Penned by George A. Romero and directed by Tom Savini, the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead is actually a great rendition of the 1968 classic. It incorporates many tropes from the ’68 original, but makes them relevant to an audience on the cusp of the 21st century. In addition, the film actually has a budget ($4.2 million according to Wikipedia), implementing a variety of clever make-up effects that contemporize the zombies. Instead of a blue tint like Dawn of the Dead, the zombies resemble Savini’s work from 1985’s Day of the Dead – a movie lacking in plot (in comparison to Romero’s original Night or Dawn of the Dead) but rich in quality special effects. For Savini’s directorial debut, he does a good job; Savini understands moving making and doesn’t rely on a barrage of quick cuts and cheap gags to convey terror.
Aside from the opening credits depicting an ominous full moon, the film begins much like the original: with a car traveling towards a graveyard. We follow Barbara (Patricia Tallman) and Johnny (Bill Mosley from Texas Chainsaw Massacre II and The Devil’s Rejects), arguing on the way to their mother’s grave. Recreating the infamous dialogue from the original, Barbara and Johnny’s conversation reflects how the times have changed. Instead of a clean version like in the original Night of the Living Dead, we receive quips from Johnny like, “they’re horny Barbara; they’ve been dead a long time,” in addition to the classic, “they’re coming to get you Barbara.” The character’s motivations are the same, but the representation of their dialogue is modern, reflecting the loosening of inhibitions over the 22 years since the original premiered in theaters.
From here the film follows along the same line: a zombie attacks Barbara, Johnny dies, and Barbara holes up in an abandoned country house where she meets Ben (Tony Todd) – the film’s male protagonist. From here the film starts to change a bit. The same characters appear in this remake (Judy, Mr. and Mrs. Cooper, Sarah, and Tom), but these character embody different stereotypes. For instance, Judy and Tom (Katie Finneran and William Butler) are Pennsylvania hicks instead of all-American youths like in the original. Mr. and Mrs. Cooper (Tom Towles and McKee Anderson) are quite similar to their 1968 counterparts, although Cooper’s physical depiction is sleazier: his balding head is disheveled, he drinks beer, and his contempt for Ben seems not only based on race and class, but also on Mr. Cooper’s innate chauvinism and bigotry). In addition, the martial issues between the Coopers isn’t relegated to only verbal spats; Mr. Cooper slaps her when attempting to leave the cellar, displaying his base characteristics as an overall awful person.
Unlike the original Night of the Living Dead, the females in the film are strong, changing the subtext from civil rights to gender inequality. Romero, probably a diehard liberal, depicts the women as strong and the men as weak and stubborn. Unlike the original where Barbara is nothing more than an ornament, sliding back and forth between hysterics and catatonia, Tallman embodies a strong woman, along the lines of Sigourney Weaver in the Alien films. While Mr. Cooper and Ben quibble back and forth, Barbara is changing; she takes charge of the situation she’s in. This modern representation of the classic character is far different – able to defend herself, mentally sharp, and strong. A scene where she changes from her Sunday best into a pair of workpants represents the change in the character. Although she’s wearing a pair of men’s pants, I don’t believe Romero and Savini are saying a woman can only exude strength by assuming a man’s role. Instead it seems she owns this object. She’s not stepping into a male’s role but is instead creating a new persona – one that doesn’t rely on the traditional gender roles affixed to the sexes. This coincides well with the change in representation made by theorists and college campus activists in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Like Naomi Klein discusses in No Logo, her generation were fighting for new representations, new thought processes, and ultimately, a change in race, gender, and sexual orientation positions. Unfortunately, her generation missed the appropriation of American culture by multi-national corporations, but that’s a story for another time. What’s important is that this remake embodies the prevailing themes of its time instead of remaking a film – shot for shot – like Gus Van Sant’s embarrassing remake of Psycho in 1998.
Both the 1968 and the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead generally presents an objective, third person perspective – minus a few scenes where the camera approaches a situation from a first perception – but the ’90 rendition definitely views the situation from a feminine angle. The final shots of the film, mimicking the black and white stills from the original, keep focusing in on Barbara’s eyes (yes, she lives through the ordeal), indicating the scenario’s filtered through her standpoint. The fights between Ben and Mr. Cooper, the savage behavior of the rural Pennsylvania inhabitants, and even the living dead – all are seen through Barbara. Even though the audience sees an objective narrative, Barbara’s perspective colors the whole story. Near the end of the movie Barbara states, “They’re us. We’re them and they’re us,” eliminating any boundaries between race, gender, and anything else factoring into prejudice. Relinquishing these learned behaviors is necessary when facing uncharted territory and Barbara’s derision for both those in quibbling in the farmhouse and those hunting and torturing the zombies. The film is indeed a critique of gender identity and marginalized groups – which is a central theme in Romero’s original.
Another fascinating device in Savini’s film is the recognition of zombies’ flaws. I’m certain many people watching zombies films have thought about their slow speeds and other issues that make these movies farfetched. Why don’t we just wait out the zombies, let them rot, and pick up the pieces afterwards? They’re dead bodies in the elements; they’re sure to decompose eventually – they’re not invulnerable aside from a head shot. Barbara’s acknowledgment of their sluggish movements is common sense, something missing in most zombie movies. Her assertion, “We could just walk right past ’em and we wouldn’t even have to run,” is astute and long overdue. I know it’ll take the fun out of zombie films, but sometimes a reality check is necessary, especially in a movie containing the most ludicrous event imaginable. Aside from its biblical connotations, the idea of the dead walking and attacking the living is asinine. I love it, but I can’t help but see its fallibility. What I enjoy about this remake’s coverage of this simple idea is that it comes from a woman, reversing the decades of female suppression in many horror films. Although Romero representations of women are quite positive (Dawn, Day, Land, and Document of the Dead), the genre usually depicts women as victims or “scream queens.”
The music for the film is simple and scary; it also doesn’t rely on public domain music. It’s minimal and outright spooky, although the music playing over the end credits is a bit dated – implementing early ‘90s keyboards and cheap heavy rock riffs. The score is definitely a product of its time; a time where Poison, Motley Crue, and the like were all over the place. There aren’t any shots that stand out, making me believe Savini a film genius but for a first film he surely knows how to craft a film. It’s not bold, but it’s effective. The feeling of claustrophobia from the original comes across in this film – tense moments when characters stand too close to a window, seven people trapped inside a house they’re defending with their very lives, the uncertainty of salvation. Savini has a good eye for translating themes into a contemporary context and his presentation of a horror classic is effective in bringing the terror of the living dead back from parody.
Here is the trailer.