Night of the Living Dead (1990) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

The new episode of the WTF Happened to This Horror Movie video series looks back at the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead

The Night of the Living Dead (1990) episode of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? was Written by Emilie Black, Narrated by Adam Walton, Edited by Victoria Verduzco, Produced by Andrew Hatfield and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.

Horror remakes are everywhere these days, but back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were quite a few less, in fact, they were pretty rare. Of course, some had come and gone, with varying degrees of quality and success. Some of the better ones are well remembered to this day, including The Thing, The Fly, and The Blob. In 1990, another remake came out to a bit less joy. In fact, it was downright hated by many, with Roger Ebert even putting it on his “Most Hated” list, something that was not entirely surprising as he had high regards for some of the George A. Romero originals that came before. This remake being one of a beloved film, a film that broke barriers, a film that is still highly influential to this day, it was a major risk to even dare to make it. It’s Night of the Living Dead (watch it HERE)!

So, what happened here? What led to this film being so badly received and now being a nostalgic film for a lot of people? Well, it’s one of those that is harder to explain. There is a severe dislike for remakes these days from a large part of the film-watching population and with reason in a lot of cases, but also, plenty of films are receiving hate before even being seen. However, back in the day, remakes were not as vilified as they are now, and they were not as numerous as they are now. Something about Night of the Living Dead getting remade rubbed people the wrong way back in the day. The film was not expected to be good by horror fans, even with Tom Savini directing. It was going to be his directorial debut after all and directorial debuts are often not the best for people switching departments. Savini was quite well-known for his stellar special effects already and he was somewhat known for his acting, but there was nothing to really tell folks what to expect from his first feature directorial effort. The man had directed 3 episodes of Tales from the Darkside television series, so he had some experience in the field of directing, just not for features. His fans were of course on board from the start, but plenty were not. Of course, another aspect that kept people from looking forward to this remake was the fact that the original is absolutely beloved, a film a changed the genre, a film that created a whole new way of doing zombie films. Some would even say that George A. Romero invented zombie films, but that would be pushing it quite a bit. However, Romero’s work was something to behold, a body of work that can be revered for its use of a simple scare device, the Undead, as well as the creative way in which he brought the original Night of the Living Dead to life. Romero’s film is a template for independent cinema and for zombie films, it’s a classic for many reasons, so remaking it was not something many were behind. Nevertheless, Savini went forward and made his own version.

Let’s take a look at the remake here, starting with the story. The credits indicate that George A. Romero and John A. Russo wrote an earlier screenplay, and the final screenplay was written by Romero here, different online sources indicate that Tom Savini made some changes, some of which he never got to film. The story is generally the same with a few changes of course. A group of people find themselves seeking shelter in a house in the countryside. As the story advances and the zombies multiply, tensions rise, and the survivors discover more and more about themselves and each other. The story is close enough to the original with a few modernization touches, something that most would expect here. The film is not a shot-for-shot remake and has its own ideas, putting it above other remakes in terms of how they approached adapting the story from the source material. The changes aren’t egregious or too far off from the original film either, so they work.

Night of the Living Dead 1990 WTF Happened

The cast here is filled with people who most horror fans are familiar with these days, but back then, they weren’t as well-known as they are now, something that may have helped take the films from something most didn’t care about back when it was released to a nostalgic favorite. This cast stars Tony Todd as Ben, a part originated by Duane Jones, a part that was controversial back in 1968 when having a black man lead your cast was not a regular occurrence and ruffled some feathers. In the remake, Tony Todd was selected for his acting chops. The man had a few horror credits before then, but nothing quite like now. This film helped establish him, along with Candyman, as the horror icon that he is today. Of course, folks at the time did not see things this way. Yet. Costarring in this remake are Patricia Tallman as Barbara, Tom Towles and McKee Anderson as the Coopers, William Butler as Tom, Katie Finneran as Judy, Heather Mazur as Sarah, and Bill Moseley as Johnnie. As horror fans would know now, a lot of these names became horror regulars and are definitely a part of why the film is now bigger than it was back in the day. At the time of its release, some of these folks were known, but nothing quite like they are now. A lot of these folks are now horror and genre specialists, people we see in horror, sci-fi, thriller films all the time. From Tony Todd being Candyman to Bill Moseley being one of the Fireflies and just about everything horror-related, to William Butler now directing horror, Tom Towles showing up in Rob Zombie films, etc. These folks are horror regulars and beloved genre stars. The people who didn’t bother watching the Night of the Living Dead remake in 1990 now proudly own it, usually signed by more than one of the cast and crew that they’ve met at conventions where they are part of the furniture it seems, always there in the autograph rooms or in the vendors rooms. The cast of this film accounts for a lot in how the film went from just barely making a mark to becoming a cult film that many own and love nowadays.

Let’s get back to the director of this remake, Tom Savini. The man has worked on other films from the “of the Dead” series, appearing in Dawn of the Dead as Motorcycle Rider and on the set of which he also helped with the stunts when it was clear there was no stunt team. He also did makeup and cosmetic effects on the film. He also did special makeup effects on Day of the Dead and played the Sheriff in the Dawn of the Dead remake and was the Machete Zombie in Land of the Dead as well as did voiceover work on Diary of the Dead. It’s easy to see from these credits that the man was attached to the series from the start, so having him direct the remake of what started it all kind of makes sense. Of course, his directing here is something some have argued about, but watching later on while it shows that he was lacking experience, there is a talent showing here. Savini was a respected special effects master by 1990, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to give him a remake to direct.

Of course, there have been tons of interviews with Savini and other cast and crew members of this film through the years and most of them seem to just love the film and the experiences they have had filming it. Of course, rose-colored glasses are often put on when describing experiences on panels at conventions and in interviews that are published to promote the film. As these seem to be mostly positive, one interviewee seems to disagree heavily with the love for the film by some of the cast, and that is director Savini who describes filming this as “the worst nightmare of [his] life”. Furthermore, Savini has said in interviews that the film had to be cut down to avoid an X rating, something that would have killed any chance the film might have had at the box office as cinemas usually see an X rating as a death omen for a film and do not take it from distributor. As for the scenes removed from his Night of the Living Dead, Savini is convinced that these cuts are why people didn’t love the film at the start, blaming these cuts for the film’s lackluster ticket sales. These scenes have seen the light of day in various ways, as parts of special features on re-releases and online in different ways. The whole of the film, completely uncut, with all its gore and effects restored, does not seem to be available quite yet.

With all this talent involved, a known IP, how did the film do? Well, it was not exactly a success and not exactly a failure. The film cost $4.2 million USD to make, a total that usually doesn’t include marketing and distribution costs, so the total at the box office being of $5.8 million USD may look like the film made a profit, there is a high chance it actually lost money depending on how much was spent on marketing and distribution. So, in terms of numbers, the film did right in the breaking even margin most likely.

Night of the Living Dead 1990 WTF Happened to This Horror Movie

If we take a look at the box office the week it was released, the week of October 19, 1990, Night of the Living Dead hit number 6 on its first week of release. Not exactly a number one, but not bad either. The numbers for that week show it as pulling in $2,884,679 which is not great, but not exactly abysmal for 1990. The top 5 for that week were Fantasia in a release from 1940, Ghost which was a massive hit with a total gross over $172 million USD, Quigley Down Under which was a Tom Selleck film appealing to the mom crowd and the Western crowd, Memphis Belle which was a war movie, and Marked for Death a Steven Seagal movie which opened at number one and was on its third week at number one. Being that it was October, one would expect more horror films in the top 5 at the box office or in the top 10 even. The Night of the Living Dead remake was the only horror film in the top 10 that week. On its second week of release, it had a bit more horror competition with the release of Graveyard Shift and it unfortunately fell to number 14 on that week’s box office. The numbers weren’t great, but oddly enough, there wasn’t all that much horror competition. Each week after that saw more horror being released, and Night of the Living Dead just dropped off the charts completely.

As for reviews and public opinion, the film didn’t do all that great either. As mentioned before, Roger Ebert hated the film, putting it as one of his “Most Hated” even, something not easily done. Looking at the film’s current ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, he wasn’t the only one not liking it in the critics’ community. The film currently has a 68% fresh from critics and the same average with the public, showing how critics and the public agree for one rare time it seems. Here, the film is critiqued for not bringing enough new elements to its story, while the positives are that it’s gory and that the gore is well done. As for horror fans, a quick peek at conversations with them and it’s easy to see that not all love the film, but those that love it really love it. The film has gained a cult following in the last couple of decades, one where nostalgia seems to overpower the issues the film may have, bringing it new fans and making some see it differently years after they first saw it. The convention circuit appearances by the cast and their names having become bigger and bigger through the years really help this film find new audiences. The fact that it has received more than one re-release by collection labels and in box sets seems to indicate that its popularity is gaining and not waning at all. In recent years, the film has been released on Blu-ray and there are a few different editions still easily available for purchase both on Blu-ray disc and DVD. In terms of remakes, one can do much much worse than picking up a copy of Night of the Living Dead 1990 on a random shopping spree to add to their collection.

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

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