Posts Tagged ‘Dan O’Bannon’


First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Total Recall (1990). Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Screenplay by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’ Bannon, and Gary Goldman, from a story by Shusett, O’Bannon and Jon Povill, itself based on the story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick. Starring Arnold Shwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside. 113 minutes.** 1/2

Total Recall (2012). Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by  Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, from the 1990 screenplay and Philip K. Dick story. Starring Colin Farrell, Bryan Cranston, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, and Bill Nighy. (Produced by an outfit called “Original Film,” which got a huge laugh all by itself at the showing we saw). 121 minutes. ** 1/2

Total_Recall_41-300x475

 

Okay. Let’s get this much out of the way, first.

The general disdain many people have for the very phenomenon of remakes is often centered on the movie made so perfectly the first time that it is unthinkable to imagine such perceived perfection ever being sullied by an inferior imitation.

And there’s something to be said for this: after all, we have the remake of PSYCHO, a failed attempt to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.

The reflexive disdain is so automatic that it has, in the past, condemned films that had something to go for them. We’ve discussed how one great movie, The Wages Of Fear, was remade as a pretty damn good one, Sorcerer, and how many critics of the time assaulted it just for the unwelcome presumption.

We have seen some rhetoric of the kind directed at the latest big remake to hit the multiplex, a second film called Total Recall.

The implication is that the original was such an unparalleled classic that just to even attempt to remake it was blasphemy.

But let’s be honest here. The original was not a capital-g great movie. Like the remake, it’s a rather dopey one, enjoyably kinetic in its setpieces and resonantly paranoid in its premise, but nevertheless a dopey one, driven by machine-guns and explosions and a McGuffin that fails to pass the bullshit test of anybody with even a passing familiarity with science. The remake is also a rather dopey film, also enjoyably kinetic in its setpieces and resonantly paranoid in its premise, but driven by machine-guns and explosions and…well, the rest of the sentence continues on as before, even though the McGuffin here is entirely different than the one in the original film and therefore requires an entirely different species of bullshit.

The films have many of the same strengths and many of the same flaws. It is possible to consider both absolute crap and it is possible to consider both enjoyable thrill rides. It really depends on how “hard” you prefer your science fiction. In either film, if you require your physics to obey the laws ogf the real world, you might as well not pay the price of admission.

In broad strokes, the setups are identical. Both films open in a near-future metropolis, where a happily-married menial worker named Quaid (Arnold Shwarzenegger in the first film, Colin Farrell in the second), who feels stifled by the same old grind of to-work-and-back, has been having dream-flashbacks of an adventurous life not his own. The dreams come complete with a woman not his wife, which disturbs that wife (Sharon Stone in the first film, Kate Beckinsale in the second), who is remarkably understanding about her man having erotic dreams about someone else.

Still driven by the sense that something in missing, Quaid goes to Rekall, a corporation that sells false memories of grand times the customer has never lived. He is talked into a dream involving himself as an unstoppable secret agent. But midway through the procedure, something seems to go wrong; it seems that he might actually be a secret agent named Hauser, who was only weeks ago mind-wiped and installed in his current life by the forces of a villain named Cohaagen (Ronny Cox in the first film, Bryan Cranston in the second). Now Hauser must flee ruthless assassins who include his own loving wife, while seeking out the answers to the mysteries behind his origins.

The films share a number of other dramatic beats in common, among them the major revelation regarding Hauser’s real agenda. But they are otherwise so different that neither really spoils the other. Let’s take a look at the differences.

The Futures

The key difference is in the science-fictional background.

The 1990 film presents us with a future where Mankind has started to colonize the solar system, where people on Earth live pretty much the same way they do today except with more gadgets and where people on Mars live under the heel of a corrupt local administrator whose pocket-lining ways has created a permanent oppressed underclass of mutants and other 99 percenters. Questions of harmful radiation, of life support, and of the stupidity of firing machine guns around glass in a pressurized environment – which is stupid, but clearly a joke the movie is aware of, given that Michael Ironside’s rather dim manhunter makes or tries to make that same mistake multiple times – all factor into it, but the overall impression given is that mankind’s horizons have expanded and that there are enough wonders to go along, if not for the few selfish and brutal people who insist on ruining it for anybody. It’s hard to imagine minding a life in this future, as long as you’re one of the privileged and all the shooting is safely in the past. It’s all rather familiar, really – it even has many of the same corporations.

Some of the new gadgets are particularly fun; I like the bored airhead receptionist, amusing herself by instantaneously changing the color of her sculpted fingernails. And some have actually entered our lives; i.e., the wall-sized television sets.

The 2012 film, more in line with the tone of author Philip K. Dick, presents us with a firmly Earthbound humanity, on a ruined planet that possesses only two habitable regions, one in what used to be Great Britain and one in what used to be Australia. Both regions, beset by wild overcrowding, have built their urban centers up vertically, in a form of architecture that involves laying one city entirely over another, and then another over that, for as high up as the superstructure will support.  Workers commute from Australia to Great Britain on a daily basis, via a kind of skyscraper commuter train that plummets through the core of the Earth, and somehow builds up enough momentum to make it all the way to the surface on the other side.  So it is, in a very real sense, a world that has lost all hope, and where all the machine gun battles and running around amount to a form of fighting over the crumbs. There are gadgets here, as well – Colin Farrell’s Quaid has a refrigerator that also functions as an I-Pad, and there’s a wondrous chase through a network of crisscrossing high-speed elevators, traveling both vertically and horizontally. But again, the impression given is that one world is a hopeful one, marred by corruption; the other is a terrible place where people can live their lives, but where their horizons are strictly proscribed.

The differences between these two milieus is further underlined by the visual palate. The 1990 world has some dark and/or undeveloped places, but is mostly a brightly-lit and colorful place, where even the sleazy hooker bar looks about as threatening as a McDonald’s at lunch hour. For the most part, the 2012 world is grimy, grungy, dimly-lit, often rainy, and in the Australian scenes populated by people who look like they’ve managed to eke out a few precious square meters for themselves and dress to let us know it. This extends to the look of the false-memory shop, Rekall. In 1990, it has stone walls, but is clearly an upscale business, with techs in white coats, a smiling high-pressure salesman, audio-visual presentations for the slower folks among the clientele. The model is a travel agency. The 2012 version is tucked away in an alley in the midst of a skeevy hooker neighborhood, is dimly lit, and is decorated for mood  – the impression given being that it’s more of a vice-driven enterprise.

(Both places have a three-breasted hooker, but 1990’s three-breasted hooker is implicitly one of the area’s mutants, and the 2012 specimen is a one-of-a-kind anomaly, possibly a new form of deliberate body-mod.)

Claims that the 2012 version is “just” a ripoff of the original are defeated by the change in design. Clearly, a lot of thought went into making the new version look different. The competition between them is frankly a wash. 1990 is brighter, more colorful, larger, more filled with visual humor; 2012 is more eye-popping, more dazzling visually, less hopeful and certainly more a world that anybody would mess with his mind to escape. 

 

The Performances

1990 star Arnold Shwarzenegger has often been accused of being utterly without acting talent. That is a canard. He is no grand thespian, and was indeed at his best in the first Terminator film where he was employed less as character than as living special effect, but any close examination to his accomplishments on screen reveals than he’s actually pretty good at expressing rage, fear, terror, pain, amusement, amiability, charm, uncertainty – not quite a full spectrum of human emotion, and certainly not enough to completely overcome his easily-parodied line readings, but certainly enough to function within the scenarios usually provided for him. He is a larger than life figure, and viewers never wanted him to be anything other than his usual screen persona, anyway. (Hence the frequent, jocular repetitions of “I’ll be back.”)

2012 star Colin Farrell is an actor of harder-to-deny talents, who has been very good indeed in character-based movies (two capital-g Great ones: The Way Back, In Bruges),  but one odd result of casting him in big-budget action films is that he tends to disappear in them even when he’s supposed to be the focus (see: Miami Vice, Daredevil).   In his Total Recall, he’s very good indeed as a hero who imagined himself an ordinary man and now finds out he’s not (or, in the other interpretation, as an ordinary man who is merely being made to imagine that he’s a hero), but much of his acting is subtle, inward, as far from over-the-top as possible. It’s a better performance, technically, but is it a better one for the material? This reviewer is honestly not sure. Call it a wash.

Bryan Cranston has recently made his bones playing a good guy who becomes a bad guy in Breaking Bad, which is why it’s so disappointing that his 2012 evil mastermind is not nearly as memorable as Ronny Cox’s 1990; he’s just not given the same level of emotion to play. On the other hand, Sharon Stone’s vicious undercover wife from 1990 is just a little bit more than competent and Kate Beckinsale’s equivalent in 2012 is a wonderment; she is an unstoppable force of nature, a frightening figure even when she just frowns with determination, from a distance. It is grand theft movie, first class, by far the best reason to see the remake.

Beckinsale’s character, Lori, is actually the combination of two characters from the 1990 film, Lori and Richter. The loss of Richter (played in 1990 by Michael Ironside) is a major one, in that his character has more than one pressing reason to break orders and want Quaid dead. There’s a great exchange between him and another of Cohaagen’s men, regarding Lori’s undercover role as Quaid’s wife: “Are you saying she enjoyed it?” “No, I’m sure she hated every minute of it.” Ironside played him as a guy who adored his wife but wanted to erase her transgression by any means possible, to the point that it rendered him reckless and stupid. It was a performance that made it possible to feel sorry for him. As great as Beckinsale is in her performance as Lori, a female terminator, it’s a shame that the streamlining of the story deprived us of a subsidiary villain who could have had some equivalent fun with this dynamic. 

The Competing Species of Bullshit

In Total Recall 1990, the big secret is the discovery of a massive alien machine designed to melt a glacier in the core of Mars, and thus provide the planet with a breathable atmosphere.

This is a terrifically cosmic science fictional concept called “terraforming,” and it renders Cohaagen an even greater villain in that he refuses to turn it on, preferring to profit from a Mars where every citizen has to pay for every breath of air. (Oh, he provides some lip-service to fears over whether the machine is safe…but really, it’s clear; he just doesn’t want to destroy the Mars that enriches him.) In the climax, the erupting plumes of vapor shatter all external glass in the colony, but renders Mars a blue-skied paradise within minutes.

Umm. Sorry. The first bad news is that it can’t possibly work that way. Even if that much gas is created, all over Mars, it’s impossible to believe that the air would dissipate all over that globe in mere minutes, unless it creates a worldwide windstorm far stronger than the most violent terrestrial hurricane. And, frankly, just providing Mars with an atmosphere is not the problem. Finding a way for Mars to keep an atmosphere is the problem. There’s a reason why it barely has an atmosphere now; it simply doesn’t have the gravity to retain one. Even if the colonists could enjoy a few minutes of balmy weather in the aftermath of the machine’s activation, the same problem would face them a week or a month or a year later, after all that atmosphere was gone. It’s like giving money to a derelict with holes instead of pockets. He can’t hold on to it, that’s all.

There’s also the issue that Quaid and Melina are exposed to near-vacuum for long minutes as the atmosphere is created, and suffer explosive decompression, complete with eyes popping out of their heads. That they survive, to face a delightful blue sky and a happy ending, without any medical aftereffects, is unlikely in the extreme…but, hey, if we take the position that the entire adventure just survived is Quaid’s psychotic delusion, thanks to the malpractice of Rekall, then it’s fine in that it really doesn’t have to make sense. If it’s not part of Quaid’s real world, it’s dopey. If it’s part of his dream, it’s sneakily brilliant.

One major problem with Total Recall 2012 is that the nonsensical elements are part of Quaid’s waking world. It really is impossible to believe in the Fall, a skyscraper falling through the Earth’s core (and back up again), as the most practical form of mass transit in an nearly uninhabitable world. The physics of it don’t work and logic of it doesn’t work, and beyond that it’s downright ridiculous to posit one transport full of robot soldiers being enough to conquer a teeming city, when we’ve seen that those soldiers can pretty much be taken apart by anybody sufficiently good at martial arts. It can’t be written off as a dream because the same technology exists when Quaid is awake. It’s pretty enough…but fails to beat the common sense test.

Alas, so does the entire justification behind the amnesia storyline in the first place. Assuming you take the interpretation that everything that happens to Quaid is real and not a fantasy implanted at Rekall, it makes perfect retroactive sense, in the 1990 film, for his character to be working undercover with his memory erased. After all, he’s going after a rebel organization run by a telepath. He needs to believe in his own sincerity. There are no telepaths in the 2012 version. Hauser doesn’t have to believe a damn thing; he could accomplish the same thing by just believing real hard. There is no reason to place him in a position where he can run amuck, wholly out of the control of the people who hired him, killing their own men…except to obey the general plot outline that was such a hit in 1990. It doesn’t make sense, not even if you consider Quaid’s adventures a fantasy.

Another element of the 2012 version that makes less sense than the 1990 version: the robotic cops. In 1990, there are none; there’s just a bunch of thugs and a very powerful alien machine with the ability to change the world. 2012 presents us with a bunch of “invincible wimps” – an ultimate weapon killing machine so flawed that it is possible for an unarmed martial artist to take one down. This would not be a serious problem if they were just scenery. But we are made to believe that the plan is for one commuter-car of robot soldiers, to completely exterminate the entire population of the Australian zone. Not based on what we see. I think they’re in for a fight.

The 2012 version is also so fixated on propelling its story that it omits many of 1990’s grace notes. For instance, in 1990, when Quaid and Malena are captured, Cohaagen puts her in a reprogramming chair too, to make her a “respectful” and “obedient” bride for Hauser. It’s just a little terrifying. Not in 2012; she’s simply arrested.

The Action

Both films have wild over-the-top action sequences, with stunning explosions of violence. The ones from 1990 are funnier, and confidently give some of the best bits to people other than the titular hero. For instance, there are precious few moments of junk-movie bliss more transcendent than the moment in that film when the dwarf hooker grabs a machine gun and starts mowing down thugs. She was a bit player, and people still cheered her. It was, I think, the loudest cheer the movie got, which is saying a lot in a film where Arnold Shwarzenegger gets to shoot or beat up dozens of people. The 2012 version is pretty much a four-character show. It’s a loss.

Give the 2012 version credit, though: it has three lengthy action set pieces that outgun and outclass anything in the original film, among them Quaid’s flight through the shadow streets of the Australian zone, a multi-level chase that runs on for miles and takes him through all strata of his society. That’s neat. So’s the hovercar chase, a scene that would have blown my mind, as a youngster. And so’s the wildest innovation of the whole film, an action scene unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any movie, an extended chase through vertical and horizontal elevators that is eye-popping, original, and downright thrilling. It’s great stuff, the main reason the 2012 version receives a grade equal to 1990’s.

The Memory Vault

1990 version: a campy thrill ride, that is science-fictionally richer, and happens to make just a little more sense,  than the 2012 follow-up. The 2012 version: darker and more despairing, better acted albeit (aside from Beckinsale) to lesser effect, and set in a future that makes no sense whatsoever, but with visuals and action sequences better than anything in the original film.

Life circumstances intruding, there will be no Remake Chronicles essay in September. We hope to be back in October, but those “life circumstances” will be continuing well into that month, so it might well be a 60-day break. We shall see you when we see you.

*

And now, the wife remembers it for you wholesale…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Total Recall (1990). Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Screenplay by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’ Bannon, and Gary Goldman, from a story by Shusett, O’Bannon and Jon Povill, itself based on the story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick. Starring Arnold Shwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside. 113 minutes.**

Total Recall (2012). Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, from the 1990 screenplay and Philip K. Dick story. Starring Colin Farrell, Bryan Cranston, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, and Bill Nighy. (Produced by an outfit called “Original Film,” which got a huge laugh all by itself at the showing we saw). 121 minutes. ** *

 

One of these two films is better than the other, and its not the one the critics think.

I had fond memories of the 1990 Total Recall.  I mean the images of Mars were amazing and the mutant population was wonderfully varied.  The story had love, hate, war, rebellion, greedy land barons and sympathetic prossies, everything you need for a fun time in the old west right?  Only this wasn’t the old west, it was the future and having bulgy AHNOLD slinging throw away punch lines just doesn’t hold up.

In 1990, I believed a person could survive in a non atmosphere by holding their breath reallllllly long.  Ummm…chalk up one for the gullible.  But guess what?  The filmmakers wanted us to believe not only that, but no permanent damage would occur after  the incident.  Boy, is there egg on my face.

I could go on picking apart the pseudoscience in the original but why bother, its been done ad infinitum by those much better /knowledgeable than I.

Well, to prepare for the remake I decided to read the source material.  Boy, was I ever taken aback.  Where was all this Mars rebellion stuff? This story is all about a guy trying to search for his true identity and then deciding, he really doesn’t like himself too much.  That’s the film that I saw a few weeks ago.  That’s the story that I read.  That’s the reason so few folks liked it in comparison to the first take. 

Colin Farrell plays most of the film as a poor confused sap finding himself involved in things he doesn’t understand or care about.  Audiences don’t like their hunky leading men to play second fiddle to strong capable women. Audiences don’t like plots with more twists than their poor struggling minds can follow. Audiences today want the story spooned up and fed to them so they can run out to get another big gulp and still catch up in one sentence or less.  This is why the majority of folks prefer the first version. You don’t need to think, just cheer on the bruiser.

The remake has an infinitely better cast, better script , special effects and most importantly a set to make any Blade Runner fan drool in envy. 

To compare, Arnold does a quick bit of surgery and recovers pronto, Colin staggers with each bash and bruise.  Sharon Stone as wife in original is a B**ch, but not unstoppable, Kate Beckinsale as wife in remake is a force to reckon with.  Wife two made a more plausible baby sitter for the “dangerous spy/good guy/bad guy/ummm you name it.  Compare Ronny Cox to Bryan Cranston as the money grubbing baddy and it’s a close one.  Cox oozed menace, but couldn’t fight worth a bean.  Cranston oozed menace and proved a bit formidable too. 

So, throw it all into a pot and stir well and you get a tight SF film nearly true to the source material versus one that took the name and a few plot points and then decided to make an action comedy SF film.  You can choose for yourself. I already have.


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 VersionsNight 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 VersionsNight 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.”