OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990)
Director: Tom Savini
If you're a fan of horror movies at all, then I'm sure you've at least heard of George Romero. One of the genre's most respected filmmakers, he's been behind cult films like The Crazies, Martin, and his collaboration with Stephen King, Creepshow. However, his most famous work has been his series of zombie movies. Beginning with Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and continuing in the decades that followed with a number of other zombie movies, Romero's work with the undead helped to craft the zombie film as we know it today. However, thanks to a screw-up made by the distributors, Night of the Living Dead was released without a copyright notice in the credits and ended up in the public domain. Whoops. After over twenty years of not making a dime from what would become one of the horror genre's most influential and important movies, Romero took a chance at swinging things in his favor by writing and producing a remake of his debut film. With special effects maestro Tom Savini on board as its director, this modernized take on an old classic didn't exactly set the box office on fire when it was released on October 19, 1990. However, in the two decades since then, Night of the Living Dead '90 has become a cult classic in its own right, and for good reason.
As in the original classic, the story is simple, yet amazingly effective. Our tale of terror begins at a cemetery in the middle of nowhere, where bickering siblings Barbara (Patricia Tallman) and Johnnie (Bill Moseley) have arrived to put flowers on the grave of their mother. As Johnnie teases his sister about her fear of the cemetery, they get into a scuffle with a mangy, sallow-faced man. Barbara flees after the man bashes Johnnie's head against a tombstone, eventually arriving at a secluded farmhouse. And just her luck, there's a couple of zombies around the farmhouse too. But it isn't too long before a tough stranger named Ben shows up, running down one zombie with his stolen truck and dispatching the rest with a crowbar. As night falls, the pair discovers that they're not alone. Five survivors young couple Tom (William Butler) and Judy Rose (Katie Finneran), and Harry Cooper (Tom Towles), his wife Helen (McKee Anderson), and their injured daughter Sarah (Heather Mazur) make their presence known after spending the better part of the day hiding in the basement. While they barricade all the doors and windows and try to defend themselves against the armada of undead flesh-eating ghouls that is ever-growing outside the house, the panic-stricken group must also find away to defend themselves against the growing tension and cabin fever inside the house.
Night of the Living Dead '90 is proof positive that it's possible to make a good remake. A lot of remakes are simply soulless retreads made in order to get a few bucks off a name with a built-in audience. But this movie is not only a good remake, but a fantastic movie in general. Great direction, fantastic effects, and wonderful performances really help make the movie what it is, and dare I day it? I think it might actually be a little more entertaining than the original.
Aside from a few changes, George Romero's screenplay doesn't deviate that far from the original script penned by he and John Russo in the '60s. However, those changes make all the difference. Primarily, we see some differences in the Barbara character. The Barbara played by Judith O'Dea in 1968 was catatonic for nearly the entire movie, a character that was pretty much useless for the whole thing. But the updated Barbara becomes more assertive, someone who isn't going to just sit on the couch and babble incoherently about how everybody needed to drop what they're doing and go on a suicide mission to rescue her dead brother. The new Barbara has no problem kicking a little zombie ass if she needs to, and I think that the change is for the better. The ending is different as well, and although I thought the original movie's ending was more effective in its ability to shock, the remake's ending works too. It establishes a feeling that we're not any different than the zombies; we might even be worse than them.
Where the movie truly shines is in the other categories. Though he's known primarily as a master of makeup effects, Tom Savini makes the most of his feature-length directorial debut. He takes a number of opportunities to have fun at the expense of the audience, playing off our knowledge of the original movie and taking familiar scenes in directions that we wouldn't expect. He and cinematographer Frank Prinzi also film scenes in such a way that it allows things to creep up on us, to surprises us. We the viewer get the feeling that even with all the windows boarded up airtight, a zombified hand could come jutting in at any time to grab some poor fool that stood too close. Savini does a great job, and it's a shame that he hasn't directed more movies.
Helping Savini are the special makeup effects designed by John Vulich and Everett Burrell, and the music composed by Paul McCollough. Vulich and Burrell's effects are well done, making the zombies look like they truly are walking corpses. From the oozing, long-dead ghouls to the fresh, ready-to-bury body whose autopsy stitches are ready to pop and the one creature whose lower body is twisted at an impossible angle, the zombies are wonderfully disgusting, and look infinitely better than the zombies slathered in blue-gray greasepaint like in Dawn of the Dead or Day of the Dead. McCollough's music, meanwhile, helps enhance the tone of the on-screen proceedings. My only real problem with the score is that it sounds a bit dated, probably because of the use of synthesizers instead of an orchestral score or even something a little more ambient.
Finally there's the cast, who, for the most part, are great. Patricia Tallman is aces here, credibly transforming from vulnerable victim to take-no-prisoners zombie killer. Meanwhile, Tom Towles is entertaining as the antagonistic yet cowardly Harry, nearly treading into the line of overacting but still managing to turn in a fun performance. My only complaint is that his insults sound like they were stolen from old reruns of Leave It To Beaver; this is an R-rated movie, so a good solid profanity would have worked instead of something sounding corny. Though to be perfectly honest, that's more of a problem with the script than with Towles. McKee Anderson turns in a subtle, understated, yet amiable performance, though she's not really a high priority character. I guess Bill Moseley figured he'd make the best of his ten minutes of screen time, because he's hilarious as Johnnie. William Butler is acceptable, while Katie Finneran spins her wheels as an essentially useless character. Rounding out the cast is veteran horror and sci-fi actor Tony Todd, who performs with an intensity that the role needs. He's the perfect person for the role, thanks to both his talent and his commanding screen presence. As soon as he shows up, you know he's going to take charge. And that's just what he does.
As I've said, Night of the Living Dead '90 is one of those rare remakes that is equal to, if not better than, the original movie. It might not have the same reputation as the original Night, but it's still a fantastic film that truly honors the legacy of what came before it. And for that, I'll give it four and a half stars. Go check it out.
Final Rating: ****½