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Night of the Living Dead (1990)

tn_notld90I still love the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, a nice, moody little cinematic play about differences of opinion between strangers hiding out in a farm house during the first ever worldwide zombie epidemic. I believe I watched it Halloween night of 2012 and I realized I’d kind of worn it out, it was too burnt into my brain and I’d need to take a break from it for a few years at least so I could appreciate it more next time.

But I was really jonesing to watch DAWN and DAY of the dead before Halloween this year so I decided to do a historically inaccurate color trilogy by substituting the 1990 remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which I hadn’t watched in some time.

First of all, it’s important to point out that this is different from other horror remakes. It comes from an era when remakes were less common. Other ones close to this time period are THE FLY in ’86, THE BLOB in ’88, I guess you could count the Robert Englund PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in ’89. Remakes back then generally involved more effort than they do now and were not just done as cash grabs. Also it was made under pretty much unrepeatable circumstances. George Romero’s 1968 original was supposed to be called NIGHT OF THE FLESH EATERS. The copyright symbol was on the title card, but when the distributor changed the title they neglected to put it on there. So, through a “they didn’t read Freddy Krueger his rights so we have to let him go” type loophole the creators of the movie did not own the copyright and have not profited from one of the most beloved and still imitated horror movies of all time. This is also why there were so many terrible colorized video releases over the years, and all the shitty remakes and prequels and spin-offs that still come out to this day, and why those  “rifftrax” jokers can give me a coronary every year having to see the ads for their annual Halloween event where they really fuckin stick it to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD via satellite with all their funny riffing and comedy jazzing that they do that is so funny and hilarious all the time.

Because of this almost too ridiculous to be believed situation, we can actually welcome NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 1990 being a cash grab. They made it as a way for the original creators of the movie to finally make a few bucks off it, but not just by selling off the title, by getting in there and doing it themselves. Romero wrote the new screenplay. The director is DAWN OF THE DEAD makeup genius and biker Tom Savini. Patricia Tallman, who had appeared in KNIGHTRIDERS and did stunts in MONKEY SHINES, stars as Barbara. Score composer Paul McCollough’s only previous credit was on THE MAJORETTES, directed by original NOTLD co-writer (and remake producer) John Russo. Makeup effects supervisors Everett Burrell and John Vulich had worked for Romero on DAY OF THE DEAD and TWO EVIL EYES – Burrell also worked on CREEPSHOW 2 and MONKEY SHINES. So it’s not like Platinum Dunes or somebody buying up a title, it’s a Pittsburgh family affair.

But I don’t think I ever picked up on the fact that this is also a Menahem Golan production. In ’86 he helped Tobe Hooper resurrect THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and four years later he’s doing it with Romero. Also CHAINSAW 2 star Bill Moseley appears in the beginning as Barbara’s brother Johnny (his name is misspelled as “Mosley” on the opening credits), and of course Savini did the makeup for CHAINSAW 2. They even have similar synthesizer scores.

mp_notld90Tony Todd plays Ben, one of the few times he gets to be a straight up leading man in a good genre movie. Of course we love him from CANDYMAN, so it’s not surprising that he’s a good successor to Romero’s great black heroes Duane Jones and Ken Foree. To me he seems harsher than Jones. He’s the guy we side with but sometimes he’s a little hot-headed when he gets into it with Cooper (Tom Towles from HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER) and seems almost mean when he’s yelling at Barbara to snap out of it.

Barbara is definitely the lead, though, and the highlight. It was obviously important for Romero to make up for that character being such a wuss in the original. That’s the center of this movie, really, is the transformation of Barbara from being so scared she can barely talk to completely taking charge of the situation. She literally takes off her skirt and puts on pants when it happens. Tallman is great, and Ripley-esque not just in the sense of being a tough woman character in a genre movie, but also in the way she mostly non-verbally communicates her disgust with everybody else being idiots.

She has a great moment where she’s staring out the window at the zombies and points out how slow they are, that it would be possible to run between them. She didn’t have to have seen DAWN OF THE DEAD, she could picture it.

(A note about the fast zombie controversy, though, if that’s still something people care about: check out that first zombie in the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. That guy is not slow!)

I always wondered why Tallman didn’t become an action star after this one. Instead she worked mostly as a stunt woman, including in ANOTHER 48 HOURS, JURASSIC PARK and SPEED. She doubled Geena Davis falling off a cliff in THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT. I didn’t find out until years later that she was a character on Babylon 5, so I guess she can do the autograph circuit for that. Also she’s in, uh, ATLAS SHRUGGED PART II.

Because the story is so simple it really lends itself to little twists and modernizations. In fact, anything that seems old fashioned really sticks out. Cooper, the asshole who wants to stay in the basement, keeps yelling about the others being “lame brains” and “yo-yos,” which makes him harder to take seriously. I’m surprised he left out “turkeys.”

Savini’s filmatism is solid, and seeing it on blu-ray I realize it’s a better looking movie than I ever knew. (Sadly as of this writing the blu-ray is out of print and very rare – check the price on the Amazon ad below to see if that’s changed.) The first time I saw it it surprised me that he didn’t choose to go alot gorier like in DAWN and DAY. But of course he has some more elaborate makeup effects than the original, building off what they invented for DAY. I mean, this is the new version of the aforementioned cemetery zombie:

still_notld90
Not just a tall guy with pale makeup anymore. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but this is a nice elaboration.

For the most part Savini stays true to the tone and scope of the original, he doesn’t try to amp it up like, say, Zack Snyder did for his remake of DAWN. I really like what he does with the opening in the cemetery, though. The car rolling backwards and crashing with her in it is really intense.

I think the most controversial change from the original is what happens at the very end. In the original, a posse comes by in the morning, patrolling for zombies, and one of them shoots Ben. As far as we know he just mistakes him for a zombie, but because of Ben being the rare black protagonist in 1968 people have always read a racial message into it, that it was kind of a George Zimmerman situation where this mistake only happened because it’s an armed moron who does not have “do not murder innocent black man” anywhere in the top half of his list of priorities. In the remake things turn out very different, it doesn’t seem racial at all. Ben is killed, but it’s by Cooper, who gets into a gun fight with him protecting his zombie daughter (yeah, it took The Walking Dead three seasons to get to the point of the bad guy protecting a zombie daughter). Ben is wounded and later dies. Barbara joins the posse and comes back to the house – when she finds out that Ben has turned and Cooper is alive she shoots Cooper and pretends she thought he was a zombie.

I’ve heard of people objecting to this change because they miss the commentary on racism in the original. Watching it this time I was surprised I never heard of somebody not liking it because it’s too mean. It kinda seems like Romero’s opinion of humanity had actually gotten worse since the original. Now people are so bad at getting along that they’ll start shooting at each other on day 1 of Zombiefest. And one of them is such an asshole that we applaud (or at least are supposed to applaud) the heroine for murdering him. Kinda fucked up, but interesting. I think they had to come up with something, if they kept everything the same there wouldn’t be much point in doing a remake.

This is the type of remake that I enjoy as a companion to the original. It’s good for exactly what I used it for, to watch as a refreshment between every so many viewings of the original. I would never want anyone to only know this version, for it to become what a young generation thinks of when they hear the words “Night of the Living Dead,” and thankfully 23 years later we know that that didn’t happen. But for those of us very familiar with the real NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD it’s fun to have a different take on the material.

Well, at least this different take. I had to turn off the copyright-loophole-using NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 3D shortly after the “COMING 4 U BARB” text message.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 19th, 2013 at 3:22 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

33 Responses to “Night of the Living Dead (1990)”

  1. I own a DVD of the original movie, that has a “funny” commentary from one of the Rifftrax guys. I didn’t know who he was at that time and no further explaination was given, so I just assumed that he was a film historian or something like that.
    Let’s just say that sitting through a commentary, where one guy just makes lame jokes about the movie he’s watching, was one of the weirder dvd bonus feature experiences.

    Also for any reason this remake is still banned in Germany, which led to an accidental banning of the original a few years ago. (A judge misstook the Original for the remake and put it on the list or something like that. That mistake was corrected one month later.)

  2. A friend of mine actually bought a copy of this at a convention at Savinis table. Savini neglected to give my friends silver autograph pen back. He was nice enough I guess. Greg Nicotaro was much more friendly. If any of you guys live around Pennsylvania Savini shows up at every single convention there. If you care to me him. He’s not rude, just distant.

  3. There were some good bonus features of the DVD I have, a commentary track by Savini and a half hour documentary with some of the gory footage that was cut out from the final movie. Apparently it was supposed to be more violent than it is now, but the MPAA had other ideas.

  4. I have no problem with any film that gives money to George Romero or Tom Savini. I keep buying them.
    My problem with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990) is the weird, flat lighting. It loses a lot of the creepy noir style of the first one. I know it’s a natural problem when you go from grainy black and white to 90s’ colourvision, but it looked much like a TV movie.
    Yet the effects… wow. The zombie with the broken back. The cemetary zombie you write about, Vern. And more and more of Savini’s brilliance with his SFX team of Vulich and Burrell.
    I hope more people watch the film. It’s a noble movie, if that makes any sense.

  5. RE: Murder Slim:

    You might like the blu-ray release better then. The VHS and DVD have very natural looking day and night with no artistic embellishment, but apparently the bluray has a radically different color timing that changes a lot of the daytime scenes into “day for night” with a heavy blue push and is supposedly the preferred look of the film according to statements by Savini.

    You can see the differences here (they are HUGE):

    http://www.caps-a-holic.com/hd_vergleiche/multi_comparison.php?disc1=2196&disc2=2197&hd_multiID=558

    RE: Vern:

    Apparently they did plan to have the movie amp up the gore ala Dawn and Day, but Savini had nothing to do with the final cut of the film. The original version was going to get the X, and the MPAA had it out for them because Dawn and Day were released unrated. Columbia took the rough cut and basically excised nearly every scene of gory violence to ensure an R rating without a bunch of appeals. On the DVD version you can see some of the uncut footage, and man, I wish they’d make a new Director’s Cut with it put back in.

    My wife and I went to a horror convention in Calgary this past summer and the whole cast came for an anniversary screening of this movie that was very informative. Savini in particular was awesome at the panel, and Tony was drunk the whole convention (which was pretty damn funny). Also, I didn’t know it until the convention but Patrica Tallman also played the crazy witch in Army of Darkness that throws the hot soup on the guys face.

    I guess even the ending wasn’t what was originally intended, but apparently more than half of the budget “disappeared” (Savini was mum on the details but said he knows where, or who, it went to) so they had to make a lot of cut backs to what they originally intended to do.

  6. I have mixed feelings about this one. One the one hand, the first half-hour is some of the scariest zombie action ever captured. Everything up to and including the Brokeback Zombie is intense and suffused with dread. Then they get to the farmhouse and a lot of the air goes out of it. Same thing happens in the original, but because it’s in black and white, it has more of an ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS teleplay kinda vibe where you don’t mind that it’s just a bunch of people arguing unnaturalistically in a room. The remake is still a pretty good movie as a whole but I bet having Savini’s gore effects at full strength would have helped it get over some of its second-act doldrums.

  7. CJ Holden – Was it a Rifftrax track or just from Mike T. Nelson? He’s always much funnier when he’s around his old MST3K chums and they write their gags out.

    (Favorite joke from the Rifftrax track for NOTLD: The zombie that looked like Joe Cocker. “Wiiiiith a liiitttle heeeeelp…”)

  8. It was only one guy, don’t know if it’s Nelson. I’m too lazy to get the DVD out of the shelf and check.

  9. Thanks for the info, guys. I really would like to see that NC-17 cut (which I’m sure would be no gorier than an episode of The Walking Dead). And no wonder it looked better than I remembered on blu-ray – the look is completely different! Check out that link sweetoothO posted, it’s ridiculous how much better it looks.

  10. Vern – I would love to see the original cut of MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE that allegedly King showed Romero and made him queasy.

    I mean making romero queasy?!? Would that be considered a stamp of approval?

  11. That NotLD DVD (its selling point is ostensibly the colorized version available as a special feature) is just Nelson alone. Rifftrax hadn’t been formed yet, so the second-generation MST3Kers were scattered to the four winds. They next tried a DVD series called The Film Crew that mixed riffing on old movies with skits, but it didn’t really pan out. They got much better when they were able to buttonhook around copyright issues and riff on whatever movies they wanted on their own site.

    But seriously, some of you guys need to lighten up. We all make fun of movies around here, even movies we love. (I seem to recall that SEAGALOGY had a certain amount of humor at its subject’s expense.) It doesn’t mean they’re “really sticking it to” the movies they riff on. They’re just making jokes, most of which are a lot funnier if you really know and love movies. Occasionally they get a little too close to the “Why are you watching this then if you hate it so much? line, but most of the time the riffing is done out of love. And I must say, their live satellite theatrical presentation of PLAN 9 was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life.

  12. Wooooow. I had no idea this movie existed, and honestly I think I would’ve been happier that way, even if the remake was done by a lot of the same people as the original. I’ve always regarded “Night of the Living Dead” as one of those films that was just un-fuck-with-able. (I should copyright that phrase and charge people to use it. I’d be rich in days.)

    And talking of which: so the creators of “Night of the Living Dead” didn’t get paid their dues because somebody forgot to include a copyright stamp on the new title card? That’s one of the saddest things I’ve heard that don’t involve somebody I really like dying suddenly. At least most of them had success in the films that they made after that. It makes me wonder who the heck got the money that I paid for the “special edition” NotLD DVD that currently sits on a shelf a short distance to my right.

    Y’know, I almost want to buy this remake, just so I could give Romero something for the experience he gave me with “Night of the Living Dead”, which must be up there with “The Thing”, “Hostel” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in terms of “horror films that Paul just won’t stop yammering on about”. But there’s a caveat: I don’t know if I could actually WATCH it. To me, “Night of the Living Dead” (the original) is quite possibly the closest thing to a perfect film that exists – certainly in the horror genre I can’t think of anything that comes close to it, not even its own sequels. No matter if the remake is good, I just wouldn’t want to go there and see this… other thing.

    I do respect them for changing the ending though.

  13. Yeah, Mr M, that’s the DVD I got. The original version on Disc 1, the colorized on Disc 2 with that unfunny commentary (Sorry, but this one IS unfunny. And actually kinda sad when you listen to it.) and another disc with a documentary or something. All that in a nice steelbook for 5 bucks.

  14. Yeah, Nelson is a really good joke writer (he was head writer on MST3K for years before he took over hosting duties) but he’s not much of a performer. He’s fine in his element but that NOTLD track is not his best work. Solo riffing doesn’t really work unless there’s an informative aspect, like Joe Bob Brigg’s “comedy commentaries” for Shriek Show, where it’s half background on the film and half funny observations. But if you’re just telling jokes, you need someone to bounce back and forth with or it gets monotonous hearing one voice the whole time. I wish I’d gone to see the NOTLD screening with all the MST3K guys. They tend to save their best material for those events, and it’s a lot of fun seeing it with a crowd.

  15. “And I must say, their live satellite theatrical presentation of PLAN 9 was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life.”

    Mr. M – Yes it was. For all those years MST3K kept to their pledge never to riff PLAN 9, it was well worth the wait.

  16. Yeah, Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic are OK, but they are missing that X Factor that made Mystery Science Theater 3000 so special. Apparently, Joel is hosting a Turkey Day marathon on the Shout Factory websight for Thanksgiving. Here’s hoping it’s a big success so they can bring back MST the right way.

    As for the remake. I pretty much hate it. I saw it in the theater on opening day. The film broke halfway through and there was applause. Not the ironic kind either. Most people got up and left immediately. My dad and I stuck around and were treated with the ending, which is pretty much an abomination. I was only 12, but I knew it was crap. I haven’t seen it since. 23 years later, I probably owe it to myself to revisit it. God knows there have been hundreds of worst zombie movies made since.

  17. Rifftrax is pretty decent if they’re making fun of something that’s just wall-to-wall incompetence, like Birdemic or The Room or Transformers, but on any normal movie made by professionals they just run out of shit to say and it gets real boring real fast. Even with shitheaps like Captain America and Titanic, if they don’t have enough material to fill out the track, it all goes to hell.

    Cinematic Titanic was a little better. They stuck to the stuff they could get cheap, which was usually bad enough to keep them supplied with material, and it also helped that they had more writers.

  18. I never heard of MST3K growing up, and when I watched it years later as an adult I just couldn’t get into it. I’m no stranger to sitting around with my friends laughing at/with terrible movies, but that’s different cause they’re my friends. MST3K is like going to the movies when there’s a bunch of strangers shouting at the screen and giggling. They might crack some good jokes now and then, but you still wish they’d shut up. Maybe it’s different if you get into it at a young age and “know” the performers.

  19. I didn’t see MST3K until college, and it was love at first sight. Nowadays, everybody’s a pop culture comedian, but back then, it was some cutting-edge shit. I’d always been drawn to the weirder, crappier end of the movie spectrum, but unlike a lot of people, I never had a group of friends to watch that stuff with. My friends have always been norms, the kind of people who like the kind of movies you’d expect them to like and never really delve deeper. (I remember trying to show my college friends DEAD ALIVE and having my heart broken when they thought it was terrible.) So MST3K was one of the first things in the pre-Internet era that made me feel like I wasn’t the only weirdo out there who enjoyed movies that were ragged around the edges and not spit-polished to a factory sheen. I always thought competence was overrated. MST3K proved me right.

  20. Thanks sweetooth0 for that great information… going to have to get the blu-ray now. I know Savini has a bit of a bad reputation at conventions but – having never met him in the flesh – he seems an intelligent and charming guy. He’s also always been deferential to the make-up guys that influenced him… particularly the brilliant Dick Smith. Credit-writers weren’t wrong when they called these guys make-up “artists.”

  21. Oh, wow. Turkey Day marathons with Joel and the Bots. Those were the days. (Also, Father’s Day with the Kids. Best comedy marathons ever.)

  22. MST3K is pretty obscure over here. Back in 98 or so, they released the movie on VHS, but that’s the only thing that ever made it to Germany. The translation was made by Oliver Kalkofe, an (in-)famous self proclaimed TV trash destroyer, whose (admittedly damn funny) schtick is to bitch in the meanest possible way about bad TV shows, which is often more clever that you might expect. His MST3K translation isn’t really a translation, because most of the time he just made his own jokes, but I still quote some of them with my friends.

    A few months ago he he made the MST3K concept his own, with a show named THE WORST MOVIES OF ALL TIMES, where he and another guy were riffing on whatever trash their TV channel has in the archive. (Ranging from SyFy channel movies, over BATTLEFIELD EARTH to classics like FROGS.) I never watched that though, because a few days before its start, Kalkofe’s partner gave an interview, where it became pretty clear that he doesn’t know shit about movies. (“My favourite trash movie is PIRANHA PART TWO: THE SPAWNING, especially because there never was a PIRANHA PART ONE!”)

  23. This is the perfect time for me to ask: what’s the best dvd version of the original NOTLD? I’ve been wanting to show it to my girlfriend, but there seems to be a lot of bad transfers out there. Sometimes I wonder if the vhs version trumps the disc versions. Thanks!

  24. I really like this movie, in fact I think I might even prefer it to the original, sorry guys

    there’s something about an early 90’s take on the zombie genre that really tickles my fancy, I wish there more zombie movies from the era, in fact I think the early 90’s might be the most underrated period for horror, the popular consensus seems to be that horror was dead in the 90’s until SCREAM, which is bullshit, what about JACOB’S LADDER, CANDYMAN, NIGHTBREED, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS and EXORCIST 3? all better than SCREAM in my opinion, which made horror popular for stupid teenagers again and was what eventually led to shit like Platinum Dunes remakes

    also, I’ve been a MST3K fan since watching it as a little kid on the Sci Fi channel, back when I didn’t get half the jokes but laughed my ass off anyway

  25. Yeah, those are good movies Griff, but so is SCREAM. Horror has always been and will always be popular with stupid teenagers, and I don’t see how the success of SCREAM is responsible for the remakes. If anything it delayed that cycle because we had to first get through all the SCREAM copies.

  26. Anthony, I don’t know what the best one is but I have the “Millennium Edition,” which goes for about four bucks on Amazon and I don’t know of anything wrong with it.

  27. I have not seen this limited edition blu ray version yet. Didn’t even know it existed (but it’s been added to my Christmas wish list).
    Looking at those comparison shots though, I’m not sure if I will prefer this altered lighting.
    One of the things that I really love about this movie is how bright and sunny and pleasant it looks. The house is filled with stuff from everyday life for a country guy and his family, and it really looks like an old house in the country where some people lived. The trip to the cemetery at the beginning seems like a nice Sunday drive. Even the stuff where Ben comes cruising up in his truck looks like a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The fact that there is the creepy music playing throughout and of course, all the zombies and death, makes for a really great and memorable contrast. I’ve always found this contrast very striking. I’m not sure how much I would pick that up if all the shots were no longer sunny and bright, but rather dark and purposely foreboding.

  28. I showed my wife the Mike Nelson only version of Night for her first viewing (we’re both big MST3K fans) and we were both laughing pretty regularly. Unfortunately, she can’t watch it normally without hearing him saying stuff in her head, now. Favorite riff: “Interesting acting choice. Start with inexplicable rage and build from there”.
    Saw this remake on opening night and liked it well enough. You have a point, Vern, it makes for a cleansing of the palate between viewings of the original

  29. I’m bummed that the blu ray of this is out of print and fucking expensive, do you think it will ever get re-released?

  30. I love ya stickin’ it to those “riftrax” motherfuckers.

  31. Griff – Buy the dvd instead. It won´t hurt your eyes, I promise.

  32. As I briefly mentioned in the World War Z comments I am more familiar with the remake than the original. I’ve seen both versions and will admit NOTLD ’68 is the more important of the two but I prefer Savini’s film. I will partly attribute Todd and Tillman’s badass portrayals, but also that while growing up this was the only version of the film that was widely available for rental. I didn’t see NOTLD’68 until I was in my twenties and though I can understand why it is the superior film, it didn’t blow my mind after being so familiar with the remake.

    I can second Griff’s resentment of Scream, I was fifteen when it came out and being a horror fan, I blamed Scream for the genre it spawned “Party of Five Horror” aptly named not only because the genre shared actors from the show and others like it, but also because they all often seemed like soap operas with gore.

    I revisited Scream though and it’s actually a super decent slasher flick, and shouldn’t be held in the same contempt as it’s direct sequels or any of it’s imitators. Wes Craven directed the hell out of it and managed to wring as much suspense as possible out of the script while also including some shockingly brutal kills, as much as Kevin Williamson’s awful banter tries to sabotage Scream, it can’t

  33. This one suddenly popped up on German Netflix, which confused the shit out of me, because I was sure it was still banned over here. Oh well, not gonna complain.
    It’s watchable. I really chuckled at Barbara’s transformation, from scared nerd girl with glasses and cardigan in the first scene, to bad ass killer. In fact, the TALES FROM THE CRYPT moment between her and the only other survivor was definitely the highlight for me, while I rolled my eyes a bit over the heavy handed message moment before.

    But all in all: I approve of it.

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