These are the times of the zombie. But, for more than 25 years, fans of the genre have forgotten about a should-be classic and important slice of zombie lore — Tom Savini’s George Romero-scripted 1990 remake of The Night of The Living Dead.
Night 90 has had a troubled existence. It was a commercial disappointment, Roger Ebert gave it one-star, and it’s faded from the collective memory to the point that some still don’t know it exists. In a universe filled by zombie content, it’s easy for a movie that was dismissed over two decades ago to get lost, and detractors have some somewhat-fair critiques, suggesting there was little to add to the already established classic, and that the remaking it was something of a cash grab. They aren’t wrong. The remake was created in part to finally get George Romero and others the payday denied them after their distributor sent out prints of the original Night of The Living Dead without a copyright notice. Romero made next to no money on the film that kickstarted a whole subgenre and pervades throughout our culture today. But the reasons behind remaking his most popular film shouldn’t be taken into consideration when the material is so strong. Night 90 has long been undervalued and should be embraced as a lost classic.
A Strong Female Lead That Turned Tropes On Their Head
The original Night‘s Barbara, as played by Judith O’Dea, was a catatonic wreck who did next to nothing beyond keeping a couch cushion warm. She was a surrogate for the audience, especially the 1968 audience — meek and unable to comprehend the horror that was shambling on the doorstep. The remake’s Barbara (Patricia Tallman) quickly turns into a blubbering mess when her brother is killed and the zombies attack, but she regains her composure, finding a pair of pants hanging on the wall and assuming control of the nightmare in the company of the dysfunctional family she finds herself in. This evolves into Barbara going full-Ripley, a rarity at the time. In 1990, just as the slasher and horror audiences were feeling fatigue, from the same old cliches, in struts Barbara, full of emotions and badass. Without 1990 Barbara, there’s no Carol from The Walking Dead.
Simply put: George Romero is a woke dude. The racial politics of the original were exchanged for gender politics in the remake that are still damn prevalent today. He said this in the Night 68 commentary:
“When people say, ‘That was a brave move,’ I just say, ‘That was the way we worked.’ And most of the politics or whatever political tones are in this film with the posse and the attitude or the way the posse is depicted is much more a reflection of the way our particular group of friends were thinking at the time rather than any sort of calculated political statement we were trying to make.”
He’s a Hollywood outsider, writing what he knows, whether it be about the racial divide in the ’60s, consumerism in the ’70s, the military industrial complex in the ’80s, or women being damsels in distress in the early ’90s.
The Best Practical Special Effects Seen In Decades, With A Pedigree That Brought Us The Walking Dead
George Romero’s long-time SFX guru Tom Savini was primed to do makeup effects on the original Night in 1968, but was called off to be a war photographer in Vietnam. Savini has said that his years staring at true horror and gore through the lens shaped his tastes as an FX artist, and his hand in practical effects culminated in Night 90, where the effects crew would visit autopsies to create the perfect zombies. John Vulich and Everett Burrell, who were two of the key makeup people on Night 90, worked with Savini on Day of The Dead, alongside a young Greg Nicotero, who went on to do the visual effects in Romero’s Land of The Dead, and eventually to serve as an executive producer and director on The Walking Dead. All of the key players in survival horror were on this set, doing incredible work. (Oddly enough, according to Savini and many on the production, the gore was toned down to receive an R rating. Think about that, after experiencing The Walking Dead on basic cable.)
Like The Original, It Paved The Way For The Nihilism In A Zombie Apocalypse
The original NOTLD had an unforgettable ironic ending. Ben (Duane Jones), the lone survivor — and, not insignificantly, an Afrian American man — is shot and killed when a group of redneck hunters cleaning up the area mistake him for a zombie. In the remake, Ben (Tony Todd) succumbs to his wounds and becomes a zed to be killed by the same militia. It’s the infuriating Cooper (Tom Towles) who survives until Barbara puts a bullet in his head because, to her, he was the monster that led to everyone’s death. This is cold, hard revenge for Barbara, another one for the fire. Just 24 hours earlier, Barbara was a mousy lady visiting her mother’s grave. Now she’s a killer, and we all know the worst is yet to come.
This is the beginning of the end, the point when normal people turn savage in order to save themselves and those around them. The brutality inside and outside the farmhouse foreshadows what will soon happen across the globe. Ben says, “It doesn’t take long for the world to fall apart, does it?” He’s spot on. Everything falls apart. Barbara deals with the psychological trauma of seeing a little girl zombie holding a doll. She’s duped by a fresh cadaver in funeral makeup and a suit. We are them and they are us. This works on a metaphorical level, and a cathartic one. These aren’t just zombies, they are real people. Some of them stumbled out of the morgue, others are wandering the fields after a fatal drug overdose. The characters with humanity left have to cope with this terrible reality, then move on. It’s all they can do.
In the end, Romero lays it on thick. The rednecks help save the day, and as long as they get to shoot their guns, drink their beer and have their entertainment, they’ll gladly let themselves slide into oblivion. The good old boys laugh and bite into their BBQ but we know what’s coming next for them. Everyone is dead. They just don’t know it yet. They’re having too much fun.