For all of Halloween-themed October, ComicsVerse is creating magic. By magic, we mean analyses of Halloween films, shows, music, and anything else we can find. If you want to keep posted on the newest and greatest content in this particular series, you can check it out here. Stay tuned for more ComicsVerse series coming your way, Spoopy Ghostoween and beyond! Now, let’s talk about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD!

Welcome back to our excavation of the little-known horror. This entry stands as unique — everyone knows the title, but no one knows the film. At least, not this version. George Romero brought zombies to the forefront with his classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

The film gave us the modern day zombie (slow, flesh-eating, rotting) and spawned a variety of zombie films –sequels like DAWN OF THE DEAD, “spin-offs” in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. However, few people talk about one particular film, which, of course, means we’re going to talk about it here.

Barricade the house, grab your blunt objects, and keep the basement ready, as we look at Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

The Plot

The film largely follows the original story laid out in 1968. Siblings Barbara and Jonnie visit a graveyard. The reanimated corpses of the dead rise and attack them. Barbara escapes and holes up in a farmhouse with fellow survivor Ben, and eventually, finds a group of people hiding in the basement.

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The group argues about the best course of action while managing to board up the house. An escape attempt fails, and the house becomes overrun. The story changes here, as Barbara manages to escape, while a “clean up” crew marches through the area, eliminating the threat… for now.

The Curse of the Remake

This remake received poor marks from fans and critics when released, largely for trying to retell a horror classic. However, modern times have been kinder to it, with many calling it a proper example of a horror remake. So what turned people off in 1990? The biggest strike against the film is that it is largely identical to the original film (though not as bad as Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of PSYCHO).

The approach is reverent to Romero’s story and Romero himself wrote the screenplay, but a remake needs to offer something new. The main addition is the added violence. The shift also eliminates the best part of the original film — it’s social commentary. Romero is famous for using zombies for metaphors on society (DAWN OF THE DEAD is known for its shots of zombies stumbling through a huge shopping mall), and the original film was his first example.

Savings…. on…. BRAINS!!

Ben, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s hero, is African-American and the most logical and active of the group. Barbara, a white woman, becomes catatonic due to the zombies, and has little input in the film’s events. Harry Cooper, the human antagonist, looks like the head of a ’60s nuclear family and is angered that he is being overtaken as group leader by Ben.

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Two teen actors stand between Cooper and Ben, while the zombies (real human monsters) shamble outside. The film’s end contains the most powerful moment. Police shoot Ben, the lone survivor, after mistaking him for a zombie. These moments gave the film weight and are far less present in the remake.

New Blood

The remake fails to replace the original film, but that doesn’t mean it has no merit. Tom Savini’s legendary makeup skills are present everywhere; Savini studied how bodies decay and created much more realistic zombies. The violence, as mentioned before, is also updated. The original film shows more amateurish fights (akin to the indie nature of the film) while the remake embraces Hollywood violence. It is different, but it feels more like an update for the audience used to intense horror films.

And I have to change my pants now…

The characters and acting grow as well. Duane Jones (the original Ben) stood out against a largely amateur group of actors in the original. The remake honors Jones by giving his role to the great Tony Todd (CANDYMAN, PLATOON), but also improves the casting to match.

The acting seems over the top at times, but the cast is clearly more professional. They embrace the tone well, and while they don’t push the social commentary of the original, it is still there (just watch Ben and Cooper argue over what to do, and tell me you can’t feel the racial tension). It even adds some commentary of its own when the “clean up crew” starts tormenting zombies just because they can.

The most talked about difference between the films is Barbara. The remake grows her character into a gun-toting fighter, fully able to help in the crisis. Many have said this approach robs the film of the original Barbara’s poignancy and forces her into a less meaningful action hero role. The argument holds water, but Barbara has more character in the remake, and it’s unlikely that the role of a helpless woman in a crisis would have had the same effect in the 1990s.

Final Thoughts on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990)

Remakes are never easy, and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990) is by no means perfect. The social messages lose ground to violence, and a central character loses her original meaning. However, the film works hard to honor the original, contains impressive effects and makeup, and improves upon the acting.

It may not be as meaningful, but it’s quite enjoyable; fans of THE WALKING DEAD would be right at home with the violence and zombie makeup. See the original for its commentary and history, but enjoy the remake for a great time killing zombies.

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