It was tricky producing a weekly movie review radio program in Central Wisconsin in the early nineteen-nineties. There were nine screens in our town and a decidedly unaggressive approach to bookings. Especially at the time of the year, we’d watch as early Oscar contenders showed up in larger cities and our local options remained fairly static. One thing was certain, though. We got all of the horror movies. Many of those fearsome features were eager attempts to launch slasher series, a quest to establish the next Freddy Krueger. And, as always, brands sprang eternal. So in the first year of the radio program, a remake of Night of the Living Dead arrived. I don’t think I’ve seen a bit of this film since I watched it for review purposes in the fall of 1990, so I can’t provide fresh perspective. But I do think (and even mildly fretted at the time) that I was too generous in my relatively kind assessment, an effect of my founding principle of film criticism — long since abandoned — that I should assess every feature strictly on its own terms, with no surrounding context or knowledge of cinematic history shading my opinion. In effect, I rounded up in an effort to not make the newer movie suffer in comparison to its superior original iteration. That was a misguided approach. Fifty years after the release of the original Night of the Living Dead, I can say with confidence that’s the only version that’s necessary.
In 1968, George Romero created what will undoubtedly go down in film history as one of the best horror movies ever: a bleak, black-and-white feature about a group of people barricaded into an old farmhouse who are trying to defend themselves from zombies with a desire to eat human flesh. Of course, that film was Night of the Living Dead. Some twenty-odd years later, Mr. Romero has decided that it’s time for a remake of his classic film, this time with special effects wizard Tom Savini in the director’s chair.
Now the film is in color, with an all new cast and some rather interesting variations on the original. One of the main characters of the film is Barbara, played by Patricia Tallman. In the original, the character was nearly catatonic, so distressed by the unsettling sight of the walking dead that all she could do was sit in the farmhouse and whimper. Now that we’ve reached the nineties, though, Barbara has thrown off her passiveness and become a regular sharpshooter, gunning down zombies like the easiest targets in a carnival game. She’s the one who insists they can get past the undead adversaries and they’re foolish for staying locked up in the farmhouse. It’s not too hard to figure out why Romero, who wrote the new screenplay, added the anti-stereotypical touch.
And if you’re a fan of the original and are leery about throwing down your money for something you’ve already seen, fear not. The end is now very different from that of the 1968 version.
The performances are all passable, though Tom Towles occasionally goes over the top with his turn as one of the members of the group in the farmhouse. Besides some slow-moving exposition early on, the film usually succeeds at being entertaining. The addition of color does detract from the grim nature of the film. It’s almost too bright at times.
It’s certainly not the equal of the original, but that would be asking a lot, after all. On its own merits, Night of the Living Dead, the 1990 version, is just fine.
3 stars (out of 4).