Brace yourselves, but… once you get past the not insignificant fact that no remake of George Romero’s classic original was actually necessary and that there was never going to be much hope of it supplanting the original, make-up man turned director Tom Savini’s take on Night of the Living Dead isn’t that bad at all. Comparisons between the two films are inevitable and the remake will always come off worse, but taken as a film in its own right it’s a more than competently made film that suffered at the hands of fans and critics alike who were prone to dismiss it simply because it wasn’t the original.
Romero undertook the project as a way to finally recoup some of the money that he should have made from the original Night of the Living Dead but which had been denied him because of the legal wrangles that had plagued the film since its first release. In itself, that seems a good enough reason to be suspicious of the project – surely there are better reasons to make a film? – but it would be churlish to deny Romero the right to what was morally his due.
Surprisingly, Romero opted not to direct the new version of the film, instead concentrating on writing and producing and leaving the direction to his long-time special effects man Savini. It’s always a risky business letting special effects or make up people direct films but Savini – who only had a single episode of the Romero produced Tales from the Darkside television series to his name at the time – does a creditable job here. Surprisingly, he doesn’t dwell as long on the gore effects as might have been feared, instead using Romero’s well crafted script as a springboard to explore the various characters who eventually gather in the farmhouse and the often fractious relationships between them.
He’s aided immeasurably in his work by a top notch cast of genre dependables who give uniformly strong performances – Tony Todd is a strong and sympathetic Ben, easily matching Duane Jones’ performance in the original. Tom Towles is great as the obnoxious Harry and his verbal sparring with Todd provide some of the film’s best moments. But the real ‘find’ was Patricia Tallman as Barbara. Tallman had only made a handful of films (including Romero’s Knightriders (1981) and his dreadful Monkey Shines (1988)) before landing the leading role here and she gives a winning performance that successfully conveys a whole gamut of emotions.
Indeed it is in its treatment of Barbara where this remake differs so greatly from the original – at first, it looks as though Barbara will become the catatonic wreck that she was in the first film, but Romero cleverly goes down a post-Aliens route and reinvents Barbara as a tough woman-of-the-90s, more than capable of looking after herself. But the film’s chief problem is that, aside for the dramatic reimagining of Barbara, all of the original films surprises (the man in the cemetery who turns out to be a zombie, the undead child in the basement, the bleak ending) are re-played here with only minor variations, so audiences were never really caught off-guard as they were so many times in Romero’s film. What few changes there are are minor but effective (the man lurching towards Barbara and Johnnie in the opening scene, for example, turns out not to be a zombie but a drunk) but they somehow lack the power of the original.
The 90s remix of Night of the Living Dead gets by on the strength of Romero’s writing – as with the original, it’s a taut, well structured script that sparkles with excellent dialogue – and the impressive performances of the cast. It’s not by any means a match for the 1968 original but it’s an effective, well-made and enjoyable – if largely unnecessary – riff on the same themes and it stands head and shoulders above the next attempt to remake Romero’s film, the execrable Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006).