Okay. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Two bickering siblings are on their way to a rural cemetery to place a commemorative wreath on their mother’s grave. As they get closer to their destination, behind the wheel, brother Johnny’s grumpiness over the inconvenience of this 200-mile pilgrimage grows even more belligerent as he pokes fun at his uptight sister, Barbara, who obviously has some unresolved issues with the deceased and an irrational, morbid fear and dislike of cemeteries in general because of what’s all buried there.
Well aware of this, Johnny (Moseley) adopts a barely passable Boris Karloff impression as he warns Barbara (Tallman) that the dead are restless where they’re headed and to be wary -- for the dead are coming to get you, sis, he says ominously...
Now, despite his sister's constant calls to knock this crap off, Johnny’s obnoxious behavior continues when they finally arrive at the cemetery and reach their mother’s grave. And then Johnny pushes things too far when he spots a fellow mourner slowly moving toward them, openly mocks him, claiming he is an undead ghoul, and then childishly hides behind a large tombstone, leaving it to his sister to apologize for his loutish behavior.
But it’s the elderly stranger who apologizes to them for reasons he does not explain before wandering on in a daze. Seeing he’s bleeding from a scalp wound -- that sure looks like something took a bite out of him, to me, before they can try to help, another man springs from nowhere and attacks Barbara!
His jaundiced flesh an unhealthy shade, his eyes boiled white, jaws snapping at the exposed flesh of his victim’s neck, hostile intentions clear, Johnny pulls the snarling man off his sister. But as they struggle, Barbara watches in horror as her brother is then killed during the ensuing brawl; his neck snapped when they awkwardly fell onto a gravestone. She then flees toward the apparent safety of another interment, only to find no one there and the casket open and empty.
With the crazed fiend still in lumbering pursuit, Barbara continues her desperate retreat back to their car, where she locks the doors, sees the keys are missing, and then spies another man walking toward her and calls to him for help.
But as he gets closer, his clothes start peeling off due to them being split-up the back, revealing a huge stitched up y-incision that runs from his neck to his nethers. This, of course, is an autopsy scar, meaning I think we just found the missing occupant of that empty coffin.
The implications of this are both quite impossible and extremely dire. The girl, of course, does not realize or register any of this yet as she is now trapped in the car between two murderous cadavers. And as one of them successfully manages to break out a window, Barbara disengages the emergency brake, gravity takes over, and the car trundles down a steep embankment until it crashes into a tree.
But this provides enough of a head-start for Barbara as she flees into the woods -- away from those slow-moving ghouls, until she stumbles upon a farmstead and runs for the home at its center.
Hoping to find help inside, the farmhouse appears empty until she reaches the foyer and blood splashes onto her face from the upstairs balcony, whose source appears to be a dismembered hand until another one of those ghouls presents itself, sees her below, and then crashes through the railing and falls to the main floor to get at her just as another homicidal ghoul enters the house through the door she left open in the kitchen.
Fleeing back outside, Barbara sees yet another ghoul stumbling down the road toward the farmhouse -- only this one gets flattened by an oncoming pick-up truck. But despite this massive trauma of having his back broken in two, the ghoul still seems pretty spry as it tries to keep moving.
Again, Barbara is having a little trouble processing all of this when the driver gets out of the truck and starts asking all kinds of questions about the house, assuming she lives there. Obviously in shock, Barbara has no answers for him.
Then, as he susses out she’s a stranger here, too, the man demands that this overwrought woman get her shit together as he drags her back inside -- even as Barbara tries to warn of the danger within; only he won’t listen. And so, the man has to take out the ghoul in the kitchen with a crowbar, impaling it through the head, while Barbara dispatches the hefty one who fell over the stairs by fracturing his skull with a fire-poker.
Then, after dispatching the still-kicking ghoul he ran over in a similar fashion, with the house now relatively secure, the man returns his attention back on the mentally fraying Barbara. His name is Ben (Todd), and he does his best to assure the girl that what she just did was right and justified in the interest of their mutual self-preservation, and how she needs to keep focused and fighting.
For while he has no answers as to why all of this craziness is suddenly happening, Ben has bared witness to a lot of horrible things over the past few hours as he relates how he wound up here in the truck, now out of gas, while they remove the bodies, find some weapons, and try to secure the house better.
Thus, he is not sure how people with broken necks or those shot full of holes can still be moving around, or why they keep attacking those who have yet to succumb to this madness. The radio stations were full of bullshit conspiracies, saying they were escaped prisoners or the result of a chemical spill. But the local rednecks and hayseeds were having a ball rounding them up and dispatching them -- whoever or whatever they were. But what they definitely weren’t anymore, was human.
Ben was at a diner in nearby Evans City when a bunch of those things loaded onto a panel truck broke loose and escaped. And in the resulting mayhem and shoot-out, his car was destroyed, forcing him to steal the truck to escape -- but not before he learned one vital piece of information: to stop these things for good, you have to shoot them in the head or take out the brain by any means necessary. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. Almost biblical. The dead walking. A literal Hell on Earth. And it’s about to get a whole lot worse from the inside out when an interior door behind them slowly creaks open and reveals what was locked and hidden behind it this whole time...
When, by some miracle, a group of amateur filmmakers from Pittsburgh, PA, known en masse as The Image Ten, managed to cobble together one of the greatest horror films of all time back in 1967 -- not the greatest independently produced horror film, mind you, but thee greatest horror film ever made, period, they stuck to their guns while shopping it around, looking for a distributor.
Explaining why they turned down offers from both Columbia and American International to distribute Night of the Flesh-Eaters, who demanded a reduction in the film’s nihilistic tone and a complete reversal of it’s pessimistic ending, where the nominal hero is mistakenly shot down by the alleged cavalry when the sun finally comes up, a version which the motley band of filmmakers had put all of that chocolate blood, sweat and tears into.
And so, having struck out in the west, they looked to the east and drove a finished print to New York City, looking for any buyers and finally found one in Continental Distributing, a branch of The Walter Reade Organization, who agreed to release the film as is -- well, with one notable, and ultimately tragic, exception:
A title change was needed because they feared their original hewed too close to Jack Curtis’ The Flesh Eaters (1964) and might prove actionable. And so, Night of the Flesh-Eaters officially became Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the rest is horror film history. However, behind the scenes, things were about to get really complicated.
Continental Distributing had been around since the 1940s and seemed to specialize in importing and repackaging foreign films, including La Grande Illusion (1937), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955). This continued into the 1960s with films ranging from Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies (1963) and John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963) to Masaki Kobayashi’s masterful ghost story, Kwaidan (1964), and Ishirô Honda’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), which featured Toho’s first real monster rally with Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra teaming up to repel the extraterrestrial threat.
They were also responsible for distributing the two feature film adaptations of the popular British BBC TV-series, Doctor Who -- Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966); the first of which they inexplicably paired-up with Night of the Living Dead, leading to several matinee engagements and a youthful audience that wasn’t quite prepared for the carnage they were about to see. This, of course, led to Roger Ebert’s scathing review of the film that appeared in Reader’s Digest. Well, not of the film per se, but targeting those who market this kind of thing toward children, which it was never intended for.
Meanwhile, as their little film that could continued to pack audiences into theaters and drive-ins all over the country, the folks back in Pittsburgh were growing a little concerned when their negotiated share of the profits started trickling in -- barely. By most estimates, Night of the Living Dead had made between $12 to 15-million at the domestic box-office on its initial release, along with another $30-million overseas, against a budget of a mere $115,000, which left those at Image 10 -- George Romero, Gary Streiner, John Russo, Vince Survinski, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Richard Ricci, Rudy Ricci and David Clipper collectively scratching their heads.
And this discrepancy in the books got so bad, with their other investors breathing down their necks when the numbers just didn’t add up, wondering where all those profits were going, they brought a lawsuit against Continental and Walter Reade, looking to get the rights to their film back as well as $3-million in damages.
This lawsuit dragged on for years -- it wasn’t even settled as to where the case would be heard until 1975, with Pittsburgh winning out over New York City. And after causing several delays, at some point, the representatives of the defendants stopped showing up altogether, leading to a contempt of court charge. Then, in 1978, Walter Reade declared bankruptcy and the film rights reverted to Image 10. A hollow victory as they never saw any of that money due to them or any damages from the lawsuit. And to add insult to injury, even though they now owned their film again this was practically worthless since Night of the Living Dead, technically, had been in the public domain from the moment it first hit theater screens.
See, when they turned the finished film over to the distributor for duplication the only copyright stamp on the film was placed under the original title in the opening credits instead of at the bottom of the end credits like every other movie. And with that title change, the old copyrighted title was cut out of the prints and replaced with the new one that did not have the needed copyright stamp -- and no one ever caught this before it was released. And according to the current U.S. copyright laws, any “public dissemination required a copyright notice to maintain a copyright."
At some point, several others did take notice of this lack of a copyright claim anywhere on the film and started making their own copies of copies and sending them out to theaters for years, reaping the benefits of others, essentially free and clear because due to this simple, amateurish mistake, by law, the film was in the public domain and fair game.
Meantime, Image 10 itself was starting to fracture from within. Hardman and Eastman bowed out early. And after a couple of lackluster follow-up features -- There’s Always Vanilla (1971) and Jack’s Wife (1972), later released as Season of the Witch and Hungry Wives, all box-office flops, a lot of infighting, inflating egos, finger-pointing, and accumulative creative differences finally got to be too much for all involved. Top all that off with getting screwed over out of all that money, and a massive and apparently futile lawsuit that appeared to be going nowhere fast at the time, they all agreed to call it quits and amicably went their separate ways. The band had officially broken up in Pittsburgh.
“The bottom line is that of all the people involved with Night of the Living Dead I have the least to complain about,” said Romero in a later interview with John Kane for his book, Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever. “Because I’m the one that got the reputation out of it."
Yeah, from what followed it’s easy to see that the rest of the Image 10 needed Romero ah-lot more than he needed any of them. Russo’s solo efforts are pretty risible -- Midnight (1982), The Majorettes (1987). And while he did get the ball rolling on Return of the Living Dead (1985), Dan O’Bannon junked his script and started over from scratch. And yet, I still contend Romero’s later films -- even Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), are missing a little somethin’ somethin’ -- a certain homespun alchemy that Night of the Living Dead had that his solo efforts do not. It’s kinda there in The Crazies (1973), and it’s kinda there in Martin (1977). But after? Not really. And his films are lesser for it.
And as that copyright issue festered and lingered on into the 1980s, a dozen home video distributors released their own editions of Night of the Living Dead on VHS, too. The most notorious being the colorized version unleashed by Hal Roach Studios through their Film Classics line in 1986; a computerized process which cost twice as much as the actual making of the film. “I just think it’s silly,” said Romero. “It looks awful, and it kills the gag in the beginning. There’s this guy walking across the cemetery and we think it’s just a human. But now that he’s bright green?!"
Tired of other people making money off of their work, the remnants of Image 10 buried the hatchet long enough to try and see if they could re-establish a copyright claim on Night of the Living Dead and finally rein in all of this profiteering. And it was at this point, around 1986, that they started kicking around the idea of doing a properly copyrighted remake to help shore up their claim on the disputed original. And if nothing else, feeling a remake was inevitable anyway due to the same public domain issues, they figured they ought to do it and make some money before someone else did and cashed in, again, on their dime.
By then, Romero had also left The Laurel Group -- Dawn of the Dead, Martin, Knightriders (1981), Creepshow (1982), and Day of the Dead, as he and his partner, producer Richard Rubenstein, parted ways. And so, Romero approached Menahem Golan for financing, who had just become the head of 21st Century Film Corporation in 1989 after splitting up with his own long time partner, Yoram Globus, when Cannon Films collapsed into bankruptcy.
Armed with a budget of a little over $4 million, and a distribution deal secured with Columbia, Golan and Romero would serve as executive producers, Russo and Streiner as producers, while Romero would handle the screenplay, adapted and tweaked from the original written by himself and Russo, and would find the film a director since he wanted to focus on his other duties. (More on this process later.)
Meantime, from what we’ve seen so far, Romero didn’t change a whole lot from the original script as everything rings familiar; but he did plant a few seeds here and there that would later germinate into some major changes as the film progresses further. The biggest thus far being Ben’s treatment of Barbara.
In the original film, Barbara spends nearly all of it in a catatonic state. When she initially meets Ben, her hysterics end with a sock to the jaw and an extended timeout on the couch. Here, she gets a reassuring hug and constant positive reinforcement for killing one of the ghouls.
And so, this version of Barbara will be a lot more proactive than the old, which will later serve the biggest narrative change in the remake after it’s revealed several others had been hiding in the basement of the farmhouse this whole time: Harry and Helen Cooper (Towles, Anderson), a bickering married couple, and their daughter, Sarah (Mazur), who was bitten by one of those ghouls as they made their way to the farmhouse after their car broke down, where they found Tom Bitner (Butler) and his girlfriend, Judy Rose (Finneran), who were also there seeking shelter because Tom’s Uncle Regis owned this farm -- stress on the “owned” as its revealed Uncle Regis was the ghoul Barbara had killed, who lived there with his invalid brother, Satchel.
Here, we learn second-hand that when the others arrived at the farmhouse, Regis was out of his mind and attacking Satchel. And while Satchel led him upstairs, the others, unsure of what was going on, fled to the cellar, barricaded the door, and planned to stay there until help came. Ben found Satchel’s body upstairs while looking for a gun to match some bullets he’d found, who had shot himself in the head before being partially devoured by Regis, leading to all that blood and the stray hand, which was done with the very same repeating rifle Ben now has in his possession.
Things degenerate from there as Ben and Harry Cooper take an immediate disliking to each other as they fight over the next best course of action. Cooper wants everyone to return to the basement, where they can hide and be safe, while Ben says no, that’s a deathtrap with no means of escape, and insists they should all remain upstairs, where they can barricade the doors and windows against the ghouls, who are slowly massing outside, with the cellar being their last fallback resort.
They also scratch together the barest bones of a plan to escape with the truck when Tom reveals there’s a gas pump near the barn; but they’ll need to find the keys first since his uncle always kept it padlocked, which prove maddeningly elusive until they rifle the pockets of the deceased. A plan the belligerent Cooper calls insane. An opinion the equally belligerent Ben does not want to hear.
Thus, the internal battle-lines for this pissing contest are soon drawn as the Coopers remain locked downstairs, while everyone else stays upstairs, who quickly work to shore up their defenses, not realizing all the noise they are making, nailing whatever they can find over the windows, is only attracting more and more ghouls.
In the search for more barricading materials, they find a TV upstairs, plug it in, but every channel is showing a standard Emergency Broadcast signal and to stay tuned for further developments. Later, Cooper finds this, too, only now an incredulous newscaster is going over the initial reports that some kind of virus is causing the dead to come back to life; a report the CDC vehemently denies.
When he tries to bring it downstairs, Ben assumes he’s trying to sneak the TV into the basement. Cooper denies this, saying he brought it down for everyone to watch. They fight, and the TV is destroyed. This one is on Ben, though, as Cooper rightfully points out he wouldn’t be able to get reception down in the basement. Meantime, Helen Cooper learns of the plan to gas-up the truck and wants to help search for those keys since Sarah’s fever is only getting worse but her asshole of a husband won’t let her and ends this conversation with the back of his hand.
Now, I believe it was author Danny Peary who first brought to light the ultimate irony of Night of the Living Dead when he included the film in his seminal book, Cult Movies. “Cooper is a cowardly bully, and Ben is brave and concerned about the welfare of others in the house; so we side with Ben,” says Peary. “Yet, if we were in the house with those two men, maybe we should think again. It took me many years to realize this, but Ben, our hero, turns out to be terribly wrong when he adamantly tells everyone that they have a better chance for survival if they remain upstairs with him instead of following Cooper’s advice and locking themselves in the basement. Everyone dies as a result of following Ben’s lead of staying upstairs -- and ironically, Ben alone survives the night and keeps away from the ghouls by locking himself in the basement. Has anyone else noticed this?"
I honestly hadn’t noticed this until I read Peary’s book. Of course, this really doesn’t work out for Ben either in the original film with that pisser of an ending. And the main thing I think Romero was trying to get across was it didn’t matter whose plan they followed because either was doomed to failure due to human nature and basic instincts. If there had been more cooperation and coordination in securing the house, would everyone have made it? Would the mad dash for the gas pumps have worked if only Ben hadn’t fallen out of the truck? And if they all wound up in the basement, they would’ve still had the Sarah problem to deal with. It’s an insidious combination of Murphy’s Law, where anything that could go wrong will go wrong, and exponentiality, where any attempt to fix things only makes the situation infinitely worse as things snowball from there -- for no matter how sound the plan, once the wheels come off they come off completely, cinematically speaking, in what I have affectionately dubbed Romero 101.
And so, realizing this, I think, Romero makes the biggest change to the remake by introducing a third option through Barbara, our new voice of reason, who notes how slow and uncoordinated the ghouls are, saying they could easily walk right by them and head to safety. But no one is listening, because they’re too busy squabbling like school children.
And when she insists this is a viable option, she is out-voted for an attempt at the gas pump, which does not go well at all when the keys they secured turn out to be the wrong ones, leading to the accidental deaths of Tom and Judy, whose remains are consumed by the ghouls, and leaves Ben locked outside while Barbara and Cooper fight over the only remaining rifle inside.
Ben manages to get in just as Cooper secures the rifle, who intends to lock himself and his family in the cellar and leave the others up here to die as the ghouls start breaking in unabated.
Unfortunately, by now, Sarah has succumbed to the fever and has turned into a ghoul, who just tore the throat out of her mother and ambled upstairs. Seeing she is no longer human, Ben tells Cooper to shoot her before it’s too late -- but he can’t.
Somewhat conveniently, one of the first ghouls to break into the house is a police officer; and as Barbara and Ben subdue him and get his pistol, Ben takes aim at Sarah, who is drawing a bead on Barbara. And so, Cooper shoots Ben, Barbara secures the cop’s even more convenient back-up piece and shoots Sarah in the head, they exchange more fire, Ben is hit again, as is Cooper as he flees upstairs.
Reaching Ben, Barbara says they can escape on foot together but his wounds are too grave. Promising to find help, Barbara wrestles off the dispatched ghoul’s gunbelt and makes her way outside before the house is overrun by a horde of the undead.
Upstairs, Cooper finds the pull-down entrance to the attic and hides. Ben, meanwhile, retreats to the basement, where he has to shoot a reanimated Helen. Taking a seat, he lights his last cigarette and turns on a transistor radio, which gives the latest updates, saying it is now confirmed by multiple sources that the dead are coming back to life and cannibalizing the living. He then has a morbid chuckle when he finds the proper keys to the gas-pump hanging on the wall.
Barbara, meanwhile, is proven right when she manages to easily escape the farmhouse deathtrap on foot and eventually comes upon a group of armed men out hunting down the ghouls and discovers one of the undead they already bagged was Johnny.
Come the dawn, Barbara callously watches as the undead are cruelly toyed with and looted by the large posse organized to systematically hunt them all down, wondering out loud who the real monsters are.
She’s there when they reach the farmhouse, just as two rednecks finish chainsawing through the barricaded cellar door. But her hopes are dashed when Ben stumbles out of the darkness, his flesh pasty, his eyes bled white, and the others quickly gun him down.
Unable to watch this, she ducks into another room, where she runs into Cooper, alive and well, who thanks her for coming back for him. And as a way of saying your welcome, Barbara shoots the man in the head, telling the others she has another ghoul for the fire.
I’m not sure if a lot of people realize how close Tom Savani came to doing the special-effects for Night of the Living Dead back in 1967. Inspired by the Lon Chaney Sr. biopic, Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), Savini soon became obsessed with doing special makeup-effects on himself and his friends.
A Pittsburgh native, he first got on Romero’s radar when the filmmaker was scouring the local high schools, looking for actors for his proposed film Whine of the Fawn, a romantic, Bergmanesque period piece that was shelved in favor of doing a horror movie instead. When Savini got wind of this, he showed his special makeup portfolio to Romero, who was so impressed he agreed to let the young man work on the film
But fate intervened when Savini’s enlistment came up just as the film was going into production. And so, Savini went off and joined the Army, who eventually sent him to Vietnam, where he served as a combat cameraman. “My job was to shoot images of damage to machines and to people,” said Savini in a later interview with The Pittsburgh Gazette. “Through my lens, I saw some hideous [stuff]. To cope with it, I guess I tried to think of it as special-effects."
Using the lens of the camera to separate himself emotionally from the real life horrors he was witnessing to preserve his sanity, Savini had some trouble turning those emotions back on when his tour of duty ended and he once more became a civilian. He was, according to his own self-description, for all intents and purposes, a zombie. And all of that greatness to come could’ve been lost if not for a chance screening of Midnight Cowboy (1969), whose heartbreaking ending opened the floodgates as he broke down outside the theater and released all of that bottled-up tension and anguish.
And as part of the continuing healing process, Savini would tap into these experiences when he started working on makeup-effects again, shooting for the same kind of anatomical realism that he saw first hand -- first for Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby in Deathdream (1971) and Deranged (1974), Sean Cunningham on Friday the 13th (1980), Bill Lustig for Maniac (1981), and, of course, for Romero in Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead.
And when Romero first contacted him about the proposed remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990), Savini assumed he wanted him to do the special effects; but, nope, Romero had hand-picked him to direct the sequel, feeling he was ready to take that next step. And while their intentions for the remake were noble, it was still a minefield Savini wasn’t sure he wanted to mess around in. But he eventually came around; and when Romero gave the novice director the script, he said to use it as a framework and gave his blessing to change whatever he wanted to as this version of Night of the Living Dead (1990) would be Savini’s movie.
But this kind of hands off approach didn’t pan out, as Savini was kind of hung out to dry and would later claim only 40-percent of what he wanted to do wound up in the finished film. And without Romero on the set to protect him, he was pressured by others to make all kinds of changes. Some were novel, most were not, and none of them really panned out.
The remake itself got off on the wrong foot from the first fade in. One of the things that made the original so creepy was the undead appeared to be normal -- until they tried to eat you. They were us, and we were them. Here, after a bit of misdirection, the cemetery zombie looks like some hideous mutant and comes off just as silly as his colorized counterpart on that VHS tape. Imagine if it had been the other, more normal looking cadaver that approached them first as its clothes slowly fell away. That might’ve been something clever, but, nope. Screw subtlety. And so, from the very beginning, it becomes quite obvious that the special-effects would be dictating the story and not the other way around. Something that also plagued Romero’s Dead sequels -- but I believe I am in the minority on that opinion.
All the subtle social commentary was gone, all the characters were reduced to screeching assholes or surly dickheads or idiots or non-entities -- with Helen Cooper taking the worst of this, and her iconic death is reduced to a mere cutaway and some blood splatter on the wall -- over a trowel no less. Now, according to Savani's DVD commentary, there was a much more elaborate scene planned here, where Helen would try to perform CPR on her daughter only to have her lips bitten off during the mouth to mouth resuscitation. And as she fell away, she would grab the trowel to defend herself, only to lower it away, unable to strike her daughter, and allow the ghoul to feed unchallenged. But, the production simply ran out of time and money.
Thus, the otherwise fairly talented cast never stood a chance but did the best they could under these circumstances. Tony Todd was a ringer for Duane Jones, and would go on to carve out his own genre niche as the villain in Candyman (1992). Patricia Tilliman was an actress and a stunt-woman and a long time friend of Savini’s, who had worked together before on Knightriders. She deserved better than her character was written -- though I must say Tillman is one of the best cinematic screamers I have ever heard. William Butler and Katie Finneran are fine in their roles, but Towles is stuck in one gear and McKee Anderson and Heather Mazur’s characters are reduced to absolute nothing, and that’s a shame.\
Thus and so, all we have is a familiar story that moves along in fits and spurts as we wait for the next set-piece to pop-up and pop-off -- the most embarrassing when the strident Barbara takes up the gun to prove to the others that what they’re dealing with were no longer human, even when they recognize those attacking them, as she puts several slugs into a ghoul before finally taking the head-shot.
Sadly, I think Barbara’s change into a mini-Rambo was less of a progressive ideal and more to do with copying Sigourney Weaver’s role in Aliens (1986). This could have led to an interesting parable when the men don’t listen to her due to her gender, even though she is obviously right, neither upstairs nor downstairs is safe, and ignoring her winds up getting everyone else killed. It was an interesting idea that was just kind of left to go wherever it wanted to -- like a charged fire-hose with no one manning it.
And this lack of focus and a general malaise seems to get worse and worse as the film progresses; and after an interminable middle act where they board up the house with the most windows of ever, the film seems to be both indifferent and in quite the hurry to hit all the familiar story points and just get this all over with as soon as possible. Turns out that wasn’t too far from the truth:
“I still have nightmares that I’m on that movie set, directing that movie, and waiting for the sun to come up so I could just stop shooting and go home,” said Savini in a later interview. It didn’t help matters that Savini was going through some personal issues -- a nasty divorce and custody battle, at the time. “It was the worst experience of my life. Everybody had a different idea, or wanted a favor. I’ve learned that even if they’re your best friends, if it's your vision, then you should stick with it because nobody stabs you in the back worse than your best friends."
Even the ghouls proved to be a bit of a disaster. In the interest of proper biology, Savini wanted them to move as if they were relearning to walk and breaking out of rigor. And to those ends he hired Tim Carrier, who played the autopsy zombie in the cemetery, to head up a “Zombie Class” to teach the extras how to move. Again, another good idea that didn’t work out as the exaggerated movements didn’t translate so well on film and the decision was made to just have them move slowly like the originals.
And then, to add even more misery, the film was slapped with an NC-17 rating due to the graphic nature of those special-effects supervised by John Vulich, a protege of Savini’s, who had worked with him on Day of the Dead. And so, to get the needed R-rating, most of these set-pieces were neutered or removed altogether, leaving a movie that was just kind of … there.
Look, I don’t hate this remake. Despite the complaining, I don’t think it’s all that terrible but it’s not very good either; and the only thing I found truly unforgivable was the terrible synth-score by Paul McCollough. I wanted it to be better than it is, a little riskier, but given the circumstance under which it was made I understand why it was not. Better. And when I first saw it in the theater, I found the changed ending oddly cathartic in a weird way; a chance to not only escape this inevitable madness but to survive indefinitely. And if nothing else, the Night of the Living Dead remake is much more palatable than what Russo and Streiner unleashed a few years later with that gawdawful Special Edition, where any sympathy I had for these guys over that copyright snafu was lost. And lost for good.
Well, if you don't know what Hubrisween is by now, Boils and Ghouls, I don't think I can help you. Anyhoo, that's 14 films down with 12 yet to go. Up next, Turns out the Tin-Man needed some courage, too.
Night of the Living Dead (1990) 21st Century Film Corporation :: Columbia Pictures / EP: Menahem Golan, Ami Artzi, George A. Romero / P: John A. Russo, Russell Streiner / AP: Christine Forrest / LP: Declan Baldwin / D: Tom Savini / W: George A. Romero, John A. Russo / C: Frank Prinzi / E: Tom Dubensky / M: Paul McCollough / S: Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles, McKee Anderson, William Butler, Katie Finneran, Heather Mazur, Bill Mose