Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Night of the Living Dead (1990) - review

1990 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

Why? That was the question I asked slipping the DVD in. Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead was nigh-on perfect; the quintessential zombie masterpiece responsible for setting in motion a modern undead obsession that shows no signs of abating. Capturing the prevalent fear and paranoia of a country lost and disillusioned after Vietnam and several prominent assassinations, with a subtext playing with the idea the enemy might be within rather than faceless and on foreign shores, it was a great metaphor for its time and couldn't help but question why there was a need to do it all again.

I'm well versed with Romero remakes. Acquiring one of the iconic names instantly adds gravitas and a seal of approval to your project and whilst I've seen it both abused, as with Day of the Dead (2008) I've also seen it work. Dawn of the Dead (2004) took the setting and premise of its processor and fashioned a perfect action horror film, honouring its heritage whilst forging something new for an explosive-expecting younger audience. Both have one thing in common though; they're new stories with new characters and a new direction.

Night of the Living Dead (1990) is different. It's the same story, albeit subtly edited, the same production team, though directing this time was handed to Tom Savani who worked on Dawn and Day, and it still has George A. Romero pulling the strings. It's a remake, almost scene for scene and word for word.

A combination of the copyright bungle that robbed Romero and production company 'Image 10' of thousands and rumours another Texan outfit were preparing a remake of their own might have provided the financial motivation to remake it, but I'd also like to think there was another motivation and that perhaps they thought they could actually do it better. Now, I'm probably going to upset a few people here, and I understand this view will be one of my more controversial ones but having just finished it, I kind of think, if this indeed was an aim and motivation, they were right as they pulled it off.

Ok, I know I said it was an identical remake, and on the surface it pretty much is, Barbara (Patricia Tallman) escapes an attack on her and her brother Johnnie (Bill Moseley), finds her way to at an abandoned farmhouse where she meets up with Ben (Tony Todd). They clear the house, join up with another group who were hidden the basement, then fall out on how best to combat the bloodthirsty undead army knocking at the door. We know the story, it's straightforward, simple and a modern trope and Romero has on the surface done nothing to really to stray.

But there are differences and it's these very differences that seem to have attracted the most criticism; Barbara is no longer the wilting flower, there isn't quite the same racial subtext, the zombies are too zombie-ish and the ending, oh, the ending. I'm of the opinion however, that if you acknowledge the differences for what they are and realise they're actually there as part of an attempt to tell a slightly different narrative, then it's just as compelling and rewarding as the first.
In the original Barbara soon deteriorates into a semi-catatonic state and early dialogue with Johnnie in the remake, and hysteria and hesitation when she first gets to farm house intimates the same repressed suffocated character. However, rather than letting the situation overcome her, Romero in this remake has the conflict actually galvanise and free her to become arguably the strongest survivor, and the one most likely to see the night out. As the men scramble futilely for patriarchal dominance she alone seems to possess the cold detatchment necessary to truly read the situation, pointing out the undead are so slow that they should just walk past them before they're overrun.

On the surface she's just another action female lead, but it's Romero, so it's more subtle and interesting. The tension between Ben and thug Harry Cooper (Tom Towles) is still there but the racial subtext is no longer as biting or relevent as it was in 68, so subtly moving the subtext from racial to gender repression and emergence is compelling and valid.
The other main difference is visually. With Savani in charge the zombies are for want of a better phrase, more zombie like. With a far larger budget and freedom to play, the undead are visceral, nastier and more demonic than in Romero's previous outing. They still behave very much like those of the original and brilliantly and uniformly obey all Romero's trademark idiosyncrasies shuffling around looking for living to consume but are now far more in keeping with what we'd expect to see some 22 years on with blood, deformity and gore galore. There's still the same ambiguity as to the reason they're up and at 'em, with emphasis on space radiation but still the same insinuation hell might actually be full as they rise whether bitten or not. There are also small nods to Romero's later films as if they could perhaps have some semblance of awareness, as they combine to drag a corpse out a fire and share a meal of bugs. 

Narrative differences aside, Night of the Living Dead (1990) is brilliantly realised. There isn't a bad line delivered or a scene not compelling or convincing. Savani and Romero perfectly capture the feeling of despair and futility as the zombies keep coming like a relentless tide. I don't think I've seen the Romero zombie so perfectly realised or felt an atmosphere so imbued with the inevitability of death. The eerie score accompanies the build of tension brilliantly and the pacing I'd argue is stronger and more assured that the original with zombies more of an ever present threat. 

One of the last zombie films before Boyle and Anderson heralded in the a faster, more immediate and visceral frenzied zombie Night of the Living Dead (1990) is the perfect imagining of the slow relentless tide the Romero zombie symbolises. The experience of working on Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead shows, and Romero and Cavani actually managed to take something that was let's be honest pretty darn good, shake it about it to produce something that in my opinion easily stands up alongside them. It was still a strange choice, if I'm honest, to do the same thing again, but I'm happy they did and there's enough different to warrant owing and enjoying both. I really don't think it needs to be an either / or. 

I do think those who have written this off as a quick and dirty remake of the original, pointing to the ending as evidence have missed some of the other more subtle changes and are doing it a disservice. With the changes in narrative and the focus on Barbara the ending works; it's a different message but no less provocative. A worthy Romero film, as poignant a metaphor for fears and feelings of individual ineffectiveness as its predecessor, and as good as anything else he's had his hand in, this is now one of my favourite zombie films and I think it might just edge the first attempt, 9/10.


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