One was fresh. One was re-warmed but still quite tasty. The third was rancid.
First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro
Night Of The Living Dead (1968). Directed by George A. Romero. Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman. 96 minutes. ***
Night Of The Living Dead (1990). Directed by Tom Savini. Screenplay by George A. Romero, based on the 1968 screenplay by George Romero and John Russo. Starring Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles. 92 minutes. ***
Night Of the Living Dead 3-D (2006). Directed by Jeff Broadstreet. Screenplay by Jeff Broadstreet, inspired by the 1968 Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Brianna Brown, Sid Haig. 80 minutes. *
Other Known Versions: Night Of the Living Dead Re-Animated (2009; jam animated version); too many sequels and films inspired by the original concept to list.
Before we begin this one, we’ll note that we had an ulterior motive for placing this series of films so high up on the list of possible remake blog topics: the recent release of my own entry in this now-venerable and still growing subgenre, the gorily illustrated alphabet book Z Is For Zombie, by myself and dynamiting artist Johnny Atomic. That volume would not exist had an innocent nine-year-old with an interest in monster movies not wandered into a Saturday afternoon double-feature half some forgotten piece of crap I can no longer name and half the nightmare that warped him, and apparently, uncounted others, for life. Go ahead. Click the Amazon link above and buy a copy or twelve. We’ll still be here when you’re done.
Done? Now we can move on.
Zombies are everywhere. There are now several different postulated pathologies, including the brainless, slow zombies of the three films under discussion today, the various sequels directed by George Romero, and many of his imitators: slow, mindless, ambulatory meat, who eat flesh.
There are the sentient, somewhat faster zombies introduced in the competing Return Of The Living Dead series, who crave and chant “Brains” for reasons too depressing to go into right now.
There are the fast-moving zombies of the 2004 Dawn Of the Dead remake, who are not “all messed up” and can run. There’s an entire suite of living “zombies” such as those postulated by 28 Days Later (2002) and, arguably, Zombieland (2009), who are better described as human beings who have come down with a virulent form of rabies.
There are the splatstick zombies of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992), arguably the best zombie movie ever made, who remain animate even when chopped into little pieces; and there are the video-game zombies of the Resident Evil movie series, of which we shall only say, they suck. Nor are these the only variations. Even if you omit the traditional voodoo zombies which are , which another kettle of fish entirely, zombies come in more varieties than penguins. And then, on top of that, there are the variations postulated by the writers of horror novels, some of which are far removed from Romero’s blueprint. (Check out, among others, Walter Greatshell, Mira Grant, and Brian Keene.)
But the subgenre as we understand it today did all begin in 1968, with a little low-budget movie that didn’t even use the word “zombie” at any point. Its characters had never seen a zombie movie and were slow to understand the nature of the phenomenon they were dealing with. They called their shambling assailants “those things,” and they struggled with the evidence of their eyes and their sense, learning the new paradigm of their world even as the monsters loose in that world closed in around them.
Night Of the Living Dead is the seed of the myth.
And all three of the movies bearing the same title share much of the opening premise. All three open with a pair of bickering siblings, Johnny and Barbara, on a long and unpleasant trip road trip to a cemetery. In all three, Barbara is the good daughter, fulfilling a family obligation to the dead; in all three, Johnny is the obnoxiously contrary brother, vocal about finding the entire exercise hypocritical and ridiculous. In all three, Barbara initially believes in showing respect for the dead; in all three, Johnny argues that the dead won’t appreciate it. (He is correct about that, but obviously has no idea just how true that will soon turn out to be.) In all three, Johnny resorts to mocking his sister’s piety by chanting, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara;” in all three, the first of the ambulatory corpses shows up to prove him right. All three films proceed to quickly write Johnny out of the equation and send Barbara fleeing on foot to a nearby farmhouse, where she will soon find herself among a small group of survivors besieged by a growing crowd of hungry ghouls.
From that seed, though, the three versions head off into remarkably different directions.
The Iconic Classic: Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
In the first film, Barbara arrives at the farmhouse in a state of shock that renders her functionally catatonic for most of the action to follow. She is childlike, petulant, withdrawn, detached, and unable to answer simple questions when Ben (Duane Jones) arrives, having already survived several encounters with “those things.” His understanding of what’s going on is no more advanced than hers, except that he knows survival depends on keeping the creatures out.
Much has been made of Romero’s genius in casting a black man as the hero, especially since subsequent events place him in opposition with another survivor who happens to be a loathsome white coward. In tumultuous 1968, when that kind of casting was practically unheard-of, Ben’s race and the race of his instant enemy Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) gave the film a contemporary resonance well beyond what one would expect of a silly little story about dead people who wander the countryside gnawing chunks off the living. It contributed to the film’s notoriety and no doubt to its immortality.
As it happens, the casting was no stroke of genius, but a stroke of luck. The screenplay made no reference to Ben’s race. Duane Jones was simply the best of the leading-men types who showed up to audition, and Romero’s genius amounted to being open-minded enough to say, “Why not?” As it is, Jones demanded substantial changes to the character of Ben, before agreeing to play the part. The original Ben was an unsophisticated blue-collar guy, with uneducated speech patterns. The Ben Jones agreed to play is a well-spoken hero wearing a white shirt and tie, who may show up driving a pickup truck but who seems to have picked it up elsewhere when he first encountered the madness abroad on this particular night.
This Ben is clearly a capable and brave man, and the protagonist we root for when the cowardly, selfish, angry me-first type Harry Cooper emerges from the cellar, where he and several other terrified survivors have been hiding. Some have said that the black man being in charge, over a white man who is at best ineffective and at worst a dangerous liability, increased the chills for contemporary viewers, given that it formed a microcosm of a society that actually did seem to be turning upside down. This is a valid interpretation even if, as the facts bear out, the resonance was an accident of casting. We note that the movie is deft enough to avoid underlining it. Harry may think Ben is “crazy,” but he never attacks him on racial grounds or questions the propriety of a black man being in charge – even though everything we know about Harry’s character would make a racist streak wholly unsurprising. Nor does Ben ever bring it up. Ben is only the hero because he seems to know what he’s doing; Harry is the villain because he’s a loudmouth whose wife hates him, and because his strategy for survival consists of hiding.
There is an unfortunate, unwanted additional resonance in that hateful, white Harry actually turns out to be right; the first floor is a deathtrap, reinforcing the windows is a waste of time, and just about everything brave, black Ben does, to face the hordes of undead like a man, does lead this poor group of allies who trusted him to an early death. It’s a very good thing for posterity that Ben and Cooper never actually have the white/black argument, because if they did, the bloody conclusion could be read as a vindication of Harry’s position. As it is, Ben is so much more easier to admire than Harry that most viewers can see the movie multiple times and still fail to register that Harry’s plan for survival was in fact the correct one.
In any event, the original Night established the rule followed by most good zombie fiction since then (not just in the movies, but in prose as well): that since zombies as they’re usually imagined are inarticulate and unmotivated by anything but hunger, their mere presence cannot be the sole required story engine. It needs to be the motivating force that throws the interpersonal conflict of the living into sharp relief. This is true whether the issue at hand is rampant consumerism (Dawn Of the Dead), delayed adulthood (Shawn of the Dead), a surprisingly sweet love story (Dead Alive), or, as in the original Night, the forces that alienate human beings from one another and keep them from cooperating for the common good. A zombie story that fails to reflect this, that is merely a catalogue of ways to dismember corpses, will likely be as soulless as the ghouls themselves.
The movie ends, of course, with sole survivor Ben staggering from the basement, only to be shot dead by sheriffs who spot him through an open window and mistake him for one of the walking dead. His color aside, his climactic death was shocking at the time, when most thrillers and horror films ended with a happy restoration of the status quo, and the happy escape of deserving people to a happy ending. (In 1969, when I saw it at age nine, I couldn’t believe that any movie would ever go there; today, of course, most mainstream horror movies go for that kind of closing shock, and the effect is not so much shocking as yawn-inducing.) Factor his color in and we get another accidental resonance, very vivid to those who first saw the film in those days of rural assassins taking up rifles against Medgar Evers, James Meredith, Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights Workers Cheney, Shwermer, and Goodman.
The film itself still works, decades after zombies became commonplace on screen. The grainy black and white photography, the building tensions among the people in the house, the grinding unfairness of everything that happens, the inexorably worsening news on the radio, and the absolute dearth of any happy-ever-afters, still render it a powerful tour-de-force. There are some impressive non-performances, but Jones remains fine.
Alas for Romero, the distribution company never properly copyrighted it. The movie passed into the public domain almost immediately, and he no longer makes money from it.
Which was the key reason for the first of the two remakes.
The Unfairly Maligned First Remake: Night Of the Living Dead (1990)
By 1990, the very idea of remaking Night Of the Living Dead seemed so sacrilegious, to so many, that many critics who’d embraced the original (some retroactively) attacked this one as a blot on its memory.
It was, of course, impossible for any mere remake to have the impact or influence of the original. Among other things, the casting of a black lead was no longer shocking by then. But, largely, people who condemned this one condemned the very idea of it, rather than its execution. They hated that director Tom Savini chose to film this one in vivid color, instead of grainy black and white; they hated the sharp changes it made in the original story while simultaneously (and paradoxically) condemning it for going where Romero had gone before. In truth, consider it only as a film, without either the weight of an iconic original or the social background behind the initial release weighing it down, and it’s very much in the first film’s class, and can be sensibly defended as better.
Romero, who wrote the screenplay of this one as well, said at the time that he couldn’t just make a shot-by-shot remake; people knew the original so well by then that the remake would not be nearly as effective if everything just played out the same way. So he set up the same situation and the same conflicts and went elsewhere with them, starting just a few minutes in, when the first person to bump into Barbara (Patricia Tallman) is not a walking corpse, but a traumatized survivor of a prior massacre.
Barbara is just as traumatized, just as unresponsive, when she gets to the house as she was in the original film. When Ben (Tony Todd) shows up, she is just as unable to answer him. But circumstances soon force her to kill a zombie sneaking up behind her, and unlike the original Barbara she soon starts to (forgive us) rise to the occasion, stunningly becoming one of the strongest people in the house.
By the time the Ben / Harry antagonism begins, Barbara begins to reveal herself as having more sense and more guts than the two of them put together. She is the one who sees that the walking dead are so slow that wasting energy on barricading the windows or hiding in the cellar amounts to defending a deathtrap. She is the one who, told she’s losing it, coldly shoots an approaching zombie in the face and then angrily addresses the others: “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. “ (Patricia Tallman was so very good in the part, especially in this scene,that I expected major stardom for her; that never materialized, alas, though she worked regularly and was a supporting player on Babylon 5.)
Ben’s fallibility is brought closer to the forefront. At one point, he tackles Harry, who’s bringing a television downstairs. The TV is smashed, leading Ben to assault Harry for trying to sneak the TV into the cellar. Harry’s response – that he was bringing the TV downstairs for everybody, that it wouldn’t have gotten any reception in the basement – is stunning. Much earlier in the story, it becomes clear that Ben is actually part of the problem.
Nothing plays out exactly the same as it does in the original. Tom and Judy, the boring young couple nobody could stand in the first film, who get themselves and Ben’s truck blown up in a failed attempt to fill the gas tank, are not quite as bland here, and while they get themselves blown up here as well, via a similar act of clumsy panic, the mistake they make is entirely different. Helen’s death plays out differently. The final invasion of the house leads to an entirely different final confrontation between Harry and Ben (as well as the revelation that the house did include a perfect hiding place that nobody bothered to consider: the attic).
Barbara escapes by walking right past the zombies, just as she’s always contended everybody could, and what she does when she returns with help – coldly shoot the surviving Harry right through the head, and telling her companions in zombie-killing that he’s ‘”another one for the fire” – underlines the substantial changes the night has wrought in her. She’s dead inside: a perfect denizen of the new world.
There was some impressive non-acting in this film as well, but most of the performances were better, and the pacing more assured. Tony Todd was an effective Ben, Tom Towles was an effective Harry, and Patricia Tallman was a powerful Barbara. The color cinematography was not quite as artful, but it had the benefit of being transparent: it did not get in the way of the story.
In short, the 1990 film is everything a remake should be. Aside from the accidents of casting and the contemporary background that boosted the original’s impact, which could not be duplicated, it matches just about every narrative strength of that original while justifying its own existence with a startling different take. It didn’t deserve the drubbing it got, and has fortunately been appreciated more and more as the years have passed.
No, if you want to see everything a remake should not be, just look at the most recent version.
The Awful Second Remake: Night Of The Living Dead 3-D (2006)
The makers of this version had a number of big ideas, none of them good.
Indeed, it is rare to see a remake that fails on so many levels, that has so many fundamentally bad notions, that showed such a universal misunderstanding of what made the original story work. Next to this, the Paris Hilton House Of Wax was a masterpiece.
We can’t testify to the effectiveness of that much-maligned 3-D process here, since we saw a 2-D version. But we can say that it would have needed to transform the visual aspects of this version to something on the level of Avatar to counter even one-tenth of the damage their other big ideas did to the story.
The danger signs start very early. In both prior versions, the teasing Barbara’s brother Johnny subjects her to in the cemetery ends as soon as the first zombie attacks; then the first zombie attacks, he sees that the danger is real, and he rushes to protect his sister, at the cost of his own life. This makes psychological sense, as it’s what a big brother would do. In this film, he runs to their car and drives away, abandoning her to her fate. That is the act of an unbelievable asshole, which doesn’t ring true at all. Still…all right. Maybe this Johnny really is just an asshole. If the rest of the movie were not filled with terrible ideas, maybe we could let it pass.
Alas, it is.
The biggest and worst of those ideas is the apparent premise that all the conflict inside the house, that doomed both prior sets of survivors to their unlucky fates, was boring and needed to be jettisoned. The second worst is the apparent belief that all the characters needed to be rendered more bland. As a result, this movie’s Ben (Joshua Desroses) is just a generic white college student who helps distribute the product of this film’s married Coopers , (Greg Traviss and Johanna Black), marijuana farmers who own the farmhouse and are thus perfectly at home there when “Barb” (Brianna Brown) shows up to tell everybody that the dead have risen.
Yes. The people behind this film actually thought the story would play better if Ben and Harry were friends, who knew each other and liked each other and didn’t argue so much.
Chew on that. It deserves repetition.
The people behind this film actually thought the story would play better if Ben and Harry were friends, who knew each other and liked each other and didn’t argue so much.
Having trouble digesting that, aren’t you?
The third worst innovation is that the confusion over the nature of the phenomenon that faces everybody, so clearly delineated in the first two films, is here removed completely. In the first two films, the phenomenon was treated as something almost beyond comprehension. But this film’s Barb knows the word “zombie” from seeing zombie movies herself, and bursts in on Coopers who are getting stoned while watching the 1968 version. They know exactly what she’s talking about; they’re just skeptical and reluctant to call the police to their pot farm. The conflict is reduced to Barb’s increasing frustration at them for being so thick and stupid – which they greet with a compassionate equanimity that goes on for way too long. It’s deadly to any suspense the film might have, even as the zombies start to accumulate in the yard.
The fourth worst is the removal of the disaster’s scale. Any implication that the rising of the dead is afflicting anybody but this one small group of people is simply omitted. We don’t get the horror from the first two films of a widespread disaster and of the radio and television reports sending people to shelters that are then described as overrun or no longer accepting refugees. So we lose that, too.
The next worst is the reduction of this film’s doomed Tom and Judy to a standard horror movie couple who we see fucking so we can then still see them get killed. They are the worst incarnation of Tom and Judy, and that’s saying something.
The result of all of this is that there’s no subtext, either by accident or design. It’s just stupid boring people being attacked by zombies, none of whom do anything we haven’t seen zombies do before. Even a bad zombie movie, like Flight Of the Living Dead, can be remarkable for the cleverness of its zombie gags. But no. For the first time, a Night Of the Living Dead movie is exactly what the detractors of the series would say it always was: a stupid exploitation movie without any ideas.
All of that, which serves only to establish that nobody involved with this thing had any idea why this story ever worked, and completely remove the character issues that gave the first and second versions whatever weight they had, is just background to their greatest innovation: casting horror-movie veteran Sid Haig as a mad mortician whose funeral home is the source of the contagion. It all, eventually, becomes about Haig acting crazy. And it must be said that he does give the proceedings what little energy they have. But the character is a stupid innovation and he isn’t good enough to overcome a story which, ironically enough, has had all its life sucked out of it.
The Final Respects
The 1968 version, a hugely influential and still terrifying horror film. The 1990 version, a worthy remake marked by a genuinely different take. The 2006 version, nothing but rotten meat.
Thanks to K.C. Locke, who provided us with the 1990 version.
And now, the wife peers out through the barricaded window…
Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro
Night Of The Living Dead (1968). Directed by George A. Romero. Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman. 96 minutes. ***1/2
Night Of The Living Dead (1990). Directed by Tom Savini. Screenplay by George A. Romero, based on the 1968 screenplay by George Romero and John Russo. Starring Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles. 92 minutes.***
Night Of the Living Dead 3-D (2006). Directed by Jeff Broadstreet. Screenplay by Jeff Broadstreet, inspired by the 1968 Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Brianna Brown, Sid Haig. 80 minutes. 0000000 NO!!!!!
Other Known Versions: Night Of the Living Dead Re-Animated (2009; jam animated version); too many sequels and films inspired by the original concept to list.
I thought that this comparison was going to be an easy-peasy job based on having seen and loved the original and seen and hated everything about the third, but damn the middle version made it rough.
Let me warn anyone who even slightly enjoyed the 1968 NOTLD, DO NOT WATCH THE 2006 REMAKE!! I REPEAT DO NOT WATCH THE 2006 REMAKE! That so called movie takes everything that was right and tosses it to the winds. Why bother with character development and plot, when special effects and action are available. OK. so fine, the makers wanted to cash in on the 3D craze, so they threw in a few hokey effects. I could deal with those as long as the story made sense, but come on guys, using the original film in your own really bad interpretation was just plain stupid! Why invite the comparison? Were you so sure of your own greatness or just too dumb to realize the end result?
Now, let me admit to something a bit shameful. I didn’t see the 1968 original film until sometime in the late 1970’s, and that in a cut to shreds version on local TV. Of course, I doubt my parents would have allowed me to see it much before then, but I had snuck in a few nightmarish childhood treasures by that time (The Birds remains a favorite pre teen scare). However, even that ripped apart, commercial-ridden version left me wanting more undead fun. I even placed the film into my pantheon of classic horror to be rewatched and savored alongside the Universal classics I so adored. High praise for a little black and white film. I finally got to see the film uninterrupted by ads and hopefully uncensored in college and realized there was an art to pulling the guts out of a writhing body. Wow, even more coolness! I was hooked like the proverbial big fish. And again, I begged and pleaded for more, but none came.
Sure, there were the sequels, but they just didn’t have the oomph I got from the first. The magnetic draw just never occurred. And, while I enjoyed the Evil Dead movies for the fun romps they were, I still didn’t find the walking dead I needed to tickle my thrill bone.
By this point I had given up on ever seeing NOTLD remade with the proper respect, but thanks to this blog, I got most of my wish. The 1990 version directed by Tom Savini and written by dead master/creator George Romero reworks the original into an updated story, tighter and tauter than the original. The film follows the same opening premise, but from there, most of the character conventions shift slightly. We no longer have just the tough hero, we get a useful, tough Barbara instead of the whimpering, nearly comatose girl from the original. Tony Todd and Patricia Tallman are not just folks that were picked for their availability, they can act and did. The nods of respect to the original are there throughout the film for the people who need that, but the changes make for a better film overall. Why then, did it leave me just slightly disappointed?
When a masterwork is created no revision, even by the originator, is ever going to give me the same feeling of wonder/chills/awe, that the original had. Is a copy of the Mona Lisa as good as seeing the original? Is Beatlemania the same as having seen the Beatles perform live? That’s the problem I have here. The 1968 film crept into my soul and warped me permanently. The 1990 Savini vision, while really good and eminently watchable, just becomes a poor cousin despite the fixing of the original’s flaws. So, yes, watch both films. Enjoy both for the works they are. And, please, I beg of you, DON’T WATCH THE 2006 3D NOTLD! Pretend it doesn’t exist. It will poison you. In the immortal words of Latka Gravis, “Thankyou very much.”