Night of the Living Dead (1968) Directed by: George A. Romero; Written by George A. Romero and John A. Russo; Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman
Available on Blu-ray (Import), DVD and Netflix Streaming
Night of the Living Dead (1990) Directed by: Tom Savini; Written by George A. Romero; Based on the original 1968 screenplay by George A. Romero and John A. Russo; Starring: Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman and Tom Towles
Available on Blu-ray (Out of print), DVD and Amazon Instant Video
“The only reason to do the fantasy film or horror film is to upset the order, upset the balance of things… and it seemed to me the formula was always to restore order… which seems counterproductive to what you’re doing initially, which is why it made sense to me to have Night of the Living Dead have this tragic and ironic ending.” – George Romero (from the documentary, Birth of the Living Dead)
“People go to movies to see things happen, not listening to people talk. Unless of course, you’re watching My Dinner with Andre.” – Tom Savini (from DVD commentary for Night of the Living Dead remake)
Ho, hum… another Night of the Living Dead review? How original. Barry must be losing it...Wait! Come back! It’s not what you think. No, really. Yes, we all know how the original Night of the Living Dead was a groundbreaking achievement for its time, which established the rules for subsequent zombie flicks.* Compared to the zombie films of yesteryear, George A. Romero’s re-animated dead were not the product of voodoo or magic, but a man-made disaster (explained as a Venus probe). In the 1990 remake by Romero protégé Tom Savini (from a script by Mr. Romero himself), the cause is never made clear, and left to speculation by the characters (chemical spill, Armageddon, mass insanity). But how does Savini’s version stack up against the 1968 version? Instead of reviewing one or the other, let’s compare them on their relative merits…
* Not counting Dan O’Bannon’s semi-sequel, Return of the Living Dead, which refuted the notion that a re-animated corpse could be dispatched with a shot to the brain.
The 1968 version of Night of the Living Dead is very much a product of its time, reflecting the prevailing confusion and violence that marked that turbulent era. Romero claimed he and his fellow filmmakers didn’t set out to make a racial statement, or make overt commentary about the socio-political unrest of the ‘60s, but alas, there it is on display. The lead character Ben (Duane Jones) wasn’t expressly written as a black or white man, but nevertheless, the inclusion of a black protagonist was hailed as forward thinking for the time. The zombie-hunting militia members resemble a lynch mob more than an organized group.
In contrast to the original, Savini’s version implied a class differential between the survivors in the house. Harry and Helen Cooper (Tom Towles and McKee Anderson) are dressed as if they had just attended a soiree, while Tom and Judy’s (William Butler and Katie Finneran) appearance reflects their rural, working class origins. These differences are only superficial, however, when society begins to crumble. It’s clear we’re all in it together, as Barbara (Patricia Tallman) utters the chilling line, “They’re us. We’re them, and they’re us.”
Strong Female Characters
I think it’s safe to say the original Barbara* (Judith O’Dea) is no one’s favorite. She’s passive at best, and in a semi-catatonic state for most of the film’s duration, lapsing into consciousness only to ramble about her brother Johnny. Admittedly, she wasn’t very lucid to begin with, but she never improves. If Romero didn’t do any favors for female protagonists in the original film, he and Savini (working from Romero’s script) rectified this, with a new improved Barbara, as interpreted by Tallman.** The opening scene implies that she’s in danger of following in the footsteps of her cinematic predecessor as she lapses into a quivering mess. Then something snaps, as Barbara evolves into a badass, taking an active role in fighting off the growing undead horde and refusing to remain a victim. To a lesser extent, Katie Finneran’s version of Judy is an improvement over the co-dependent original, played by Judith Ridley. She screams too much, but at least she’s not dead weight (sorry about the pun), taking time from shrieking to help board the windows and drive the ill-fated pickup.
* Technically, O’Dea’s character is credited as “Barbra,” while her updated counterpart is named “Barbara.”
** Tallman was the first person Savini cast for his film. His decision was likely motivated by his first encounter with Tallman during their college years, when he recalled (in his DVD commentary) she was “kicking the shit out of her boyfriend.” ‘Nuff said.
The original gets an A for effort, but you can’t deny the leap forward in practical effects in the remake. Although he’s not credited with the top-notch effects (supervised by Everett Burrell and John Vulich), Savini’s extensive expertise as a makeup artist undoubtedly shaped the look of the film’s gorier moments (one memorable scene involves a zombie with fresh autopsy incisions). Savini’s constant battles with the MPAA over excessive gore resulted in his adoption of a “less is more” approach. On the other hand, you can’t deny the ’68 version’s ingenuity, which had everyone performing double duty. Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, who played the perennially squabbling couple, Harry and Helen, also worked on the makeup. Romero himself pitched in, creating a clay zombie hand. Although he wasn’t too impressed with the results, it works well within the frenzied confines of the scene. And when fake wasn’t good enough for some scenes, it’s hard to top real guts from a butcher shop to elevate the gross-out factor.
The first film gets a lot of unfair criticism for the uneven (some might say amateurish) performances by the actors. Duane Jones’ riveting performance as Ben was the glue that held the first film together. His monologue about his first encounter with a group of the walking corpses, told with icy conviction, really sets the scene for the audience about the extent of the undead invasion. Co-producers Karl Hardman and Russell Streiner are credible as temperamental basement proponent Harry and the Barbara-tormenting Johnny. In the 1990 version, the best performances are shared by the two leads. Tony Todd does a fine job following in Jones’ footsteps as Ben, conveying his role with passion and world weariness. As Barbara, Tallman turns in the most surprising performance, as her character experiences the most growth.
While the acting is more consistent in the remake, I prefer some of the performers’ choices in the original. Streiner’s version of Johnny was more playful, doing typical older brother stuff, while remake Johnny (Bill Moseley) just seemed like an obnoxious jerk. Tom Towles is a bit over the top with his bug-eyed portrayal of Harry. Ben and Harry’s animosity is firmly established from their first scene together, but the conflict between seems forced at times.
The black and white cinematography goes a long way toward setting the original’s somber mood. Shot on 35 mm stock and edited on 16 mm, the end result resembles old newsreel footage, adding a layer of authenticity and creating a sense of immediacy. Due to budgetary constraints, the 1968 version benefits from Romero’s “guerrilla” filmmaking, often done on the fly with single takes. Compared to its predecessor’s documentary-style feel, the remake is more polished and professional in appearance. It’s a solid, albeit more calculated effort. Also, what was once so trailblazing could never seem as fresh again. By the time of the remake’s release, audiences were accustomed to Romero’s brand of zombies on screen, and knew what to expect. Compared to the 1968 original, the 1990 version’s ending doesn’t have the same impact. The original’s ironic ending is a punch in the gut; every time I watch it my objective self knows what’s about to happen, but my subjective self always hopes for a different outcome.
On the surface the idea of remaking a genre classic seemed to be a risky, if not foolhardy, venture. With legions of built-in fans for the 1968 original, Savini’s version was sure to polarize some individuals, but as it turns out, both versions can peacefully co-exist. You can’t beat the real thing, but Savini does right by Romero’s original, with some clever nods here and there. Savini created a solid horror film that’s quick-paced and scary. It’s an efficient machine, with a healthy dose of social relevance thrown in. Romero’s original, however, is the gold standard by which all other zombie films are judged – not a bad legacy for a low-budget effort by some first-time feature filmmakers from Pittsburgh. Despite some claims to the contrary, both versions prove the venerable zombie genre is alive and well (groan!). By definition, zombies are a blank slate, where we can impart our fears, suspicions and socio-political agendas. If Night of the Living Dead is any indication, the genre will likely continue to thrive and experience numerous iterations for decades to come.