“Doesn’t take long for the world to fall apart, does it.”
It’s Black History Month AND Women in Horror Month. While nominally these should be celebrated EVERY month, I’m a sucker for a theme and so I’m going to lean into this for my choices this month. I started off my contributions on Monday with a sketch of Duane Jones as Ben from the original Night of the Living Dead. Today I’m going with the other Ben performance – the great Tony Todd in Tom Savini’s 1990 remake. This means I also get to celebrate Patricia Tallman’s performance as Barbara as well.
I have horror loving friends who absolutely detest this movie, considering it a lackluster, money-grabbing attempt to make sure remake rights remained with the original NotLD creators. Critics at the time seem to have agreed, calling it an unnecessary and cliched. Honestly, if the only point was to nail down the rights I’d still be okay with it – Romero and company got royally (and royalty) screwed by the lack of copyright on the original film, and I heartily support any opportunity they might take to recoup those losses.
In fact, I had the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead run down to me so much that I didn’t see it for a long time. I eventually caught part of it on cable – near the end, when Barbara is fleeing the house. I thought it actually looked pretty decent, so I kept my eye out for a cheap copy. When I finally sat down to watch it from the beginning I remember being slightly confused – this was a fairly decent remake! What the hell were my friends talking about?
Since those early days the film has undergone a little bit of a re-evaluation and I think there’s even a generation of moviegoers for whom this was the first version of Night they ever saw. I’m glad it’s been getting more of its due. I wish Tom Savini had gotten to make the film he’d planned to make, but the film we got is still damn entertaining.
I’ve got a DVD old enough to have the Wide Screen version on one side and Full Screen on the other. I keep meaning to pick up the Sony Blu-ray from 2018, but I also keep hoping for Scream Factory or Arrow to do a release with some serious extras. There were a few other Blu-ray releases, one from Twilight Time with a sub-par transfer, another from Australia’s Umbrella Entertainment that had a few extras on it and a German language release from Sony that at least has some sweet packaging.
For streaming options there are no services that currently include Night of the Living Dead 1990. It can be rented and purchased from most of the online vendors.
A beige car moves through a rural landscape while the voice of a man and a woman spar on the soundtrack. Johnny (Chop Top himself, Bill Moseley) and Barbara (Patricial Tallman) are coming to the cemetery to visit their mother. Someone may be coming to get Barbara. At least that’s what Johnny says.
In the broadest of strokes this remake is an almost exact copy of the original film – the dead have come to life, Johnny dies, Barbara flees to a farmhouse, Ben arrives, Cooper and the kids are in the basement, yada-yada-yada. Discussion of the plot isn’t as important when it’s a remake as devoted to preserving the main details of the original as this one.
So let’s focus on the differences, the minor changes that serve to throw those of us familiar with the original off our stride. They start early, with the stumbling, black garbed figure in the background that reaches Barbara only to be revealed as… just a guy. The zombie attack then comes from a different quarter. It’s a nice nod to our expectations and indicates the majority of the changes to come – minor deviations that keep us on our toes, but don’t really change the arc of the original story. Other tweaks include the addition of ‘Uncle Rege,’ a zombie already in the farmhouse, the removal of most of the ‘watching news broadcasts’ scenes and some changes to the details of who dies and when.
The biggest change (other than being in color) is to the character of Barbara. This movie came out in the early 90’s, with Aliens in the rearview and Terminator 2 on the horizon. In that environment her turn from shy, retiring wallflower to badass (and a helluva shot) seems almost inevitable. It’s a nice update, though, and Tallman pulls it off – her nervous energy turning from edge-of-breakdown to frustration and eventual anger at the ridiculous macho posturing of Ben (Tony Todd) and Cooper (Tom Towles). Her initial observation, “they’re so slow – we could walk right past them” proves to be correct, not that the men are ever going to listen to her.
If Barbara’s role is expanded and updated, Ben and Cooper seem flattened. In the early scenes between Todd and Tallman he’s fantastic, with levels of subtlety and emotion that are effective and affecting. Once Cooper shows up, however, the dynamic changes and the subtlety goes out the window. Todd is always watchable, but in the face of Cooper’s belligerence his version of Ben defaults to two levels – inspiring leader and posturing alpha male. Towles is worse, with his Cooper being almost literally unwatchable, all sweaty face, bulging eyeballs and shouting. Cooper wasn’t great in the original film, but his actions made sense – Towles’ version is a cartoon of belligerent villainy.
Towles isn’t the only let down in the acting department – William Butler as Tom is one-note earnest while Katie Finneran as Judy Rose is mostly clutching and screamy, though she does get a nice moment as the only adult in a room of shouting men. Their weaknesses fade as the film progresses, but Towles and Todd start their relationship at 9 before going to 10 and staying there. It’s too bad, because the early scenes are easily some of Todd’s best work and evocative of Duane Jones’ performance without being just a copy.
I’m always impressed with Tom Savini’s direction on this – he keeps a sustained mood and stages action and dialogue well enough that I’m never lost or bored. This was his first film, and I wish he’d done more features, as it’s a professional job that manages to keep things on track, despite what I understand was considerable interference from producers (though not Romero, who was always supportive). He’s said that only about 40% of what he had planned made it onto the screen and, as always, I wonder what might have been.
Given Savini’s background (and reputation) as a master of gore effects, it’s disappointing that Night of the Living Dead ’90 is pretty tame in that department. There are a few scenes – a shotgun victim rotting in the heat, a cadaverous zombie shot multiple times in the window – that provide a glimpse of something more visceral, but much of the gore seems to have been tamed in the pursuit of an R rating (and supposedly out of deference to the original – which, let’s remember, was derided as “an unrelenting orgy of sadism.”) The Walking Dead has more extreme material in its commercials. The result leaves you feeling like the original, black and white, film was worse – more transgressive and violent, even if it was less graphic.
Things fall apart, which is how zombie movies work – pretty much as a result of the template the original set down. Tom and Judy go out a blaze of ill-considered shotgun use, Cooper’s child kills her mom and instigates a gun battle between Cooper and Ben. Barbara flees – her initial instincts about being able to avoid the slow-moving dead being proved correct. There’s some nice dovetailing with other Romero zombie films – the redneck party evokes early scenes in Dawn of the Dead and a fight between an inebriated human and a zombie would be echoed later in Land of the Dead.
Savini saves his final minor twists for last. Ben – wounded and holed up in the basement – turns out to be a zombie when Barbara returns. Cooper is the one that survives, having holed up in the attic. Enraged, Barbara takes care of that particular problem. “One more for the fire,” she intones, cementing her bad-assness, but eliciting a “that makes her a bad guy!” from my wife when she first saw the film. I’m personally okay with it in this case. He really deserved it!
The Bottom Line
I go back and forth in my appreciation of this remake of Night of the Living Dead and this time around I think I liked it better than previous viewings. While it doesn’t break too much in the way of new ground, it’s still a worthy attempt, keeping some of the best aspects of the original while adding new wrinkles and making Barbara a capable, even heroic figure. Much of the social commentary has been jettisoned, however, and what remains is of the clumsy, obvious variety. “They’re us. We’re them and they ‘re us.” Barbara says. Yeah, we got that. Back in 1968.