How the Remakes Stack-up, Part 2: Night of the Living Dead

Posted: October 8, 2012 by Dion in Film, Film Review
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So to usher in the Halloween season here is the second installment of this series, I figured I should do a real classic as well as one of my favorite horror films of all time: Night of the Living Dead. As stated in my last post, I try to search through all the muck and crap that film remakes seem to be now, and showcase a remake that actually stands up to the original and has legs of its own.

The George Romero film from 1968 was pretty ground-breaking for many reasons and at the time practically invented a genre, which today is in my opinion, a very over-saturated market. But Tom Savini’s 1990 remake which scored pretty high on the radar, landed well before the 2005-boom that resulted from the remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (which was the sequel to Night, that originally premiered in 1978).

But both the 1968 and 1990 versions of Night have great points between them, with the original rightfully acclaimed by critics as one of the essential horror films of all time, and considering the 1990 remake is not great, it does have some great moments that were achieved by improving on some of the original film’s ideas and concepts.

By now if you do not know the basic story of the iconic film in question, you either live under a rock or have a large hole in your knowledge of horror pop-culture. But for those of you unfamiliar, the plot concerns itself with a small group of strangers who seek refuge in an isolated farmhouse which is seized by the bodies of the recently deceased, who are now coming back to life (caused by radiation on a satellite back from Venus that breaks up in re-entry) and cannibalizing anyone in sight.

I don’t know about you, but this basic concept scares the living shit out of me (but that is for another posting).

George Romero’s Night was by no means the first to delve into this subject of the living dead, with such notable predecessors as Bela Lugosi’s 1932 ground-breaking classic White Zombie; or Val Lewton’s 1943 unknown gem I Walked with a Zombie; or the highly recommended Herk Harvey’s little seen classic, Carnival of Souls from 1962 (a film that even Romero admitted had influenced him into creating his 1968 debut in question).

There are a number of reasons that make the original Night stand out and become a must see. First was its budget; which seemed little to non. But true to the idea of a ‘low budget’, every dollar of the film was used wisely and put up on the screen. Shot for a mere $114k, it grossed 12 million domestically and$18 million internationally. The result was a very gritty, realistic nightmare made in black and white. (urban legend has it that Romero had actually shot it in B&W because a study at the time said that nightmares were always in B&W, though this could maybe just be explaining away budget issues, as well as a directorial choice).

Another fact to cite about this film are the issues it dealt with of the time. When the 1968 film was released, America was in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, and riots were breaking out all over the country because of this. It may not be a coincidence that Night‘s lead protagonist is an African-American named Ben, who almost immediately is challenged by an alpha-white male named Mr. Cooper, who wants to take control of the small group of survivors. Another sobering and unnerving aspect is the fact that after the climax of the film, poor Ben is the only one to survive this horrible and brutal night, only to be mistaken in the denouncement for a zombie inside the farmhouse and is shot by a faraway hillbilly posse who are approaching the home.

Romero’s original must see trilogy, Night, Dawn and Day of the Dead all were topical with their themes and allegories; it was the reflection of mindless, ‘zombie-like’ consumerism of the masses that was born out of the advent of the shopping mall in the 1970’s that’s reflected in 78’s Dawn, or the shades of the AIDs epidemic of the 1980’s, shown through the prism in 1985’s Day.

Shocking and terrifying for audiences, this 1968 drive-in double feature became a massive hit and helped revitalize the horror genre right into the 70’s that had previously died down from the re-releases of the Universal Studios Horror cannon in the 50’s, and was at the time on ‘life support’ with sparing installments from the Hammer Studios or the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe series.

Night‘s continuous onslaught of suspense, tension and action, along with its grim finale struck a chord with audiences around the world and it instantly became a cult classic. It’s sequel actually invented the now popular Italian horror genre which was pioneered in the 79’s by Lucio Fulci who did the Italian sequel to Dawn, titled Zombie 2 (known in the states as simply Zombie)  and influenced the man who some call the God of the Italian horror genre, Dario Agento, a man who himself has influenced practically every horror director and fan internationally since.

On a side note, the biggest problem that Night of the Living Dead saw was its loss of copyright through an error of the film’s distributor. In 1968 it was the law to put a copyright notice on every film, which the distributor had done under the film’s original working title, Night of the Flesh Eaters, but removed and never put back on the prints that were sent out with its final title. Because of this fatal error, the film entered public domain and anyone could walk into 7-11 and buy it for $5; and a string of films were made capitalizing on the iconic title in 1980’s, like the Return of the Living Dead series, and at one point the film was even colorized, repackaged and sold.

Around 1989, George Romero approached his long-time friend and collaborator, the legendary make-up effects artist Tom Savini to explain that there was interest in remaking the film. Partly financial, so to get the title back and keep it, there also was a willingness to breathe life into the franchise. To Savini’s surprise and delight, he was asked to direct this remake, as Romero was currently in preproduction of The Dark Half, so would only write and produce. But almost immediately there was a huge conflict between Savini and the studios, which quickly spread to he and Romero, ultimately causing a huge break in their relationship that lasted almost 10 years. Though Savini had been assured by Romero that he would be there to help and pretty much have the make-up man’s back against the studio in directing the film, Romero was a complete no-show for the production of 1990’s Night, because of his preoccupation of The Dark Half.

So you must remember this while grading the 1990 remake, because according to Savini, it was not at all the version he wanted to put out. In the 1997 book Savini- The Wizard of GoreSavini described first his huge problem with the censors, and being forced to cut a lot of the gore out that he intended in using. To remake such an iconic film, the ‘King of Splatter’ as he is called in the industry, planned on his remake to be the best and most realistic effects to date; but that was shot down by the studio who quickly pulled a Touch of Evil, and in fact idiotically recut his film without the director’s approval. Most of the ultra gore and homage to other zombie films he’d shot was omitted, and instead the film was filled with more dialogue and less action.

His second major complaint with the final version of his Night was its soundtrack. He’d shot names out like Danny Elman to compose it but was instead assigned someone he did not pick. Savini supplied the composer with a rough cut of the film filled with his take on the music, which was a collection of cues from films like Ben-Hur and Planet of the Apes, to help illustrate his ‘vision’ and asked the man to develop something along those lines. Instead, the composer returned with a completely different score because as Savini says in the book, “he said he decided to go in another direction.” That became the score that the director was forced to use in the film.

Sadly, I have to completely agree with Savini. The score is quite bad, even for 1990 standards (that said, the cue over the titles that shows up throughout the film is pretty terrifying).

But the film does follow through on a number of themes that were only touched upon in the original. The 1990 piece successfully conveys the notion that the undead are actually not monsters, but are in fact versions of us (which they essentially are -I know- Huh!), but we (the humans) are in fact the monsters.

At the end of the film, bikers in a make-shift camp, are seen drunkenly throwing themselves into a pen they’ve erected and sadistically wrestle and fight the zombies, clearly having the time of their lives at the mockery of a drunk fighting a mindless ghoul; we also see members of the hillbilly posse lynching other zombies, then using them as target practice as they hang from the trees, a vignette which legend has it, Romero wanted to include in the original film, but it was deemed way too controversial for the time when the 1968 film was released. These two scenes are quite startling for the brutality humans can still participate in, even at the darkest moments of our existence.

Another brilliant change to Savini’s version, is the arch of the Barbara character who is the person that brings us, the audience, to the farmhouse. In both versions, Barbara goes through a very traumatising incident in the first scene, and after escaping to the farmhouse to seek refuge, in the Romero version, enters into an almost catatonic state because of shock, and is pretty much useless for the rest of the film. But in the 1990 version, Barbara instead becomes empowered after retreating to the house, and much like Ridley Scott’s Ripley character, she becomes a fighter and along with Ben, takes an active role in her own survival over the course of the night.

A neat little thing Savini adds to his version which I love, is in the final hours of the siege, Ben (played amazingly by Tony Todd, who I think should have earned a nomination for how good his portrayal was) is forced to barricade himself in the basement as a last resort while the house is finally overrun by the undead.  He only then accidentally stumbles over the keys to the gas pump the property, that was something the entire group of survivors desperately searched the farmhouse for earlier in the film, which could have refueled the vehicles allowing them all to escape. Now the only one left, Ben finding the keys is meaningless and like the best twists in a Twilight Zone or EC Comics tale, he can only laugh hysterically realizing the final irony, as the scene fades out.

So both films have a lot of positives. The original inspired a completely new genre, while the remake had some of the best SFX work to date, and enough fresh polishes added that it was not a complete reworking of the overall idea of the 1968 version, but just enough to give the viewer some new twists and turns. Both are highly recommended, and though the 1990 version is flawed in certain ways, I think seasoned horror or cinema fans can find them forgivable, and look at it as it was, a decent enough remake that was able to breathe life back into a dying genre.

Comments
  1. Dion says:

    How about this drama that has cropped up this month about the eagerly awaited release of Night (1990) on blu ray?! Looks like people aren’t happy to say the least, and you know what? I agree!
    http://www.dreadcentral.com/news/60523/editorial-night-living-dead-1990-blu-ray-gives-fans-blues

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