It’s tough to remake a “classic.”
If you choose to do so, your movie will normally fall into one of two categories:
1. a complete “re-imagining,” throwing caution to the wind and doing pretty much whatever you want while disregarding much or all of the original’s content.
2. a faithful, shot-for-shot re-do of the original movie, possibly throwing in one or two different new or unique things, to give your version a little flair.
If you make the first movie, you run the risk of alienating all the core fans of the original, who know that the movie is a “classic” for good reason, and they don’t feel that there is EVER a need to “re-imagine” anything. If you make the second movie, you are essentially giving the ol’ “copy and paste” to someone else’s work – unless the original movie is your own, in which case you are either greedy or just can’t leave well enough alone! Either way, odds are good that you’re going to piss someone off; you just can’t win.
With the 1990 remake of the quintessential zombie movie ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ producer George Romero and director Tom Savini attempt to tread in the grey area between the aforementioned two types of remakes, and ultimately fail to deliver in either arena. When watching this movie, I was left with that vague sense of “déjà vu,” like I had seen these things happen before, and I had – in the original 1968 version of the movie. Granted, the 1990 version uses new actors, is in color, and throws in a few different and unique character traits and plot turns, but watching this movie feels like going to see your favorite band in concert, only they’ve got a new lead singer, and while you recognize all the songs, it’s just not as good as the original version you know and love.
Savini was (at the time of this movie’s release) a lifelong special effects/makeup wizard, and was primarily attracted to this project as he wanted but did not get to work on the original ‘NotLD,’ due to serving in the military at the time. However, Romero asked him to direct the new version of the film, an honor which Savini definitely could not turn down. Although the vast majority of the movie is a shot-for-shot remake of the 1968 classic version, there are a few key differences, mainly revolving around the attitudes and personalities of some of the main characters, and some key climactic scenes. It is unclear through existing interviews as to who was responsible for these changes, but Romero is the only member of the duo that is listing with writing credits.
Previous reviewers and interviewers have accused Romero of remaking ‘NotLD’ simply to give exposure of the story to the “younger generations” who refuse to watch black-and-white movies; the motivation was at least partly motivated by financial gains, as many of the cast and crew freely admit in the Making Of featurette on the DVD that making this version of the movie was an opportunity to cash in on some of the money lost from the “non-copyright” fiasco of the original 1968 film.
For those reading this that may not be familiar with that tale, here is a little “Zombie Trivia” sidebar for you: the original ‘Night of the Living Dead’ was originally titled ‘Night of the Flesh-Eaters.’ As Romero and co-writer John Russo were preparing to release the original film, the distribution company went to copyright the name of the film, when they found out that there was (somehow!) already a copyrighted film by that name. So, a “big-wig” at the distribution company encouraged Romero and Russo to change the name to ‘Night of the Living Dead’ to avoid copyright issues, and also because the big-wig thought it sounded scarier. So, change the name they did… except the distribution company forgot to copyright the title, making it a public-domain movie upon its release.
And that, boys and girls, is why seemingly anyone and everyone can remake ‘NotLD,’ and any old video company can put out a version on DVD, whether it’s remastered, colorized, 2-D, 3-D, “collector’s edition,” and the like. At last count, there were 29 different versions of the original movie on DVD, according to IMDb.com. Heck, I’m thinking of putting my own version of the movie out, starring hand puppets! (Warning: the previous sentence is mostly fictitious, and entirely ridiculous.)
Although this movie is a remake, it is a remake of one of the first and greatest zombie films of all time, and for that, it gets at least partial credit in the realm of being entertaining. The look and feel of the film is typical ’90s. Plus, Tony Todd is in it, and any ‘Candyman’ sighting is all right in my book! It’s a pretty faithful remake, so the ability to have original content is slim. However, the movie does score a few points for making some character changes that definitely takes the end of the movie in a different direction – not necessarily better, mind you, but…different.
An area where the film really suffers, unfortunately, is in the “realism” department. The dialogue is severely outdated (whether this is due to Savini and Romero trying to hold over as much of the 1968 “feel,” I can’t really say), with characters using insults like “dodos,” “knuckleheads,” and “yo-yos,” among other terrible lines that no rational human in the 1990s would ever realistically say. Zombies come to attack the farmhouse only when it is convenient for the story; 20 minutes of screen time can go by with characters talking (sometimes yelling) by an open window without attracting a single zombie, but when the plot says that it’s time for the undead to attack, they come out of nowhere in droves. Lots of typical “abrupt-just-to-make-you-jump” scares here.
Obviously, with a special effects guy as the director of the movie, you expect things to be all good in the effects and editing area of the film, right? While the gore that does make it to the screen is very good-looking (at ‘90s standards, mind you), there is a surprisingly small amount of extreme visual carnage, something we have all come to expect in a Savini film. According to the Making Of featurette and the Director’s Commentary, Savini was forced by the MPAA to cut a large amount of the gory scenes they originally filmed to avoid an X rating. What does make it on-screen is very well done, but there is definitely the feeling as you’re watching the film that there somehow should be more.
Overall, I’d give this film a 5 out of 10, 2.5 stars out of five, etc. – whatever scoring system you’d like to use, I’d give this remake an exactly average score, nothing spectacular but nothing terribly disappointing, which I think sums up the feeling of this movie nicely.