1968’s Night of the Living Dead was a groundbreaking film for a number of reasons, but it was also a film that had its fair share of issues. It’s a film with an interesting history. Perhaps the most important piece of Night of the Living Dead trivia is that its name was changes just prior to release. While this is normally a very minor thing, a titling mistake led to the film not being copyrighted correctly, and thus part of the public domain. Combining these factors, it’s a wonder it took until 1990 before we got our first remake.
Helmed by special effects master Tom Savini, the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead stays largely true to the original film, but with a few notable changes. Savini was an interesting choice as director, since he wasn’t able to work on the original film, but did on the sequel, Dawn of the Dead.
The most obvious of thing to update in Night of the Living Dead is it’s low production values. It’s shot on black and white stock with untrained actors and very inexpensive effects. Personally, I think all of those things add to the effect of the film, but they do bother a lot of viewers, and are probably the most easy things to fix in an updated film.
Savini does indeed address those things. The remake is shot in full color with incredible makeup and other special effects. The actors, while still mostly no-names, are definitely of higher caliber. These changes certainly help to make the film feel more realistic and grounded. Everything looks good, although I still prefer the rawness of the black and white original.
The zombies are largely unchanged. They are still slow and shambling, but now seem to adhere to a little stricter set of rules. In the 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the zombies were still a new concept without and sort of codified set of rules. That meant that they could do things like occasionally sprint and use tools. By the time Savini took a shot at the story, zombie followed a basic set of rules, even if those rules were often broken. In Savini’s film, the zombies were slow and dumb; just the way I like them.
The biggest change between the original and the remake comes with Barbara’s character. In the original, she was timid to the point of ridiculousness, although I would argue that she was shutting down after witnessing a traumatic event. In the remake, Barbara is shaken by what happens in the cemetery, but doesn’t let that get the best of her. She quickly recomposes herself and takes an active role in securing the farmhouse. She arms herself, and argues the middle ground between Cooper and Ben. She is also one of the only people to realize that the zombies, when not organized into huge mobs, are very easily avoidable.
Spoilers for a twenty-plus year-old film follow, skip this paragraph to avoid. Barbara’s changes make for a far different conclusion to the story. Ben still locks himself in the basement, but is at mortally wounded and turns into a zombie. Cooper, on the other hand, hides out in the attic and takes on the Ben role of the ironic survivor. This time, instead of being (accidentally?) killed by the militia, he’s shot by Barbara, who escaped the farmhouse earlier when she had the opportunity. This is a fairly big change, as it takes away any question about the film’s final shocking death. Cooper is murdered as revenge for his earlier actions; the question then becomes whether this is justifiable.
Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead updates the look of the film, and deals with one of the originals more problematic characters. In a lot of ways, it’s a fresh coat of paint on an old story, but it’s a very enjoyable film on its own merits. Does it replace the original? Absolutely not. While there are flaws in the original film, there are relatively minor and by no means require a remake to address them. That makes Savini’s version unnecessary, but still a solid entry into the zombie canon.
Nice Review. I agree with you on most points. It always pleasant when a remake or a film adaptation of a book is just different enough that a person can enjoy it without having to compare it to the original. This film is just different enough so it doesn’t trample on the original. Plus the original Black and White is just awesome, the way its shot always makes me feel like Im watching a documentary or some old news footage.
Thank you, sir! And you’re exactly right about the black and white stock makes it look like old news footage. I think that lends a lot to its feel.