I don’t get it. Why mess with a classic? For whatever reason, George Romero agreed to remake his 1968 masterpiece in 1990 – and went so far as to write the screenplay for this movie. He got some great people involved, including director and make-up master extraordinaire Tom Savini. But still, what’s the point? Remakes are one thing, but if you’re going to do it I think you need to depart enough from the original to make it your own (see DAWN OF THE DEAD and its remake). Instead, Romero and Savini decide to stick very close to the original, with a few key changes. The problem is, these changes aren’t enough to erase the memory that you’re essentially watching a poor imitation.
The plot is exactly as the original – and if you haven’t seen the first one, then click the little “X” on the top right of the browser, run out of the house and get it right this second. Anyhow, zombies immediately confront a brother and sister visiting a dead relative at a funeral. The brother gets whacked and the girl, Barbara (Patricia Tallman), makes it to safe shelter in a house with other survivors. There, they make their last stand. The movie still begins with the famous, “They’re coming to get your Barbara,” line from her brother – only this time updated with “They’re horny Barbara!”
So Barbara makes it to the house and finds essentially the same cast of characters – the heroic black leader, Ben (Tony Todd of CANDYMAN fame), the Cooper family, Tom and Judy. But there are some key twists, particularly when it comes to Barbara’s character. In the original, she was a mousy and terrified woman who could barely get a peep out. Now, she is tough as nails, a sharpshooter, and revels in destroying zombies. Don’t forget, 1990 was right in the era of the “tough woman” era, a few years after ALIENS and right before THELMA & LOUISE. So, this remake is nothing if not politically correct.
And therein lies the problem. In 1968, the movie was incredibly subversive and daring. Casting a black man in the lead and ending the film with what were basically lynch mobs roaming the earth had strong racial-overtones. Indeed, each of Romero’s DEAD films is really about something else. The original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was mostly a condemnation of racism. The 1990 remake, however, loses that subversive tone and therefore just becomes a straight-ahead horror movie.
Now, there’s something to be said for a balls-out horror movie, but if you’re going to do that, then be as gory and nasty as possible. That’s what you’d expect from a remake, especially one from Savini – a significant upping of the nasty-meter. But, while there are a few nice gory moments, the movie was a let-down on that level. The infamous “zombies eating Tom and Judy” scene is re-done pretty well, but still lacks the shock of seeing it in its original black-and-white form. The original DAWN OF THE DEAD, done in the 70s with Savini and Romero was significantly nastier than this later-day remake.
Ultimately, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a timid remake that really lacks a reason for being. It brings nothing new, interesting, or gory to the table. It reminded me a bit of Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO remake. So close to the original that it begs the question, “Why?” When the first is still so good and so scary, there’s no point in seeing anything but that.
RATING: * and a half