Sunday, June 29, 2008


Perhaps the recent glut of unwanted remakes is clouding my perception, but time has been kind to the 1990 redux of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Conceived not as a typical cash-in (Romero and company made the film in an attempt to collect royalties on the title, having lost any residuals on the original in a bad distribution deal), it benefits from solid direction by make-up guru Tom Savini and a cast of genre favorites, many of whom had their greatest moments ahead of them.

With a film as iconic and influential as the original NIGHT, any remake is going to suffer from a compare-and-contrast analysis, especially when it hews close to its source material. (Its faithfulness, or slavishness if you see it that way, often works against it, preventing any genuine surprises.) The basic structure remains the same, but it's the deviations that Savini and Romero, who penned the updated screenplay, make that keeps it interesting. The gore is a lot more vivid--though the MPAA saw that much of it hit the cutting room floor--and the stock library score is replaced by a more traditional soundtrack by Paul McCullough, but the changes with the most impact are with the characters.

Most notably, the Barbara in this version (played by Patricia Tallman) is no longer an ineffectual, semi-catatonic mess, but a much more take-charge and active protagonist. She's also a lot less feminine than her previous incarnation, eventually morphing into a Ripley-esque zombie-killing machine. I never bought the transformation, as it felt more like a concession to the early '90s action-babe sensibility than a legitimate character development; she's also manages to still succumb to the annoying screechiness that plagued the worst of the horror heroines.

The rest of the cast isn't altered quite so dramatically, though just about everyone brings a depth and weight to their performances. Tony Todd, two years away from his signature turn as Candyman, plays Ben as a surprisingly effective Everyman, meshing well with Tom Towles's Harry Cooper. (Kudos to Savini and Romero for keeping the implicit racism beneath the surface; though color is obviously what fuels their conflict, bringing it out would've been ham-fisted and preachy.) Also worth mentioning are William Butler as Tom, Bill Moseley in somewhat wasted capacity as Johnny, and--if you can spot them--author/illustrator Gahan Wilson and splatterpunk duo John Skipp and Craig Spector as background zombies.

The remake saves its variations for the first and third acts, leaving an over-familiar and rather tired midsection that can't help but drag a little (even more so after having sat through several dozen carbon copies of the formula). Things pick up for its climax, but any real reaction will be from what's been changed than the story's resolution. A prime example would be the scene in which Sarah Cooper becomes a zombie and eats her mother, which plays out exactly the same as the original; here there's no element of surprise, nor is there any sense of shattering taboos that made the scene such a classic horror moment.

Since 1990 wasn't quite the tumultuous year that 1968 was, I really didn't expect Ben's fate to have the same shattering effect, though inexplicably making him a zombie robs the scene of its subtextual meaning (by showing Ben as a "monster," the film plays too safe, removed from the ambiguous nature of the original's denouement). The other major turnabout, when Barbara shoots the cowardly Cooper, was indeed a surprise, but a poor one. While understandable, Barbara's response was too cold-blooded for me. Was this supposed to be the new, improved Barbara, hardened to the realities of her newfound existence?

Savini's NIGHT will always sit in the shadow of the previous model, but it's got nothing to be ashamed of (that'll be saved for the recent 3D version). Ultimately lightweight but harmless, from a time when the phrase "re-imagining" was bandied about, it's a return down one of horror cinema's most sacred halls that's respectful enough to not leave behind too many fingerprints, but also fails to make its own mark.

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