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Retro Review: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990)

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NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
(US - 1990)

Directed by Tom Savini. Written by George A. Romero. Cast: Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles, McKee Anderson, William Butler, Kate Finneran, Bill Moseley, Heather Mazur, Bill "Chilly Billy" Cardille. (R, 88 mins)

Generally dismissed by horror fans in the fall of 1990, the remake of George A. Romero's landmark 1968 zombie masterpiece NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was in and out of theaters and pretty much forgotten in a couple of weeks. It was also another flop for 21st Century Film Corporation, Menahem Golan's short-lived, post-Cannon company. 21st Century was hemorrhaging money so quickly that Golan only managed to get a few of its films in theaters solely under its banner--the 1989 Robert Englund take on PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the Golan-directed MACK THE KNIFE, and the women-in-prison grinder CAGED FURY--before Columbia had to assume distribution responsibilities. Along with THE FORBIDDEN DANCE, a film Golan rushed into production to duke it out with Cannon's LAMBADA  because he sincerely believed the world needed two competing lambada movies, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was one of the last to get a theatrical release before Columbia decided they'd seen enough and sent the rest of 21st Century's completed projects and other acquisitions straight to video or directly to cable. Made in part because Romero and his creative partners John A. Russo and Russell Streiner never properly secured a copyright for NOTLD '68 and weren't seeing any revenue or royalties from it thanks to its public domain status, NOTLD '90 was scripted by Romero himself, rewriting much of the original script he co-wrote with Russo. Directing duties were handed off to beloved makeup effects maestro Tom Savini, whose work was vital to the success of Romero films like MARTIN, DAWN OF THE DEAD, CREEPSHOW, and DAY OF THE DEAD, in addition to other '80s horror essentials like FRIDAY THE 13TH, MANIAC, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. To date, NOTLD '90 is Savini's only feature-length directing effort, and he's been open over the years about his creative disagreements with 21st Century, the under-the-gun shooting schedule (filming began in April 1990 and it was in theaters six months later), and how the end result was a compromised one that forced him to make numerous cuts to secure an R rating. He also didn't get much backup from Romero, whose involvement ended with the script and a courtesy producer credit, as he was instead off prepping the Stephen King adaptation THE DARK HALF, which would begin shooting in the fall of 1990 but wouldn't be released until the spring of 1993 due to Orion's financial woes.






Despite the rushed and troubled production, and faced with an initial fan reaction that ranged from ambivalent at best to hostile at worst, NOTLD '90 has built a sturdy fan base over the last three decades, enough that it's become a legitimate cult classic in its own right. Given a proper amount of time and space, it's been re-evaluated by many horror fans, and while no one's posited the absurd notion that it's better than Romero's film, it certainly stands as one of the better horror remakes of the modern era. It tells the same essential story, with a small group of people taking refuge in a rural farmhouse and fighting off an increasing horde of the living dead, but it isn't just a scene-for-scene carbon copy. The initial differences--beyond being in color--are slight: instead of just one, there's now three zombies in the cemetery where Barbara (Patricia Tallman) and her obnoxious brother Johnny (Bill Moseley) are attacked; it's their mother who's buried there instead of their father; Barbara seems to have some serious underlying psych issues stemming from a mother that Johnny clearly doesn't miss; and their initial bickering has a notably increased hostility ("When's the last time you had a date?" Johnny asks his prim, uptight sister). Like the original, Johnny is killed (in a much nastier fashion here), and Barbara escapes on foot, ending up at the farmhouse. There's already a few living dead dragging ass around the house before Ben (future CANDYMAN star Tony Todd in Duane Jones' iconic role) arrives and starts taking charge.


It's here where Savini's version starts differentiating itself from its source film. As played by Judith O'Dea in 1968, Barbara is so shell-shocked by the cemetery encounter that she's largely catatonic and helpless for the rest of the film. Tallman's Barbara starts out that way, but she quickly snaps out of it, becoming an equal with Ben when it comes to handling the situation, sometimes even more so once the other players emerge from hiding in the basement. There's the loudmouthed coward Harry Cooper (Tom Towles of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER), his fed-up wife Helen (McKee Anderson), and their bitten daughter Sarah (Heather Mazur), along with young couple Tom (William Butler) and Judy Rose (Kate Finneran). Ben and Cooper spend so much time arguing in a back-and-forth alpha male pissing contest that it takes Barbara and Judy Rose to put a stop to it, with Judy Rose even threatening to kick everyone out since the house belongs to Tom's uncle, who they've already seen come back to life as a zombie.





Many of the plot elements remain the same, whether it's the disastrous attempt to unlock the gas tank out by the barn or the endless argument about whether they'll all be safer in the cellar. But while Savini and Romero know there's no need to reinvent the wheel, they tweak things enough that NOTLD '90 feels almost like an alternate universe take on Romero's original. Ben and Cooper are such hotheads here that they don't get much of a chance to get any news updates from the outside world, since they get into a scuffle that results in the TV taking a smashing tumble down the basement stairs. They also introduce a previously unexplored hiding space with one character ending up in the attic, which leads to a finale that's equal parts downbeat like NOTLD '68 while still giving the audience a crowd-pleasing payoff that's just one example of NOTLD '90's dark and morbid streak (watch out for that junkie zombie with a needle still sticking out of its arm). From start to finish, Savini's NOTLD is familiar yet so much about it is completely different, including the fates of key characters. It ends on a powerful note and is anchored by a strong performance by Tallman that's never really been given its due. Sony has very quietly re-released this on Blu-ray, six years after the justifiably-maligned limited edition Twilight Time release where cinematographer Frank Prinzi supervised a transfer that bathed the film in an unsightly dark blue that no one liked except for Prinzi and apparently Savini, who somehow gave it his approval. The new Sony Blu-ray corrects Prinzi's ill-advised makeover and the film now looks like it's supposed to, and if you're not one of the converted, it's a perfect opportunity to take another look at an unfairly neglected gem that a lot of us didn't give a fair shake back in 1990.




NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD opening
in Toledo, OH on 10/19/1990



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