by Steve Habrat
Before the unnecessary 1998 remake of Psycho, a film that certainly was not begging to be remade, the 90’s saw the altar of George Romero desecrated by make-up artist turned director Tom Savini’s utterly pointless carbon copy of Night of the Living Dead. To this day, every time I sit through it, I can’t help but ask “why?” To be fair, I suppose we are still asking that very question today, as we’ve seen every classic remade or re-envisioned. Astonishingly, Romero is listed as an executive producer here, further making this finely tuned machine even more enigmatic especially today due to his outward disapproval of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead slips up from its perfect execution, maddening tweaks to the story, and, well, the use of color. The film is vacant of any real terror and it seems touched by Hollywood, especially the electric guitar and synthesizer score that distractingly bellows over the arguing between the iconic characters. What made the 1968 Romero classic such a landmark was it’s rough around the edges presentation, never shying away from what it really was: an unapologetic horror film with attitude. Savini misunderstands that the film itself posses the anger and the characters were there simply to guide it along its path. Here, Savini makes every character angry, while the studio grabs the film by the hand and leads it along, leaving it’s furious independent sensibilities behind to be eaten by the make-up heavy undead.
Night of the Living Dead ’90 has no place in the era that it was made. It wasn’t a time that was gripped by panic, fear, violence, and uncertainty. Stripped off all its political and social relevance, there is no reason for the dead to walk other than for Hollywood to showcase their latest special effects. The storyline for Savini’s contribution is basically the same, a dysfunctional brother and sister, Johnnie (Played by Bill Moseley) and Barbara (Played by Patricia Tallman), take a road trip to visit their deceased mother’s grave. Upon arrival, several ghouls instantly attack them and the irritating Johnnie imitation bites the dust. Barbara frantically makes her escape to an remote farmhouse where she bumps into zombie killing juggernaut Ben (Played by Tony Todd), testy Harry Cooper (Played by Tom Towles), Harry’s cooperative wife Helen Cooper (Played by Mckee Anderson), and the young Tom (Played by William Butler), and his frizzy haired girlfriend Judy (Played by Katie Finneran). The bickering group attempts to board up and defend the farmhouse from the restless corpses who lurk outside. The group soon falls victim to their own unwillingness to work together, forcing them to make a desperate final effort to survive until morning.
About the only contribution this film makes to the annals of the horror genre is a profession approach to the source material versus what Romero, then a novice filmmaker, produced in 1968. Everything here is a notch more ornate, which makes the events seem preposterous and inane. Some of the zombies border on demonically possessed human beings much like what was found in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. They wear cloudy eye contacts and have yellowed skin. Some have their stomachs sewn up while other animated corpses loose their garments due to the slits cut into the back of the clothing so they could be easily dressed. It looses the “they are us” echoes that resonated through the original. The film attempts to drive the “they are us” idea home, giving the line to Barbara who slips it in at climax. Romero’s zombies were never this intricate, making the ghouls assaults all the more unfathomable. What has happened to these individuals? These are our families, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. Here, they seem like filler background characters. They are the furthest things from “us”. The ghouls resemble Halloween decorations you toss out into your front yard.
If the fact that you are sitting through the remake of Night of the Living Dead is maddening enough, the acting will send you through the roof. No one in this film brushes a subpar performance, with characters that find themselves frenzied who shouldn’t be and characters making drastic turns in their personality. Barbara, who in the original film was sent to a state of shock and never fully returns, snaps out of her catatonic state and becomes a pistol packing sex symbol. It’s awkward. Ben is all melodramatics, shrieking to the heavens when he dispatches a contorted zombie heap. Why would he be kneeling out in the front yard shouting at the sky? You’re going to attract more zombies, you dumb ass. Ben also appears to be looking for a fight in this version. I preferred him as the calm and collected individual who pushed back only when he was pushed far enough. Helen Cooper remains largely the same given she is only a minor character and Harry is still his difficult self. He insists everyone stay in the cellar and refuses to help board up the windows. Judy and Tom, the confused youths caught in the middle of the warring pairs, act like dimwitted hillbillies. Judy is always blubbering yet somehow she pulls it together to drive the getaway truck to the gas pump on the property. Don’t get me started on the alteration made to how the truck is engulfed in flames. In 1968, it’s an accident. In 1990, it’s just plain stupidity.
Night of the Living Dead 90 is amusing for all of the references to the 1968 original. The alterations still make reference to the original film, the most obvious is the scene where Harry and Helen’s daughter Sarah (Played here by Heather Mazur but made famous by Kara Schon) rips her mothers throat out with her teeth opposed to dispatching her dear old mum with a cement trowel. As she eats at her mother’s neck, blood splatters across the cellar wall where a cement trowel hangs. It doesn’t help that Sarah resembles as large colonial doll done up like a vampire. It’s not nearly as traumatic as the original death scene. The film also relies on more gore to keep the horror fans glued to the action. There are more infected wounds on the zombies, more gunshots to the head that end with a shower of brains leaking down their foreheads, and charred bodies are munched on. The original only showed brief glimpses of the savagery, mostly leaving the truly vile stuff to the imagination. Savini, who was a photographer in Vitenam and did gore effects for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead opts the sadism to be up close and personal.
This film is largely forgotten for a reason. I’d bet money on the fact that many do not know a remake of the Romero classic exists. This film lacks any attention-grabbing camera work, every shot remaining immobile. Romero may have been a new kid on the block in the filmmaking neighborhood, but he filled his work with artistic camerawork and some fairly bizarre Dutch tilts at inimitable times. Romero knew how to creep us out and make his film an atypical nightmare. There is none of that here and it’s as if Savini was reading from a “How To” book on filmmaking. It’s a simple wide shot, medium shot, close-up, repeat. He never takes a risk and the only brush with risk is the nod to Dawn of the Dead at the end, in which Barbara joins a merry gang of hillbillies hunting the ghouls and making a party out of it. The film is also sluggishly edited together, another departure from Romero’s classic. He applied frantic, pithy editing that bordered on visual nails on a chalkboard. It honestly made me squirm the first time I saw the original. It added another layer of intensity. This film wouldn’t know intensity if it bit it on the ass. Night of the Living Dead ‘90 is flat, artless, and minimal, banished to the murky depths of horror for good reason. Hopefully, it never rises up like on of its undead protagonists to see the light of day or the black of night again. Grade: D-