FEBRUARY 22, 2011
I actually saw Tom Savini’s Night Of The Living Dead remake before I saw the original (both around 1994-1995), so maybe that’s why I’ve always preferred its ending to Romero’s. But that’s all I could remember about it; it had been so long since I had seen it, I don’t think I even had any real appreciation for Bill Moseley’s cameo as the ill-fated Johnny (I certainly didn’t realize they spelled his name wrong in both beginning and end credits). How’s it hold up?
Well, I still like the ending more, that’s for sure. While Romero’s ending was grim, it was also overshadowed by unintentional racial connotations (Ben was always meant to be shot by hunters who mistook him for a zombie; however the character was not written to be black). But here, Ben really did become a zombie (after the ironies are laid even thicker; i.e. the key that could have saved them was in plain sight in the basement that he stubbornly refused to enter), and Cooper was still very much alive, only to be (purposely) shot by Barbara as a glorious “Fuck you”. Maybe it’s just my sensibilities or fondness for karmic retribution, but I just think this is a better way to end things. It’s still a grim ending – the zombies still roam, Ben’s still dead, etc – but there’s a touch of crowd-pleasing darkness to it as well.
As for the rest of the movie, well, no, I prefer the original. I like the film, but overall Savini’s version just isn’t as scary. Some of his fake outs, where he uses your knowledge of the original to misdirect you into thinking a scare will come from somewhere only to have a zombie jump out elsewhere are successful (most notably the crazy old NOT-zombie man in the cemetery scene), it just lacks that unending creepiness and sense of dread that the original had (and still has, based on my most recent viewing – I’ll discuss more in that film’s review tomorrow). Part of the problem is the limited number of newscasts; whereas in the original we saw a lot of news footage and interviews with scientists and law enforcement types, here the news is pretty much limited to two brief moments, one of which is just an EBS message. In short, the film feels more insular, and Ben’s stories about what he saw before arriving at the farmhouse are pretty much the same as the original, so Savini and co shot themselves in the foot there – they could have used the opportunity to come up with new scenarios to try to ground the movie in its own reality.
But it’s still an effective zombie movie; it might be a bit light on gore (thanks, MPAA!) but there are a lot of unique zombies to enjoy, some good action scenes (I love Tony Todd’s tendency to kick the damn things), and while he may be a bit cartoonish (even more than Karl Hardiman), Cooper makes for an effective human villain, a seeming requirement of all zombie movies. But he’s not a mustache-twirling type – every “evil” thing he does can more or less be attributed to panic and fear, unlike the biker gang from Dawn of the Dead or the army types from Day of the Dead and 28 Days Later.
It’s also a satisfying remake, in that it doesn’t branch too far from the original but doesn’t copy it note for note either. I prefer Barbara as someone who can stand up for herself instead of sitting around in a catatonic state for the whole movie, and I like that Savini threw in some Dawn of the Dead at the end, where Barbara seemingly heads into Johnstown (where “those rednecks are probably enjoying this whole thing”). He also added some nice touches, such as the fact that the house owner was “M. Celeste”, in reference to the Mary Celeste, a ship that was discovered abandoned in the 18th century (a mystery still unsolved, and I’m guessing probably never will). He also uses his special effects know-how to good use, allowing for more variety to the zombies than Romero’s film could have allowed (but, more importantly, without the CGI “benefits” that all modern films – including Romero’s, sadly – rely on).
Savini also improves Ben’s arrival. I’m not sure if it was a case of not getting the footage or what, but Ben’s first appearance in the original is really awkward, and no matter how well the film has been remastered over the years, I still can’t quite tell what is going on when he suddenly just appears next to Barbara. Here, Tony Todd drives up, runs over a zombie (yeah!), and then get out of his truck, cigarette dangling from his mouth. Badass! Plus it’s always nice to see Todd in a good guy role (I believe this is his only starring role where he wasn’t a villain), and while he lacks Duane Jones’ Poitier-esque grace and stoic demeanor, he makes up for it in bona fide action hero style (his version of Ben is less stubborn, as well – but that’s another thing for tomorrow’s piece).
But he also tosses in a “release the car brake” scene. I never got these in movies – am I just too young? Did cars used to be built with brakes that you could release by pulling on a little knob (which would always instantly send the car rolling away)? At any rate they always bug me, even more than the car simply not starting. I really want to see someone in a modern horror movie try that only to discover that it doesn’t do shit; in my car, for example, the knob in that area just turns on the headlights.
Despite being a non top title, Columbia put some effort into the DVD release. Savini provides a commentary, and while he could have watched the movie again prior to recording (he admits he hasn’t seen it in years, and thus often just sits silently watching it), it’s a decent track. He points out some of the MPAA cuts, offers a few funny tidbits (such as when Barbara stands still for a moment before running – an off-screen grip is putting shoes on her feet so they wouldn’t be injured on the rough gravel), and explains how a few of the FX were achieved. Perhaps he could have used a co-commentator, but it’s worth a listen all the same. They also put together a decent retrospective piece that runs about 25 minutes, in which Savini, Patricia Tallman (who looks stunning in her interviews – the lady ages well), John Russo (grrr), and Russ Streiner talk about making the film. It’s the usual stuff, but I liked that they bothered – this was hardly a successful film (grossing a mere 5 million despite being released at Halloween time).
The final extra is the trailer, and normally I could care less but I found it interesting that the spot doesn’t advertise that it’s a remake. Nowadays it’s always like “the bold new reinvention of the immortal classic!” or whatever, but here they don’t even hint at the film’s legacy, despite having the same (very well-known title) and dropping Romero’s name in there for good measure. It’s also not a very good trailer. Maybe that’s why the movie tanked. Then again, The Blob bombed too – maybe folks back then just didn’t want to see color remakes of their late night cable staples.
It’s not as successful as Dawn’s remake, but it’s certainly better than the 2008 version of Day of the Dead, and it’s one of the few horror films from the 90s that I actually enjoyed revisiting. I wish Savini had made another feature, but oh well. Give it a chance if you haven’t seen it yet; thanks to the much maligned “30th anniversary” version as well as the 2006 3D remake with Sid Haig, its cred just continues to improve.
What say you?