Monday, February 27, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Night of the Living Dead 1990

Up until 10 years ago it looked as though zombies were dead and buried. But in 2002, the first Resident Evil movie became a hit and spearheaded a new age of zombie cinema – bolstered by the release of 28 Days Later which followed months later in the UK and came to US theaters in 2003.

Now, with the fourth Resident Evil sequel arriving in theaters, the acclaimed TV series The Walking Dead beginning its third season, and zombies even appearing in kid’s films with the ghoulish stop motion pic ParaNorman, it’s hard to remember a time when zombies were out of fashion. At yet, prior to Resident Evil, zombies had been deep underground for more than a decade.

The film that seemed, from a commercial standpoint, to put a bullet in the head of the zombie genre was 1990’s Night of the Living Dead remake. After NOTLD ’90, there were still some classic entries in zombie cinema – like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992), Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte, Dellamore (1994), and Brian Yunza’s underrated Return of the Living Dead III (1993) – but they were all either limited release or direct-to-video, films that found an appreciative cult audience rather than mainstream popularity.

Ironically, the only zombie movie to get a wide release during the ‘90s was the 1993 Disney comedy My Boyfriend’s Back (produced by Sean Cunningham and written by Jason Goes to Hell co-writer Dean Lorey) about a teenager who comes back from the dead for a girl he had a crush on but that film (both in its poor quality and dismal box office performance) only confirmed that zombies were deader than they’d ever been.

It looked like modern zombie cinema had, perhaps fittingly, gone out the very way it came in – with Night of the Living Dead. It would’ve been impossible to catch lightning in a bottle twice but George Romero’s script for the remake was still a squarely told tale. And having cut his directorial teeth on several episodes of Tales from the Darkside, Tom Savini was an ideal candidate to helm the remake as his first venture into feature filmmaking.

On the surface, all the elements were in place for a successful retelling of NOTLD but when the film was released in October of 1990, even with Halloween around the corner, audiences didn’t turn out for it.

As far as the general public goes, I think the feeling then was that zombies were little more than yesterday’s garbage. After all, by then the zombie genre had devolved into limp comedies, like 1988’s Joe Piscapo/Treat Williams buddy cop/zombie pairing Dead Heat. And in the eyes of older horror fans, the original Night of the Living Dead was sacred ground, a film not to be remade under any circumstances – not even with the original players involved (remember, too, that this was not far from the time of the much-reviled move to colorize classic black and white films – including Night of the Living Dead – so fans were extra sensitive to the idea of anyone tampering with NOTLD).

For a younger generation of horror fans (the first to grow up in the VHS era), weaned from an early age on a diet of splatter heavy zombie films – from Romero’s Night sequels Dawn and Day, to Fulci’s Zombie, to Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground – anything less than an unrated zombie pic just wouldn’t do.

At the time, an R-rated Night remake was too mousy for most fans to bother with – especially with Romero and Savini involved. After Dawn and Day had raised the bar for splatter, what hardcore fan wanted an R-rated zombie film from these guys? The remake seemed to be, and was largely received as, a pointless enterprise (even if it had the well-intended purpose of helping the original filmmakers strengthen their copyright claims to the original). But good filmmaking gets noticed eventually and over the years, NOTLD ’90 has slowly become appreciated in its own right.

Savini’s direction compliments Romero’s lean script by not going for any unnecessary ornamentation. He doesn’t whip out a lot of stylistic tricks; he just puts the camera where it needs to be to get each scene across. It’s an old-fashioned film in that regard as by the late ‘80s/early ‘90s it was common to see directors becoming more indulgent with their visuals, trying to accomplish more impressive, innovative shots. Sometimes this would be to brilliant effect, as with Sam Raimi, but Savini practiced a more classical brand of storytelling.

More time and money on this production might’ve achieved a different result as Savini has said in interviews over the years that many of his storyboarded plans were scuttled due to limitations but such compromises arguably worked to the film’s favor. With Savini in the director’s seat, the film’s myriad FX duties were headed up by John Vulich and Everett Burrell of Optic Nerve FX and their crew did a bang-up job, delivering an array of memorable zombies with some of the gags – such as Johnny’s wince-inducing fatal face dive into a headstone – bearing Savini’s stage magic-based influence of accomplishing illusions in-camera with simple props and misdirection.

Savini also had an excellent group of actors to work with – with a cast including Tony Todd as Ben, Tom Towles as Cooper, William Butler as Tom, Bill Moseley as Johnny, and Patricia Tallman as Barbara. It’d be right to criticize the decision to turn Barbara into an action heroine – one of several creative choices that ensure this version doesn’t resonate as deeply as the original as it strives to be more rousing and crowd pleasing – except for the fact that Tallman does such a great job with the character.

She’s so good in the part that she makes it easy to overlook the fact that Barbara loses her glasses early on but yet still proves to be a dead shot with a rifle. Female heroines are commonplace these days but Tallman imbues her Barbara with a sense of resiliency and humanity that remains rare.

Tallman’s Barbara isn’t just about mowing down zombies. She makes smart decisions, argues her points with intelligence, and never seems cartoonishly superhuman as many action heroines (as well as their male counterparts) now do. In fact, the best moments of Tallman’s performance show her very human responses to what’s going on around her, as when she’s confronted with a female zombie clutching a child’s doll.

With Barbara in the forefront more than she was in the original, Romero’s script makes Ben slightly more childish in his squabbles with the petty, cowardly Cooper. In the original, Ben was more clearly depicted as the voice of reason (even if he wasn’t always necessarily right) but in the remake, Ben is still heroic and well-intentioned but his inability to temper his rage against Cooper is his undoing (he’s also shown to unfairly overreact to Cooper at times, as when he causes the TV Cooper is carrying to tumble down the cellar stairs) while Barbara is the one who’s more able to keep her cool.

Even Ben’s idea to board up the house turns out to have been a fatally flawed plan as Romero introduces the idea that all that hammering may have been responsible for attracting a larger group of zombies to the farmhouse as we see zombies aimlessly staggering in the field suddenly become aware of the noise and then turn and walk towards it.

Todd fills Duane Jones’ shoes admirably, though, and he gets a classic moment towards the end as he sits alone in the basement, sees the missing keys to the gas pump, and laughs madly to himself at this last bitter irony.

NOTLD ’90 differs from the original most notably in its last act, as characters meet different fates than their original counterparts and we see more of what’s happening in the world outside the farmhouse on the morning after. The sympathy towards the undead that Romero developed in Dawn and Day is in evidence here and as we see the grisly circus of undead abuse unfolding through Barbara’s eyes (this is essentially the ground level view of what the Dawn of the Dead crew glimpsed as they flew in their stolen news helicopter over rednecks shooting zombies for sport), the closing moments of NOTLD ‘90 serve as an effective coda – not just for this retelling of Night, but for Romero’s zombie series as a whole.

Even though this is Savini’s film rather than Romero’s, Romero’s screenplay is enough to give it a credible place within the official Romero canon. If anything, this version of Night dovetails more neatly with Romero’s sequels than the original does.

I hasten to add that this doesn’t make it a better film than the original Night, only that it better reflects how Romero’s “rules” of zombie behavior had evolved over time.

Romero would later (thanks to the resurgence of zombie cinema) add to his undead legacy with Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and 2009’s Survival of the Dead (with more to come, probably) but whether you think those films are good or bad (and they have divided fans), they feel like they inhabit their own separate space.

NOTLD ’90 was the last of the Romero-verse zombie films to be made in Pittsburgh, rather than his current base in the Great White North, and it feels like a grave marker for that earlier homegrown era. Ignored or derided upon its original release, the reputation of Savini’s film has only grown over the years – proving that eventually every Night must have its day.

Originally published on 9/13/12 at Shock Till You Drop

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