With the sheer abundance of reboots, remakes and re-imaginings these days it might seem to odd to remember the derision originally aimed at the idea of remaking George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. You can totally understand why Romero needed to, with the threat someone was going to remake it anyway if he didn’t, after the bruising fight for some profit following the rights debacle surrounding his B&W classic.
Tom Savini, make-up maestro of both Dawn and Day of the Dead, took on the challenge of directing this version. Do we have a decent attempt at a somewhat grislier colour updating of the classic story, or a Gus Van Sant-style Psycho folly?
The beginnings of the story are at least initially the same. When visiting their mother’s grave, Barbara and Johnnie are interrupted by what seems to them like a madman but which soon becomes clear is only the first in a seemingly never ending onslaught of the reanimated dead. Barbara makes it to a farmhouse with a few other survivors, including Tony Todd’s Ben, who start barricading themselves in as one zombie after another surrounds the house.
Savini has said that only 40 percent of what he intended ended up on screen. As well as Romero, Steiner and Russo, Menahem Golan (of the Cannon Group) was producing and so it unsurprisingly became a battle of artistic approach versus commercial expectations. This conflict behind the scenes resulted in a product that's neither simple straight ahead remake or entirely new thing, and this means some good and some not so good for the audience.
By being a remake of the start of Romero’s flesh-eating flicks it misses out on the expansiveness and detail he later brought in with Dawn and Day. The urge Savini and Co. had to be respectful to the original means the gore is kept quite restrained and in that it misses those jaw-dropping set-pieces that inevitable comparison with the earlier films invites. The characters are thinly sketched and not particularly memorable or sympathetic. In some important respects it just feels like too much of a throwback.
On the good side, there’s a switch from the race focus of the earlier picture towards gender here and Patricia Tallman gets a much meatier Barbara to play than Judith O’Dea. Savini shows skill with mood as director and it’s a shame he hasn’t directed a lot more. Todd is ever reliable as Ben and the supporting cast do their best. The suggestion that during a zombie apocalypse people will have more to fear from each other than the undead foreshadows modern hits like The Walking Dead.
It’s certainly much more worthwhile than Van Sant’s perplexing experiment and has more to recommend than early reputation would have promised, and for zombie enthusiasts you’ll find much to enjoy. Umbrella Entertainment’s release comes with a reasonable print and a mix of old and new extras that provide context and benefit from Savini’s involvement.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: TOM SAVINI / SCREENPLAY: GEORGE A. ROMERO / STARRING: PATRICIA TALLMAN, TONY TODD, TOM TOWLES, MCKEE ANDERSON, WILLIAM BUTLER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW