Staking a claim for Savini’s remake of a seminal, undead classic
There was a time when “remake” wasn’t a dirty word among cinema fans. This was before the term became synonymous with Hollywood at its most cynical and predatory. Before the mere mention of the r-word caused an outpouring of consternation, bemoaning—and, not without some merit—accusations that the big studios were all out of new ideas, or worse, had simply stopped caring, the scared and belittled remake once had its day in the sun. It was a period when the game plan wasn’t to simply target beloved and finely executed classics such as Robocop, Halloween, or A Nightmare on Elm Street just for their built-in audiences.
Pre-millennial remakes took originals that, while entertaining, might be flawed, dated, or limited in scope. They gave titles like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, and The Fly a new edge, reshaping their plots to reflect modern themes. The intent was to make a bold cinematic statement, not a quick cash grab. All except 1990’s Night of the Living Dead remake, which was totally intended to be a cash grab. Mind you, it was a cash grab of the very best intentions, and though the production was troubled and compromised, it wound up being an utterly fascinating beast, honoring the spirit of the original while diverting to unexpected and satisfying new territory.
First, the intentions. Obviously, the impact of the original Night of the Living Dead was staggering. In one blow, George A. Romero forever reshaped not just the horror genre, but independent cinema as a whole. Unfortunately, due to a technical oversight, he also got screwed out of much of the profits of his masterpiece. The final print, with its newly updated title, was missing a copyright stamp, making it easy for unscrupulous distributors to flood the market without any financial consideration for the cast and crew. This did not stop Romero from becoming a successful and highly regarded director, but it remained a painful footnote that tinged his impression of his masterwork. Romero saw the remake as a chance to take back a bit of the pie that was rightly his to begin with, writing the script and coming on as producer, while directing credits went to his longtime friend and collaborator, Tom Savini. Unfortunately, the remake under-performed in theaters, Savini hasn’t directed a feature since, and the curse of the living dead continues.
All of which is a pity, because in 1990’s remake Savini made a damn fine picture. The story closely follows the original. An uptight woman and her brother take a badly timed trip to visit their mother’s grave in an isolated graveyard on the day the recently deceased mysteriously elect to get up and dine on the living. The woman flees to a farmhouse, where she and a group of survivors take refuge from the ever-growing hoard of the undead. Escape plans fail, personal tensions explode, and everything goes to hell. It’s a classic setup. Even if Savini played it safe and chose to simply update the story in a modern setting, the stellar cast ensured that it would be an entertaining journey.
Ben: You’re boss down there. I’m boss up here.
The movie also features a cast to die for. Tony Todd, horror luminary and future Candyman, brilliantly assumes the role of the original’s strong willed, levelheaded protagonist, Ben. With his deep, soulful voice and simmering performance, Todd absolutely captivates every moment he is on screen. Like his predecessor, Duane Jones, he manages to project both authority and compassion. Todd makes the role his own, though. Here, Ben takes charge and gets things done because he has no choice. He’s teetering on the edge of an existential collapse, tearing up the moment he reflects on the horrors he’d seen just hours before. Moving forward is the only thing stopping him from breaking down. He takes responsibility for keeping everyone safe not just as a heroic act, but as a coping mechanism. Regardless, when the dead come back hungry for the living, someone like Ben seems to be just the man you want calling the shots.
Unless you are a belligerent, cowardly, racist loudmouth with an over inflated ego, of course. In another brilliant stroke of casting, Tom Towles revives the original’s insufferable blowhard, Harry Cooper. Any man who can make Michael Rooker’s chilling psychopath from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer look sympathetic by comparison has a real talent for playing a shitbag. Like the best villains, though, Cooper thinks he is the good guy, and the only sane person of the bunch. He’s just trying to protect his kid, survive his wife’s nagging, and, most importantly, have everyone admit that he is right. If Ben represents the best of human nature, Cooper represents the worst. He derides everyone else’s ideas, constantly complains without lifting a finger to help and adds nothing but negativity, all at top volume. With his corny put downs, Towels seems to be channelling Archie Bunker (but without the humor) or eerily predicting Donald Trump (but without the…no, that one is pretty dead-on).
Even the short but pivotal role of Johnnie, who delivers one of the most recognizable lines in horror history, is recast in style. The one and only Bill Moseley, the scene stealing Chop-Top from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, trades in his manic malevolence for nerdy obnoxiousness as the ill-fated older brother. He only has a few minutes of screen time but makes every second a treat, before and after uttering his famous tease, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”
Which brings me to the true VIP of the remake, Patricia Tallman as Barbara—not simply because Tallman is a wonderful actress, but because Barbara is the new variable that will eventually change the entire equation. Going off the first act, one could assume that this would be an almost scene-for-scene update of the first movie. Sure, Barbara takes out her zombie attacker during Ben’s dramatic entrance rather than waiting to be rescued, but afterwards she falls into the classic Barbara mute catatonia. All the attention switches to Ben, just as before. As the story continues, though, Barbara slowly, quietly drifts away from her predecessor. She swaps her broken heels for Army boots. She slings Ben’s Winchester over her shoulder as they work. But most importantly, she observes. While Ben and Cooper are having a pissing contest, Barbara is looking for ways to fortify the house. While others are shouting and panicking, she remains calm and alert. And she is the first to put a bullet through a zombie’s noggin (straight away, because she listened to Ben’s explanation). By the end of the movie, this Barbra is physically and emotionally unrecognizable from the original, or even from herself at the beginning. She’s more Ellen Ripley than shrinking violet.
Tallman was the perfect choice for this version of the role, because just like her character, the actress’ appearance is deceiving. With her elegant features and slight frame, you would never guess that Tallman chose to spend a significant portion of her career being knocked around, blown-up, and thrown off cliffs. After starting off as the feisty romantic lead in Romero’s Kinghtriders (1981), Tallman split her time between traditional acting and stunt work (she’s been a stunt double in Jurassic Park and The Long Kiss Goodnight, as well as playing a Deadite Witch in Evil Dead sequel Army of Darkness). This combination of talents made her uniquely suited for the new take on Barbara. As her Barbara sees that she is physically capable of fighting back, her self-image of being ‘the good daughter,’: polite, timid, compliant, begins to break down. Unlike Ben, who has to push away his feelings for fear of being overwhelmed, Barbara rides her long pent-up emotions like a wave. She doesn’t lose control, she takes it.
The nice thing about Barbara’s slow metamorphosis is that it allows Savini to add a fresh social commentary without hitting you over the head with it. Barbara is marginalized, ignored, and patronized, and not just by the movie’s alpha asshole, Cooper. Ben does it, too, albeit in a gentler way. It’s been mentioned before that despite being an absolute spineless schmuck, Cooper was right. Everyone would probably have been safer just locking themselves in the cellar. I can understand Ben’s counterpoints (no exits, not knowing what is happening above, being trapped in a small space with Cooper), but Barbara makes an even better point when they start boarding up the windows. “They’re so slow, we could just walk around them.” It’s not just an idle observation, she has a valid plan of escape that even accounts for Cooper’s sick (and slowly zombifying) kid in the basement. All Ben does is smile condescendingly and give her a “we’ll think about it” response. He isn’t trying to be a dick about it, he is just so certain that his plan is the only viable option. It turns out that not only is she right and you can just walk around them (when they are spread out), but all the racket from boarding up the house is what attracted the mass of zombies to their doorstep in the first place! You’re a stand up guy, Ben, but you gotta evolve with the times, man.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that for a movie directed by the man who spawned the glorious, blood-soaked effects of Dawn of the Dead, Maniac, and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, the legendary Tom Savini goes relatively light on gore. The film does have some of the most innovative and best-looking zombie makeup around, but aside from a few notable moments, Savini keeps the carnage restrained. This is because he was restrained, very harshly, by both the MPAA and producers. Savini created and shot far more extreme extensions of each scene of violence, but being a first-time director, he felt he didn’t have the power to challenge the censors.
Ben: You are losing it girl, you are losing it.
Barbara: You think so?
[Barbara shoots an approaching zombie in the face]
Barbara: Whatever I lost, I lost a long time ago and I do not plan on losing anything else. You can talk to me about losing it when you stop screaming at each other like a bunch of two-year-olds.
While it would have been nice to see a few good exploding heads, it is testament to Savini’s directing skill that he makes the film feel incredibly brutal and violent without explicitly depicting it. The scene where Ben is accidentally thrown from a speeding truck and left surrounded by zombies, weaponless and outside of Barbara’s sniping assistance, is unbearably tense, while being almost completely free from blood, while the final, inevitable dissolution of the group, a three way gun fight over the fate of Cooper’s undead daughter is heartbreaking. All this interference left Savini feeling that he wasn’t allowed to make the movie he envisioned. While this might be true, he made the most of his limitations. Trading gut-munching for gut punches ultimately produced a stronger film.
The final scene of the original Night of the Living Dead is one of the most shockingly blunt and nihilistic in film history. Knowing better than to attempt to replicate it, Savini delivers a subtle twist that is both disturbing and extremely satisfying. Unfortunately, the film was not a rousing success, so we never got to see the continuing adventures of Barbara as the world fell apart around her. It’s ultimately fitting, since Romero’s ‘Dead’ movies tended to have an open, ambiguous ending, never to be fully resolved. Whatever transpired during the following Dawn and Day (and maybe Land), all we need to know is that they came to get Barbara, but this time, Barbara got them.