Bill Moseley, black and white film, cinema, color vs black & white, film reviews, films, George Romero, horror, horror films, isolated estates, isolation, Katie Finneran, McKee Anderson, Michael Haneke, Movies, Night of the Living Dead, Patricia Tallman, practical effects, remakes, special effects pioneer, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the living dead, Tom Savini, Tom Towles, Tony Todd, William Butler, zombie movies, zombies
As a general rule, I’m not a fan of film remakes, especially remakes of classic or iconic films. I can see the merit, to a point, in remaking a bad or compromised film, especially if you were a fan of the original…sort of a take two, if you will. Remaking a well-made, well-received film, however, seems completely pointless. I’ll go to the grave stating that no modern audience member will die if they’re forced to watch something that’s more than a few years old. I promise: sitting through a black and white film or something from any of the various decades before 2010 will not cause internal bleeding, memory loss or phantom limb syndrome.
With that being said, however, I’m a little more ambivalent when it comes to filmmaker remaking their own films. While this seems like kind of an odd, specific situation, it has happened a few times, usually when a popular foreign director makes the transition to Hollywood films: German misery merchant Michael Haneke remade his original Funny Games (1997) as an American version in 2007; Takashi Shimizu remade Ju-On (2002) as The Grudge (2004) for American audiences; George Sluizer turned Spoorloos (1988) into The Vanishing (1993); and Ole Bornedal’s Nattevagten (1994) became the Ewan McGregor starring Nightwatch (1997). In each of these instances, the originals were popular films, especially on the festival circuit, which prompted American remakes to capitalize on the buzz (although it’s interesting to note that Haneke waited a decade between his versions of Funny Games): the thought, it seems, is that American audiences aren’t big on reading subtitles, since some of these films are only different by virtue of the language spoken. The 1990 remake of George Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead doesn’t really fit any of these bills but it’s also the furthest thing from something like the modern remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Friday the 13th, since Romero produced, wrote the screenplay and handpicked the director: special effects pioneer Tom Savini.
If you’ve never seen the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), your first move should be to go watch that, right away: I’ll wait. All done? Excellent. Here’s what you saw: a raw, visceral, black and white nightmare that’s equal parts siege picture and sly social commentary, the kind of film that features a child consuming her mother and a black hero (in 1968, no less) who survives the zombies only to be shot dead by rednecks. It’s an independent film in every sense of the word, featuring a bunch of amateur filmmakers wearing as many hats as they can pile on their heads and going for broke in a way that only hungry, young artists can. It’s an unmitigated classic, almost singlehandedly responsible for nearly 50 years of zombie movies.
Remaking a film like Night of the Living Dead doesn’t seem like such an impossible task: after all, the first film was a crude, zero-budget production where local business people who donated funds took on roles as zombies, newscasters, police, etc. It was a black and white film that required gore effects at a time when that just wasn’t the norm. With all of the advances in filmmaking technology, special effects and computer-generated effects, making something like Night of the Living Dead in this modern era should be easy. The problem, of course, is that Night of the Living Dead was a labor of love: it was a real film that became a classic, similar to Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw or Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). Catching lightning is a bottle twice is no easy feat: manufacturing impact and meaning is impossible.
For the most part, Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead isn’t drastically different from Romero’s original but there are a few subtle changes/differences. The film still takes place in an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, although the place now looks like a cross between the Sawyer homestead in Texas Chainsaw and Norman’s taxidermy-crammed residence in Psycho (1960). We still get Barbara but Patricia Tallman’s version is a huge improvement from Judith O’Dea’s original: this Barbara is no catatonic babe-in-the-woods but an ass-kicking “final girl,” more Ellen Ripley than doe-eyed victim. Her character development feels very organic, although the scene where she trades her skirt for a pair of pants seems a bit on the nose. Ben is still here but Tony Todd’s version is more of an angry, shouty bloke, not too far removed from Tom Towles’ obnoxious Harry Cooper. This version of Harry manages something that I’d always felt impossible and actually makes the character more repellent and crude: as portrayed in Savini’s version, Harry Cooper is a Jersey Shore-meathead, a ridiculous character who’s just one “You’ze guyz!” away from being a complete stereotype.
This, then, isn’t a carbon-copy of the original, aside from the obvious color vs black and white issue. While many of the ideas and themes from Romero’s original have been kept (Romero did, after all, write the screenplay for the remake), there are many aspects that have been changed completely. The horror of Barbara confronting her own zombified brother has been done-away with in the remake by having her come across his already dead body: it robs a chance for some genuine emotion from the story and feels like a surely missed opportunity. Whereas the original had Ben survive the ordeal only to killed by humans the following morning, the remake does away with this, as well: Barbara is the final survivor and Ben emerges from the house as an obvious zombie, only to be shot and killed by the rednecks. This is a subtle but big difference: in the remake, there’s no mistaking Ben for a zombie and the kill is just about as necessary as you get. In the original, however, it’s never made clear whether Ben is killed because the trigger-happy rednecks think he’s actually a zombie or because they see an opportunity to kill a black man without penalty. Barbara is the one, in the remake, who gets to use the zombie apocalypse for her own ends: when the loathsome Harry Cooper emerges, unscathed, Barbara calmly and coldbloodedly shoots him, proclaiming him another zombie. In this instance, there’s no mistaking her intent, as with the rednecks killing Ben: she means to get vengeance for Harry’s assholery. Whereas the final scene in the original finishes off Ben’s character arc, the final scene in the remake finishes off Barbara’s character arc: a different focus for a different era, as it were.
For all of the subtle differences between the two versions, both Romero and Savini’s Night of the Living Deads are remarkably similar. For my money, though, the original still has more impact: there’s something that’s undeniably sad, lonely and terrifying about the original and I can’t help but feel is has something to do with the black and white. The cinematography in Savini’s remake is often quite good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s never very evocative. There’s very little atmosphere in the film and it functions much more as an action film than an honest-to-god horror movie. The effects and makeup in the remake, as expected, are excellent, although I found quite a bit of the prosthetic work to be a little rough: there’s one damned rubber hand that seems to make an appearance everywhere and it never looks like anything more than a cheap haunted house prop. I was actually surprised to find that the effects work and gore seemed a little tamer in the remake than the original, something which made no sense to me until I read that Savini’s remake was severely edited to earn an R rating: that makes a lot more sense. Still, what’s here is suitably excellent, although there isn’t anything groundbreaking. Careful observers might also note that the ending seems to prefigure Romero’s later Diary of the Dead (2007), with zombies being used for target practice and as opponents against human wrestlers/fighters.
Ultimately, Savini’s remake stands as a well-made but, ultimately, rather pointless exercise, aside from the obvious benefit of putting more funds into Romero’s coffer. Since his copyrighting issues with the original film resulted in the almost complete loss of any exhibition revenues, it’s only fitting that he would get a “second chance,” as it were, via the remake. Some of the changes strike me as worthy: It’s always refreshing to have a more feminist take on female characters in horror films, so the remaking of Barbara as strong heroine strikes me as a great, welcome change from the original: I always found the original character to be one of the weakest, most pewling characters in cinema. At the end of the day, however, Savini’s Night of the Living Dead is still the same film about a small band of survivors trapped in a farmhouse by the living dead that Romero’s was. Romero’s film may have been the more impactful, personal and iconic of the two but that should be a given: a perfect copy of a Picasso will never be worth as much as a Picasso…unless you don’t know it’s a copy, that is. Savini’s film is obviously a copy but, in this case, that’s probably alright.