Tom Savini is the mastermind behind some of the most memorable horrific imagery ever conceived and put to film. From the wicked, haunting visages of Argento’s Trauma to the awesome effects of the cult favorite (i.e. mostly bad, with the exception of Savini’s work) Necronomicon, Savini has been at the forefront of the horror film scene for the past 30 years. He has seen every side of it, from the effects to the make-up, and even both in front of and behind the camera. Today’s feature, the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, was actually directed by Savini himself, and features some of his best make-up jobs as well as an eye for horror that you just can’t teach. As a film, it’s not really as culturally important as the original, but, surprisingly, it might be a better film than Romero’s 1968 classic.
So, if you’ve never seen the original, stop what you’re doing, stop reading this review even, and watch it. It’s great. I’ll wait for you to go do that… right untillllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll now. You back? What’d you think? I thought so, too. So, this movie is really only a slight variant on the original. Barbara and Johnny are brother-and-sister, and they’ve traveled to Pennsylvania to pay respects to their late mother. Everything’s going great, except for the fact that their mom is dead, UNTIL a strange fellow approaches them. He appears disoriented and injured, so at first the two are concerned for him, but they soon realize after only a few moments that this guy really weirds them out by coming closer and closer. It all comes to a head when he starts attacking them, and the two have to flee their mother’s grave-site. As they flee, they notice more and more odd, freakish people who are walking around disoriented and horrifically injured. Trying to knock one of them away from his sister, Johnny’s head falls hard on a tombstone, killing him. So Barbara is left alone to fend for herself against these strange people who don’t seem all the way there. After running a ways when her car breaks down, she happens across an old farmhouse that looks abandoned. When she gets inside, she finds more people like the ones in the cemetery, and thinks that all hope is lost. But luckily, a super-heroic man named Ben happens along in a pick-up truck and takes out some of them, she regains some composure. More and more people, still alive, flock tot he farmhouse and begin fortifications against what they are starting to believe is a nation-wide epidemic of the dead returning to life. What will happen to these beleaguered souls struggling to survive as the dead, returned tot he realm of the living, attack them and feast upon their flesh?
This was a movie of surprising quality. There’s a lot going on here for a remake. The things they change here are all positive reinforcements to make a better film. One of my favorite things, right off the bat, is the re-imagining of Barbara. In the original, she was a timid flower of a woman that wilted like so much lettuce in the noonday sun. Here, however, Barbara is strong and full of that horror movie survivor spunk. She’s played very well by Patricia Tallman, a particularly succulent 90s babe who was actually a stunt-woman before she started acting. It makes me more concerned for her as a character, and it’s overall a little less offensive to assume that she couldn’t handle herself AT ALL. There were also a lot of minor details that I enjoyed, such as the increased tension between the Harry character and Ben. They really needed more of a protagonist-antagonist relationship in the original, and this one adds it like it was the most natural thing in the world. Like Tom Savini read my mind!
But a lot of the spirit of the original remains. The zombies are slow and dumb, painfully so. If you need your zombies to run like they were practicing for a 10k before they were killed, this is not something you’ll want to see. But for the slow zombie enthusiast, I can’t recommend this one enough. The newness of the concept also rings clear here, and really brings my head back to a time before zombie flicks didn’t come out every week from Troma or After Dark. There’s this lack of knowledge and understanding from everyone in the film that really makes one stop and wonder. Nowadays, whenever a character sees a zombie, one guy knows exactly what to do and how to survive. In Night of the Living Dead, they don’t ever even figure out what CAUSED the outbreak, much less what to do exactly about these freaky people who don’t seem to be at all alive. But I think everyone loves this movie because of Ben, who has remained unchanged from the original. The intelligent and heroic character, here played by the Candyman himself, Tony Todd, was one of the first eloquent and independent black roles available in the genre. Ben was a take-charge kind of guy, someone who could lead a group of survivors; not fawning over some white guy, like many others before him were forced to do. The spirit of that character owes a great debt to the man who played him, Duane Jones, who was really that eloquent and commanding in real life. Tony Todd, no slouch in the horror community himself, does a lot to maintain the powerful presence of that character and what he represents to both the film and the genre.
I really dug this one. You might think it’s a cheap knock-off based off the box art and the advertisements, but it’s absolutely a film of its own, with its own message for its own time. With improved character arcs, some cool effects by Savini, and a talented cast, this one is not only scary, but well-made to boot. I give it my personal bloody, brain-encrusted seal of approval. Night of the Living Dead gets 8 1/2 Savini savants out of 10. A high recommendation!
Keep checking for my review of The Sentinel! I should have it up soon!