Sometimes, there are characters in genre pictures that are so darned righteous, you can’t stop thinking about them or their amazing feats long after the movie is over. This column is dedicated to those cinematic heroes that keep us coming back for more. This week, it’s Patricia Tallman for not only being an overall bad-ass in everything she’s ever done, but for completely flipping the switch with her interpretation of Barbara in the 1990 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake.
I’ve always had a great love and appreciation for Tom Savini’s update of NIGHT. I still remember catching a matinee of it on opening weekend, and as lifelong Romero fan as well as a lover of zombie films, it hit all of my horror sweet spots. It took the material seriously, it hit the gore quota just fine, it had some fine recognizable faces playing roles I’d already known so well and loved. You can’t top Tony Todd, Tom Towles, Bill Moseley or William Butler. But the biggest surprise to me, and one that I definitely didn’t see coming was the completely different version of Barbara.
Since I revisited both films earlier this week for my Double Take column, they’re both still fresh in my head. In the original, Barbara is one of the first characters we meet along with her brother Johnny. She’s also the first person to come into contact with what we end up finding out are flesh eating ghouls; the living dead walking amongst us again! She escapes narrowly, makes it to the remote farmhouse close by and hooks up with Ben who does his best to snap her out of her trance and protect her. From that moment on, she pretty much remains in a catatonic state for the remainder of the picture and that’s that.
The misdirection in the remake is almost immediate as in the opening, we see a strange old man stumble towards Barbara (Patricia Tallman) and Johnny (Bill Moseley) as they’re placing flowers on their mother’s grave. He seems a bit off. And he looks somewhat similar to the cemetery zombie we know from the original, and then it turns out to be nothing other than a confused old man. Right behind him is a hideous decomposing ghoul that lunges out at the siblings and most certainly means business. After that, it’s the same beats – Barbara narrowly escapes, makes it to the farm house, hooks up with Ben and there’s a few moments where she’s shocked by what just happened. And then she snaps out of it. And decides, I’m going to transform into a bad-ass!
Her Barbara is far more proactive. Constantly in the conversation about what they can do to protect themselves and she wants to learn how to operate the shot gun herself. She forms an immediate kinship with Ben, a mutual will to live. While the rest of the group continues arguing, she makes the most sensible suggestion. The zombies walk slowly. Let’s just walk past them. Literally, just walk past them to freedom. But before you know it, there are too many surrounding the house.
During an argument where there’s still some kind of debate as to what exactly they’re dealing with, Barbara starts shooting at a shirtless zombie screaming, “is he dead? Is he?” Before wisely capping him in the head to put him down properly. She’s not losing it. She’s making a point. And when the shit finally hits the fan, Cooper and Ben fight each other and the zombie horde force their way in, she makes a run for it. And sure enough, she was right. You could just walk past the dead. She doesn’t even bother wasting her ammo on them, because what’s the point?
The most poignant scene is as she’s walking away from the house, a zombie girl with a doll keeps pushing towards her. The zombie barely has any strength and is slower than slow. Barbara literally keeps pushing her away and sobbing before finally putting her out of her misery with a bullet to the head.
When she comes to, she’s surrounded by (for lack of a better term) a bunch of rednecks that are treating the whole epidemic and its clean up like a big, beer fueled party. There are food trucks and barbeque on one side, and firing squad games & zombies in pits on the other. When she enters the house (spoiler), Ben has passed away over the course of the evening and is now a zombie. Slurking down from the attic is Cooper, whom she promptly shoots in the head for barely being a decent human being, and calls out, “there’s another one for the fire.” Holy shit, this Barbara is BAD-ASS.
Patricia Tallman has kicked ass in lots of productions, some you’ve definitely seen but probably didn’t realize were her, like playing the witch in ARMY OF DARKNESS. She’s also popped up in small roles in other Romero flicks like KNIGHTRIDERS and MONKEY SHINES, but it’s great to have her front and center as this superhot and bad-ass version of Barbara in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 1990. You ma’am have earned this hashtag.