To me, the key to a truly great “remake” of a pre-existing horror film is simple. Would the new update make a good double feature with the original movie? When it comes to programming a double bill, the goal is to find two movies with a similar theme that would complement each other. And there’s no better test to see if a remake works than by watching it back to back with its inspiration and seeing if it respects its source material and tells a similar enough story, yet does its own thing. Each week, we’re going to pair up two horror films – its original and its remake as a double feature and see if it makes for a great double bill. Welcome to Double Take!
Today’s pairing is going to be arguably one of the greatest, most well respected and overly exploited horror movies of all time, George A. Romero’s classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD from 1968. When I say overly exploited, that’s because when changing the title over from NIGHT OF THE FLESH EATERS to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the copyright wasn’t secured and because of this, dozens upon dozens of filmmakers have taken the liberty of not only remaking the original NIGHT, but using it as “stock” footage or as the general movie playing in the background on the TV. So while there are countless NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD “remakes” to choose from, I paired it up with the one and only official one put together by the entire original gang, 1990’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the directorial debut of FX legend Tom Savini.
There comes a point in every horror fan’s life where they finally sit down to watch NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Depending where you are in your life, it will affect you completely differently. A lot of the generation before me regale tales of either seeing this in theaters, or catching it way too young on regular television and being absolutely terrified out of their minds by the ghouls eating the flesh of human victims, among many other things. For me, I’m fairly certain I came into the world of Romero backwards, most likely starting with DAY OF THE DEAD upon its home video release in the mid 80’s and working my way back to DAWN and then NIGHT. I was aware of the story told at the beginning of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD that claimed NIGHT was based on a “real life case” and my 12 year old mind totally bought into that. Eventually, I outgrew that and just enjoyed it for the perfectly executed, straight forward brilliant story that it is.
A small group of survivors are holed up in a house together while just outside, the living dead have risen and are in search of human victims. Among them is Ben (Duane Jones), who automatically takes the leadership role, the catatonic Barbara (Judy O’Dea) who along with her brother Johnny (Russ Streiner) are the first two characters we meet, and a handful of other random strangers including Cooper (Karl Hardman), the stubborn father and husband keeping his family in the basement and who refuses to see eye to eye with Ben on any of the decisions that need to be made. And therein lies the drama of the whole piece, which would go on to inspire the likes of THE WALKING DEAD. Even with the world falling apart and zombies surrounding them, a small handful of people can’t seem to get along. How are we as a society even supposed to survive? It’s one of the many themes that NIGHT tackles and it adds to the overall sense of dread the film evokes.
Cut to 1990, after losing a ton of money on the original NIGHT over the copyright issue, and Romero going off and making a handful of sequels on his own, it was time for the original filmmakers to sanction a proper remake of their creation for which they would finally be paid. Menahem Golan of the infamous Golan & Globus produced alongside George Romero, John Russo and Russ Streiner with Tom Savini putting down the make-up kit and stepping behind the camera to direct.
The plotline of the remake follows very closely that of the original, but deviates in very small, yet effective and interesting ways. For starters, Barbara here is played by Patricia Tallman. And rather than go catatonic, she immediately steps up into what I can only describe as the Ripley role of the movie. She doesn’t want to be a victim, she wants to survive. The Ben of this version is played by none other than CANDYAMAN himself, the great Tony Todd, who truly does justice to the role originated by Duane Jones. He thinks they should board themselves up until they can figure out what’s going on or until help arrives, but Barbara makes the most obvious observation of them all, “they’re so slow. We can walk right by them before there’s too many and get away.”
Once Cooper comes into the picture, played to sleazy perfection by Tom Towles of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER fame, there’s no agreeing on any ends. The biggest difference is how the events of the original film fully play out in this version, but most importantly, the conclusion is totally different here.
I recall Roger Ebert’s 1990 review of the film in which he said, “The remake is so close to the original that there is no reason to see both, unless you want to prove to yourself that black and white photography is indeed more effective than color for this material.” I completely disagree with this statement and still stand by my love of Savini’s 1990 update. He did what a remake is supposed to do. Give you a story similar enough, but change your expectations of what is supposed to happen. Also, because this was 1990 and this version was in color, that upped the “gore” factor. But also, the MPAA has been increasingly hard of films of this sort during this era. So a lot of the full on gore effects never made it to the finished versions of the film. Amazing now in retrospect considering what THE WALKING DEAD can get away with weekly now in terms of gore and violence. If you have the original DVD release of NIGHT ’90, there’s a terrific little making of documentary that shows rough assembly footage of some of the FX and they’re spectacular. Alas, there’s no way they could be incorporated back in, but it doesn’t matter because it’s still a cool little zombie movie as is.
Do they make a good double bill? This is actually a tough call. While I don’t agree with Ebert in his implication that this is essentially a shot for shot color remake of the original ala Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO, it does skate the line of telling a far too similar story. Then again, by playing with the audience’s expectations, in particular those that are well versed in the original, they pull some fun surprises. Is it different enough to feel like you’re watching 2 different movies? Not really. But I still love both and recommend both. Maybe just not as a double feature.
What do you think? Do you dig the 1990 remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD?