini is one of the most respected blood-and-guts makeup artists in film, lending his hand to Friday the 13thCreepshow, and Day of the Dead) and more time turning the isolated farmhouse setting into an all-out political showdown between the staunch and stubborn Harry Cooper (Towles), the moderate and peace-keeping Ben (Todd) and the radical, forward-thinking Barbara (Tallman).

Savini utilizes color to the narrative’s advantage, giving the film a crisp, dry look populated by dark, wet splotches of crimson blood – a far cry from the bright comic-book pop of his gore effects for Romero’s Dawn of the DeadNight ’90 is set firmly in reality, eschewing the nightmarish surrealism of the original film for a more measured visual signature that uses intense violence to heighten its immediacy and uncluttered frames to illustrate its characters’ extreme isolation. Savini’s film is more furiously paced than Romero’s, but there’s a pervasive silence about the film most obviously present in its opening scenes: A suicide victim found on the second floor of the farmhouse is depicted rather beautifully – his blood spilled delicately across the wooden floor; his face peaceful; his body relaxed naturally rather than grotesquely bent or angled. One of the first onscreen zombies is a recently-embalmed man in a backless suit tailored for the coffin. As his faux-clothing slips off, we are witness to the gruesome autopsy scars hidden underneath. Night ’90 is more concerned with using contemporary technology to illustrating the omnifarious ideas and beliefs associated with death than it is with simply shocking its audience with eye-popping gore.

Romero’s revised screenplay, however, has a lot of other things on its mind, most importantly a rather heavy-handed critique of American politics. While Night ’68 briefly touches upon issues like civil rights activism and the Vietnam War, Night ’90 goes to great lengths to turn its characters into broadly-drawn symbols. Mr. Cooper is representative of Republican values. He wants nothing more than power and privilege, even going so far as to attempt to steal the only available television – an act which would grant him control of the information the rest of the party is allowed to ingest. Ben is a moderate liberal, standing averse to Mr. Cooper and convincing the group to work together despite their differences. Barbara is a radical liberal, urging the group to pick up arms and face the horde of zombies head-on, at one point noting astutely, “They’re so slow. We could walk right past them.” Mr. Cooper is often reduced to caricature, hurling outdated insults (“lamebrains,” “yo-yos,” etc.) at Ben and repeatedly physically restraining his downtrodden wife. Characterization is often abandoned in lieu of simplistic politicism.

However, Romero manages to successfully fix what many critics had rightly observed as a problem with his original screenplay by expanding upon Barbara, transforming her from catatonic and helpless to completely autonomous. As the film progresses, we learn that the new Barbara is brave, intelligent, and good with a gun. Romero carefully maintains her femininity, using her exposed undergarments to remind the audience that she’s still very much a female, even as she asserts authoritative dominance over her peers. The biggest triumph of Night ’90 is the rebirth of Barbara as a strong female presence.

Despite its overwrought political symbolism and lack of nuanced characters, Night ’90 is a successful update, retaining the spirit of the original while subverting expectations through new and surprising twists and turns. The heavily rewritten final pages, in replacing the original’s sigh of resignation with a radical call to action, breathe new life into a familiar story and give Night ’90 its own personality, as well as an adequate reason for its existence. It is yet to be seen whether or not the same can be said for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which, upon its release date, will undoubtedly inspire another 18 minutes from a certain goatee-sporting, choker-wearing vlogger trapped by the false comfort of his own impossible memories.

Links:

Netflix – Night of the Living Dead
YouTube – Original Theatrical Trailer
YouTube – Complete Film

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