Remaking a film like Night of the Living Dead is a very heavy task, to say the least. But in 1990, Tom Savini did just that. And his effort remains one of the great horror remakes.
Like all good remakes, 1990’s version of George Romero’s influential classic reworks certain elements of the original narrative for contemporary audiences without cheapening the effect of the inherent terror, all the while injecting more adrenaline into the proceedings. Savini’s Night of the Living Dead managed to build a reputation over the years since its initial release, poorly received by critics at first before slowly building up a loyal fan base. Many of those loyal fans even appreciate the film for its courage to change elements in the narrative to improve the overall terror and urgency. It’s become common knowledge that for Savini, however, the experience making Night was pure hell, turning him off to filmmaking for a very long time.
“I got stuck with these two idiot producers that didn’t know anything and their careers prove it and you know I didn’t want to make their bad movie for them,” Savini explained in an interview with Film Monthly. “You know my hands were just slapped all over the place, I couldn’t do a lot of stuff. The movie is about forty percent of what I intended. It would be a much better movie if I had got to put in all the stuff I really wanted to do. Then the MPAA hit us hard. You know with my name on it and George Romero they were waiting for us. And they made us cut some more stuff so it’s kind of a sterile film with mine and George’s name on it and that’s not what the fans expected.”
For all intents and purposes, though, Savini’s vision of Romero’s nightmarish tale of a group of people stuck in a farmhouse with the walking dead drifting in from all corners of the darkness is a master stroke. It’s a film that approaches the tone of the story and the characters with a more contemporary headset, all the while maintaining much of the sixties aesthetic. What solidifies Savini’s Night of the Living Dead is how completely timeless the film feels. This new version could have been set literally at any time period, and despite being released in 1990, much of the film maintains its hazy, sepia tone, where we’re never sure if this is set in modern times, or some period in the sixties.
The framework for Savini’s Night is very much in line with Romero’s own. We meet Barbara and Johnny, as played by Patricia Tallman and Bill Moseley, who are going to visit their aunt in the cemetery to pay their respects. Barbara is terrified of the cemetery, Johnny begins tormenting her, and what they perceive to be a drifting visitor in the cemetery ends up being Barbara’s worst nightmare come to life. Savini plays a lot with what we expect from the iconic original, replacing the more innocuous first zombie with a grizzly new attacker who offers a starting jolt in a film that delivers a seemingly never-ending series of jolts and twists.
This Night has every opportunity to be a lifeless shot for shot copy of the 1968 original, but Savini switches almost every scenario so subtly that it’s quite brilliant. The biggest change to the narrative that grabs almost a resoundingly unanimous round of applause from fans is the way Barbara is altered. The Judith O’Dea character was originally a very catatonic individual who literally did nothing but sit and watch the horror unfold, while the new Barbara, played with immense fury by Patricia Tallman, has to fight to survive every second she’s dropped into this scenario.
The Barbara in Savini’s Night of the Living Dead has no time to sit down and cry, because she’s much too busy trying to keep herself from being devoured by the dead. After escaping the attacker in the opening, she also has to bear witness to a stream of corpses shambling toward the house, and even smashes in the head of a zombie lurking by the farmhouse. Tallman, who worked a lot with Savini and Romero in past projects like Knightriders, Monkeyshines, and Tales from the Darkside, is subtle in the way she gradually transforms Barbara from a victim to someone who decides she has to fight now, cry later. The deterioration of her sanity is maintained from the original except it’s less of a nuisance, and more of a cause for concern, especially in a gut wrenching scene where she lays waste to an emaciated ghoul trying to smash through a barricade.
Many of the dynamics are also changed for the sake of this re-imagining, with Ben (horror legend Tony Todd) and Cooper’s (the late Tom Towles) battle becoming more about masculinity than class warfare, while Tom and Judy are much more vocal in the battle ensuing within the walls of the farmhouse. There’s also a lot more backstory, as Tom recalls the grizzly death of his brother at the hands of his undead father. The overtones of Cooper’s abusive relationship with his wife are maintained, though, as she can do little but bear witness to the general group effort crumble to pieces, as Ben and Cooper bicker about spare wood and literally struggle over a television.
Much of the tension in Night 1990 centers around the fact that if these characters just stopped for a moment and worked for one goal, they could probably make it through the night. In the midst of their nightmare, however, the simple solutions are completely ignored as the sheer stubbornness of the characters makes the scenario worse than it has to be. In particular, Barbara insists that they could simply walk past the dead and probably make it in to the next town if they wanted to, a theory that she proves in the climax. There’s also the maguffin of the keys to the gas tank. While it’s nearly impossible to top the shocking final scene from 1968’s original, Savini instead offers a genius final “screw you” to the characters (and the audience) before the finale, as a dying Ben sits in the basement, and finds the keys to the tank. The keys that have been within arm’s reach the entire time. As he holds them, all he can do is laugh in the darkness as he sits bleeding to death.
It’s a clever moment that, if you’ve never seen it, will inspire a head slap and a long frustrated groan. If only they’d stopped to work together for one moment, and put aside petty bickering.
Savini’s Night of the Living Dead sadly lacks the sheer brutality of the climactic moment when Tom and Judy are devoured by the dead, as well as the symbolic murder of Helen by her daughter with the garden trowel, but much of that is made up for with Savini’s ace direction and, quite frankly, amazing make up work. The walking dead in Savini’s Night are horrific to look at, often resembling actual corpses. There are numerous ghouls included that might inspire a nightmare or two, including Heather Mazur as the undead Sarah Cooper.
Since 1990, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has been reworked, remade, re-cut, and re-imagined in various cinematic mediums by myriad filmmakers, but the only re-imagining that’s managed to come close to the original is Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead. It’s a classic in its own right that continues to win over a new fan base for its bold and creative re-imagining of what is arguably the perfect horror film.
You can’t top perfection. But it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better than Savini did.