They're coming to get you again, Barbara!
Nowadays, remakes and reboots are the norm. There's nothing original anymore, and frankly nothing is sacred. But there used to be a time when remakes were relatively rare and even actually brought something new and exciting for moviegoers. One such example is Tom Savini's 1990 remake of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead! I remember this movie showing on Showtime a lot in the mid-90s, and I would watch it late at night with my best friend, utterly entranced by it. Well, let's dive on in, shall we?
Chances are you already know the story. Johnny and Barbara drive deep into upstate Pennsylvania to place flowers on a loved one's grave when a strange man staggers up and attacks Barbara. Except this time, the strange, old man apologizes for startling her and... staggers away? Well, gee... that's a bit anti-climactic. That's not how I remember it going at all-
HOLY SHIT! WHERE DID THIS SON OF A BITCH COME FROM!? I don't remember this gooey bastard in the original movie!
Well, that's because only a couple minutes in, Savini is already showing us that everything we think we know about this movie's story is wrong. Fans of the original will be pleased to find the overall plot of the film intact, but many of the minor details are turned on their heads. Flesh-eating ghouls quickly overtake the farmhouse, and the survivors inside become more and more desperate to escape as the night wears on, turning on each other as they debate the best plan of escape and/or fortification of the house.
While Barbara (played brilliantly by Patricia Tallman) begins the film as a meek and timid young woman, after Ben (played by Tony Todd) arrives and dispatches a few of the ghouls, Barbara soon finds her footing and steps into a more dominant role among the survivors in the farmhouse. In a shocking twist, she takes control and becomes the voice of reason, which unfortunately the menfolk aren't quite ready to listen to. But Barbara isn't the only character to get an overhaul. Tony Todd's Ben has a much shorter fuse than Duane Jones, and his rivalry with the sleazy Harry Cooper becomes much more heated than the original's simple chest-thumping. The animosity between Ben and Mr. Cooper can be maddening at times, and you begin to feel the characters' frustration.
The zombie effects are amazing! I wouldn't expect anything less from a film with Tom Savini at the helm. Even though this is the first night of the zombie outbreak, we still get some truly gruesome zombies without the makeup going over the top. This was the first movie to really get the dead eyes of a zombie right. You really get the sense that there's nothing behind those dead, cloudy eyes but insatiable hunger.
So how does this one stand up against the original? Pretty damn well, I'd say! While the original NOTLD is a classic, Savini's remake brings something new to the table while respecting the sprit of the original. Tallman's portrayal of Barbara was a breath of fresh air in a sea of big-breasted scream queens. I always compare this film's Barbara to Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise.
From beginning to end, this Night of the Living Dead grabs you and doesn't let go, showing you a whole new frightening night while wrapping you in the comfort of a beloved story.
For the next few days, I'm going to revisit some of the other remakes of Romero's Dead films and see if they measure up to their source material as well as this film does. Now that we've survived the Night, come back tomorrow for the Dawn.