I’ll do my best and not yarn too much over the movie I give credit as starting my entire fascination with not just horror, but zombies too. And that movie was Night of the Living Dead. Imagine, if you will, that you’re a twelve year old boy and you have a big sister who by all accounts ought to be hanging out with her much more mature friends but instead decides to watch movies with you. That was me. And while not every Friday (because my sister did have a life), but on most Friday nights we would have a Friday Movie Night. I’m talking pizza, popcorn, soda, candy, and whatever other junk we decided to indulge ourselves with. We’d order Pizza Hut and drive down to the local video store (Blockbuster) and rent whatever we wanted. While I cannot recall every movie night, I certainly recall the night my sister rented Night of the Living Dead.
For clarification sake, this would be the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, not the 1968 original. I wouldn’t see that version until many years later. And I know what most people will say when they hear the term remake. Noses raised. Lips pursed. Arms folded across the chest. Yes. Yes. I know the word offends many a film critics sensibilities. On most occasions I’d be apt to agree. There are a number of remakes that are totally unnecessary or fall completely under the bench mark set by the original film. And there are those that some classify as a remake simply because they share the same title but do not actually fit the traditional definition of a true remake. But that’s another argument we simply do not have the time to make. Needless to say, Night of the Living Dead (1990) fits the parameters of a remake, however, it is one I would not say was unnecessary nor did it fall below the benchmark of the original film.
As a refresher, here is an in-depth synopsis provided by IMDb:
“The unburied dead return to life and seek human victims.”
Seriously? That’s it? I mean, they’re not wrong, but…jeez. Okay, well, there’s obviously a little more going on then that. Under direction from Tom Savini and with John Russo AND George A. Romero taking helm over the screenplay and script, Night of the Living Dead (1990) follows all the main plot-lines from the original film. Barbara (played by Patricia Tallman) and her brother Jonny (played by Bill Moseley), on the behest of mother, make their ritual annual drive out to a far away rural cemetery to pay respects to their deceased father. Barbara is obedient. Jonny is…not keen on making the drive. After some hefty teasing on Jonny’s part, Barbara decides she’s had enough and starts back to the car when suddenly she bumps into a man who seems to be partially in a trance, muttering to himself, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
Strange as that is, as the siblings watch the man stumble away, another man reaches between them and grabs a hold on Barbara. Some screaming ensues and a scuffle breaks out between this oddly decomposing fellow and brother Jonny. Jonny gets tripped on his own feet and snaps his neck on a tombstone. In hysterics, Barbara takes off and comes upon another fellow who looks normal enough, he’s wearing a nice suit after all. But as the man comes closer, his suit slips under foot, revealing a very gnarly looking Y autopsy sutures across his chest and bowels. Just like in the original, panic ridden, she makes her way from the cemetery to a farm house. And just like in the original, the house seems abandoned, except for a few pesky undead.
Finding the farm house unsafe, Barb runs outside and watches as a pickup truck, kicking up dirt and dust, barrels over one of the undead and skids into the front lawn. Out jumps Ben (played by Tony Todd) who flicks a cigarette and with crowbar in hand goes after the few zombies that are stumbling around the house. Barb is at this point practically catatonic and unable to answer Ben’s most basic questions, “Is this your place? Do you have a car?” etc. etc. He takes her inside and bars the door, ending up in a scuffle with a rather persistent ghoul who really wants to get inside, leaving Barb alone to fend for herself against the owner of the house’s walking corpse.
So, at this point, the movie sounds nearly identical to the original. This of course begs the question, are there any differences? Well, for starters, and probably the most predominant change, is Barbara. In the original, Barb is very catatonic and in shock for most of the movie, only really coming to at the end when the house is nearly overrun and she gets dragged out by zombie brother Jonny. In this 1990 (22 years later) remake, Barb is mostly true to the original character, only this time she comes to sooner rather than later. She fends for herself against the tubby farmer zombie at the very beginning of their time inside the house. Even Ben notices and uses it to help motivate her to take action, “I’ve seen what you can do…when you have to.”
That line is kinda what the movie is all about, right? Doing what needs to be done when you need to do it. Taking action in the face of in-action. In part, this is the core argument between Ben and Harry Cooper (played by Tom Towles). Cooper is the embodiment of inaction. While Ben is the representation of action when necessary. The interesting thing is how those roles get skewed throughout the movie until both Ben and Cooper, bullet-ridden, seek shelter in the places they had both refused just hours before.
But back to Barbara…
In the original, she was helpless and in shock. Audiences were meant to feel sorry for her and pity her as just another victim of the zombie apocalypse. But this Barb is different. Yes, she was in shock. Who wouldn’t be after seeing their sibling break their neck and finding all these corpses walking around trying to eat you. Both Barbs are believable. The 1990 Barb though represents something different and perhaps more realistic in terms of metaphor. The new Barb is every bit rational. “They’re so slow,” she says, in reference to her observations of the walking undead. “We could move right by them, if we’re careful, we can get out of here,” she says to Ben who looks at her doubtfully. We’re meant to believe she’s finally cracked, but she hasn’t. She’s actually the only rational one there.
A huge reason why I love Romero inspired zombies is that they ARE so easy to get by. Its only when you’ve waited too long to take action are they dangerous. When you’ve allowed yourself to become paralyzed with in-action, when the staggering few become a shuffling horde, is when things start to become worrisome. And its the most shocking sentiment about a Romero zombie-story, the sin of in-action is death, and often not just any death, but undeath, cursed to walk to the earth as a brainless corpse. In the case of both Ben and Cooper is that they are stuck on one idea, one way of handling things even when the evidence is contrary to their belief.
As a twelve-year-old, and perhaps more now that i’m all grown up, I’m blown away by this amazing cast of iconic horror legends, and by the concepts the film presented. Romero had said once in one of his many interviews that he felt bad that he had originally made Barbara such a weak character trope. Hence why in Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead we get a strong female protagonist. While I didn’t find the original Barbara to be a sexist characterization of femininity, I certainly didn’t mind the change in the remake. Of course, my perspective may be different from yours. I had known the 1990 Barb waaaay before I met the 1968 Barb. Still… Night of the Living Dead was a fantastic film and the 1990 remake is one of the best remakes to be produced. Mostly because of who was behind the project. When you’ve got the Godfather of Zombies penning the screenplay, chances are its going to be good.