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The Test of Time: Night of the Living Dead (1990)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY TOM SAVINI

STARRING TONY TODD, PATRICIA TALLMAN, TOM TOWLES, WILLIAM BUTLER, HEATHER MAZUR

Here’s an honest question for ya: Which George A. Romero remake do you dig more – Tom Savini’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990) or Zack Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004)?

Personally speaking, I’m probably leaning toward Snyder’s DAWN, but you know what, not by all that big of a margin. Savini’s taut retelling of Romero’s seminal zombie classic is not only an affectionate homage, but it also pushes the social salience three decades forward. But because the idea to remake such an undeniable classic, a la Van Sant with Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, was met with such inevitable backlash, many tended to write the film off before even laying eyes on what Savini was able to achieve in his long awaited directorial debut. As a result, the movie was not only short-shrift by scores of horror fans and diehard fanatics of Romero’s original at the time, that sentiment has also kept the film from being judged on its own merits. All that changes today, as we both celebrate the 50th anniversary of Romero’s original and determine how well Savini’s rendition has endured over the last 28 years. It’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990) in one corner, The Test of Time in the other. Lads, lasses…let’s get ready to stumble!

THE STORY: For those who’ve yet to see the behind the scenes documentary NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: REMAKING A CLASSIC, we urge y’all do to so ASAP. Why? Chiefly due to all of the cool tidbits and fascinating factoids about the production that are disseminated, not to mention the grisly deleted scenes that are included as well. Having watched both Savini’s version and the documentary just this week, what struck me about the redo is how kismet seemed to align the right people to make the movie. Tom Savini, known as one of the preeminent horror movie makeup and special FX maestros, was actually slated to work on Romero’s original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in Pittsburgh in 1968. Savini, a Pittsburgh native just like Romero, was then enlisted to serve in Vietnam weeks before he was to work on the film.

Cut 22 years ahead and the film being remade, mainly as a way to earn cash on the title of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which failed to secure a copyright back in 1968 after changing the title last minute from NIGHT OF THE FLESH EATERS. The idea of the remake was to secure the copyrighted title, and give Romero (who produced and wrote the screenplay for the remake) and producers a chance to earn the money they deserved for such a low-budget independent hit. More karmically yet, Romero handpicked Savini to direct, having been a fan of his FX work in the interim between the two versions. The two Pittsburgh natives finally reunited and finished the collaboration that was meant to be 22 years earlier.

Diegetically, Romero tweaked the script to atone for what he deemed as mistakes in the original. We’ll get to that below in greater detail, but suffice it to say, on the whole, Savini’s version adheres to the skeletal structure of the original. The movie opens with a vicious salvo of slavering zombies in the very cemetery shot in the original, moving the action to the nearby secluded farmhouse, where most of the action takes place. Barbara (Patricia Tallman) enters the cemetery with Johnnie (Bill Moseley), where both are instantly accosted by a raft of spastic, lumbering, mouth-spuming grave-walkers with fresh human brains on their appetites. Barbara outwits her brainless attackers and makes her way to an adjacent farmhouse, where she finds Ben (the great Tony Todd, who beat out Larry Fishburne, Eriq La Salle and Ving Rhames for the role, the latter of which went on to star in the DAWN OF THE DEAD rehash), a self-reliant badass who knows how to lead a group of embattled survivors. Tucked away in the cellar is a supreme asshole named Harry Cooper (Tom Towles), his wife Helen (McKee Anderson) and daughter Sarah (Heather Mazur). Much more likeable is Tom (William Butler) and his girlfriend Judy-Rose (Katie Finneran). Sides are taken, allegiances forged, and soon a battle within the household proves just as dangerous as the deadly scourge of rotten brain-sucking ghouls closing in from outside. It’s a double dynamo!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Even without the qualifiers of the film being a director’s first film, or a remake of an irrefutable classic, Savini’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD largely defies its age. The template was of course laid out to succeed by Romero, refining his original screenplay to an even tighter and tauter clip (5 minutes shorter). But having just watched the film again, what stood out high above all else is threefold. Firstly, the movie holds up in the way it’s both a faithful, heartfelt homage to the original, while still progressing the thematic heft of the film further. The import of the original is how salient the social commentary was pertaining to the turbulent civil rights area of the late 60s. By casting an unknown black actor to be the heroic lead, Romero was at the forefront of advocating for racial equality and the empowerment of black men to rightly fight for themselves in the name of justice. Without this backdrop, the film would likely have ended up as a cheap horror movie largely lost in the annals of time. As it is, the movie is an inarguable classic. Savini, knowing this, went even further. By updating the cause on behalf of female suffrage, or at least gender equality, Savini both honors and progresses the work Romero outlaid for him two decades earlier. By having Ben pass the torch to Barbara as the action hero, a decision Savini had to fight tooth-and-nail with studio heads, he has preserved the best parts of the original while still making his own unique statement.

Perhaps less surprising given Savini’s pedigree, but another part of the film that has not lost its luster is the gruesome makeup and special effects work. Overseen by John Vulich (SFX) and Everett Burrell (makeup), no doubt coordinated by Savini himself, the look, feel and textures of the varied zombies in the film still play as convincingly today as they did back in 1990. Part of this is attributed to Savini’s keen eye and standard for excellence in this department, often casting people himself he knew would make great zombies. For example, in the opening cemetery sequence, the old man who first approaches, who we remember from the original is a zombie, totally subverts our expectations when it’s revealed he is still among the living. That actor (Pat Reese) was Savini’s longtime friend, who he knew looked too much like a zombie not to cast. Same goes for the creepy doorway zombie that Barbara blasts four rifle rounds into his bare-flesh before blowing his brains out. That dude was just a cab driver Savini saw and decided he’d make a memorable zombie. Same story for the Uncle Reg zombie (Pat Logan), who was not only a friend of Savini’s for 30 years prior to making the movie, but did his own stunts just six weeks after sustaining a brutal motorcycle injury. The makeup and SFX certainly standout on their own, but the casting of such uniquely memorable zombies to apply said cosmetics is equally lasting.

You know what though? The previously mentioned aspects would be for naught if it weren’t for the credible turns by both leads, Todd and Tallman. Word is Savini ended auditions in the middle of Todd’s reading, as he was so good Savini knew instantly he was going to be playing Ben (his resemblance to original actor Duane Jones didn’t hurt). We now know revere Todd as one of the all time horror actors, on par with a Lon Chaney or Bela Lugosi, a man who can play both hero and villain with the same believability. He carries much of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the first half in particular, eventually giving way to the movie’s primary protagonist, Barbara. Tallman, a college buddy of Savini, does a superb job of quelling any gripes of cronyism. Her arc calls for transforming from a meek and mousy victim to a bold and badass heroine, and Tallman is game every step of the way. The scene in which she stumbles out of the house and happens upon a zombified mother carrying an infant doll, Tallman expresses such genuine pathos in her horrified reaction that it makes her character that much more believable and likeable at the same time.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Given the pervasion zombies in pop culture since the time of its release, one can’t help compare NOTLD to where limits of the subgenre have been taken. Looking at the film now, it’s hard to forgive how slow and nonthreatening the zombies come off as in the film. This is certainly a byproduct of 28 DAYS and WEEKS LATER redefining how zombies are comported, a trend carried over into THE DAWN OF THE DEAD remake and various movies and TV shows since. To this end, the lack of gore in the 1990 version really makes for a sterile and anodyne zombie experience.

Part of it was a sign of the times. In 1990, the MPAA was castrating every damn horror movie as a result of the Reagan-era panic, threatening this one with an X-rating if giant portions of graphic violence weren’t trimmed. Savini himself admits that, fans expecting a sick Romero/Savini collaboration wanted to see rivers of grue, but the MPAA forced his hand. Savini then argues that the cutaway kills and excised gore does more in its power of suggestion that numbing the viewer with oversaturated gore. I see both sides of the argument, and actually think a middle ground could have been tilled a bit more judiciously. If half of the gory scenes were nixed, and a few left in, the overall experience would kick that much more ass. I’m thinking specifically of the shot where Tom blows the head off a zombie from the bed of his truck, or a grislier headshot of the doorway zombie.

Additionally, given all we know about zombie mythology today, even if you hadn’t seen the original prior to the 1990 version, Sarah Cooper’s storyline comes off as wildly predictable. We know those bitten are bound to turn into a zombie themselves, so by the time Sarah turns, it simply does play as well now as it may have even in 1990. We fully know and expect Sarah to reanimate and lash out vengefully, and when she finally does, there’s zero suspense to the proceedings.

THE VERDICT: With the pros and cons properly weighed, on the whole, Tom Savini’s THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD's old zombie ass still looks pretty good. The movie not only faithfully, lovingly pays homage to Romero’s trailblazing classic, but it also pushes the best parts of said classic into progressive new areas of social salience. Add to the mix an extremely durable combo of makeup and VFX work and two towering turns by its two leads, Tony Todd and Patricia Tallman, and it’s easy to see how THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD overcomes its flaws and continues to withstand The Test of Time!

STREAM NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD HERE

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Source: AITH

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