Friday, August 4, 2017

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Tom Savini graduates from special effects makeup and episodes of Tales from the Darkside to feature-length direction with this remake of Night of the Living Dead. And he has a script by George Romero. And a cast that includes Patricia Tallman, Tony Todd, Tom Towles, and Bill Moseley. And more than 20 years worth of advances in special effects. And a much higher budget than Romero et al. had back in 1968.

But an unnecessary remake remains an unnecessary remake. Night of the Living Dead (1990) fails to capture the impact and terror of the original, but that was a given. Disappointingly, it comes off as tame, a safe, slick product of the Hollywood machine. It's not all bad, but it's mostly mediocre.

The plot's mostly the same. The unburied dead rise to feast on the flesh of the living, and a group of people hide out in an isolated farmhouse. The group includes Ben (Todd), Barbara (Tallman), and Cooper (Towles), and things fall apart in a power struggle between Ben and Cooper.

The big changes between this and the original: it's in color, it uses recognizable actors, and the ending is altered in a way not as bleak or iconic as the original but in its own way is fairly clever. The biggest change comes from the characterization of Ben, Cooper, and Barbara.

In the original, Ben was the level-headed hero; he always had it together. Barbara, meanwhile, after the opening scene, remains in shock for the most of the movie, never amounting to more than a puddle of jelly.

Here, Ben is more flawed. He means well, but he lets his temper get to him and proves himself to be almost as bad as Cooper. His idea of fortifying the house proves to be disastrous. All that hammering and pounding ends up attracting more zombies to their location than if they had just stayed quiet.

Like in the original, Cooper wants to hunker down in the basement, but he's an even bigger jerk. The original Cooper was no saint, but he had his moments of dignity and usefulness (he threw the Molotov cocktails at least). His conversations with his wife Helen contained arguments, but he seemed open to reason. Played by Towles here, he contributes nothing and has no redeeming qualities: he's always screaming and yelling, insisting that he's right and everyone else is an idiot, and he hits his wife. It's laughably bad characterization.

Between these two implacable forces, Barbara emerges as the strong hero. Early on, she's nebbish and afraid, but with everything falling apart around her, she steps up and cuts her own path. She also proves to be an admirable shot, taking down zombies left and right with that rifle.

The original came out during the heyday of the Civil Right Movement, hence the significance of a black actor in the lead role, but the 1990 remake reflects another social movement that occurred in the interim: feminism. Sure, there were Women's Right Movements before the 1970s, such as the suffrage movement, but the remake came out post-Women's Lib. Barbara doesn't need a man. She can take care of herself, and when the choice is between following Ben or Cooper, both wrong in their own ways, can you blame her for choosing independence?

That updated social subtext gives the remake some potency. Unfortunately as horror, it doesn't stand out. The original has this gritty, raw feeling of a nightmare as it broke taboos, and the black and white photography suited it perfectly. The world was shrouded in encroaching darkness, and the ghouls felt like the real thing.

There are several little changes along the way, small touches that show Savini is trying by playing off viewers' familiarity with the original such as when the first zombie attacks. The zombie makeup is good, but it's obvious it's makeup. In color, the dead aren't as threatening, and with the world more brightly lit, we can just how slow and spaced out they are.

When Barbara suggests they just walk by the zombies, it feels less like a sharp insight and more like common sense, making the other characters look stupid for dismissing it.

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