Night of the Living Dead (1990) **Ĺ
George Romero hadnít intended to call his reinvention of the zombie movie Night of the Living Dead. The script he wrote with John Russo was entitled The Night of Anubis, but it didnít take long for Romero to notice that nobody he talked to ever got the reference. (Iíve got my own nerdy objection to The Night of Anubis, too, so Iím glad the title ended up getting scrapped. Anubis wasnít really a death god in the sense that Romero and Russo seem to have intended. He was more like the customs officer of the afterlife, making sure nobody ever smuggled in any contraband sins.) The completed film, meanwhile, was briefly called Night of the Flesh Eaters, but distributor Walter Reade Jr. evidently considered that too lurid, and had it changed at the last minute to the familiar handle. Unfortunately, when the new title card was drawn up, the graphic artist responsible left out the copyright notice. US intellectual property law in those days stipulated that a film was protected only if it bore a valid copyright notice upon its first public exhibition. Night of the Living Dead didnít, so it went directly into the public domain. Needless to say, everyone involved missed out on a tremendous amount of moneymaking thanks to the slip-up (and that was on top of the usual con-jobs by sub-distributors and whatnot), and various people have been trying various means of damage control ever since. New content added to public-domain works is copyrightable, and most of the efforts to gain or regain rights to Night of the Living Dead have followed that approach. Hal Roach Studios, Anchor Bay, and Legend Films each released colorized editions on home video. There have been at least two or three parody versions with overdubbed dialogue tracks. And of course there was that ď30th Anniversary EditionĒ that nobody liked, with the added scenes of Bill Hinzman reprising his role as the cemetery zombie and the preacher who prays himself clean of contagion after being bitten. There was also one much more ambitious effort to undo the harm caused by Night of the Living Deadís misadventures in the public domain. The Walter Reade Organizationís copyright carelessness partly explains why the closest thing we have to a George Romero zombie movie for the 1990ís is a remake of the one that started it all, directed by Tom Savini from a retooled screenplay by Romero himself.
In plot terms, Saviniís Night of the Living Dead sticks very close to the original. It begins with siblings Barbara (Patricia Tallman, from Knightriders and Monkey Shines) and Johnny (Bill Moseley, of Crash and Burn and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) driving 200 miles into the bowels of nowhere to put a flower arrangement on their estranged motherís grave, bickering all the while. And just like before, this unhappy ritual is intruded upon by a walking dead man who smashes Johnnyís skull against one of the headstones and chases Barbara to Johnnyís caró which of course she canít start, because the keys are in her slain brotherís pocket. Barbara escapes by releasing the parking brake and allowing the Mercedes to coast down the steep hill on which it was parked, then seeks shelter in the first house she comes to. Unfortunately, the owner of the place is dead and hungry, and several more corpses are shambling up the lawn.
Thatís when Ben (Tony Todd, from Voodoo Dawn and Penance) drives up, and helps Barbara fight off her attackers. The racket they make subsequently fortifying the house against the gathering crowd of zombies draws more refugees up from the cellar where theyíd been hiding out: insecure jerk Harry Cooper (Tom Towles, of Fortress and Rob Zombieís Halloween), redneck doofus Tom (William Butler, from Watchers III and Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood), and Tomís halfwit girlfriend, Judy Rose (Katie Finnerman). Cooperís wife and child, Helen (McKee Anderson) and Sarah (Heather Mazur), are down in the basement, too, but we wonít be meeting them for a while. Sarah is too sick from an infected zombie bite to be moved, and it would be an intolerable affront to Harryís masculinity if Helen were to do anything as rebelliously independent as to come upstairs on her own initiative. It turns out that the house belongs to Tomís uncle (the fat zombie whose head Barbara stove in with a fireplace poker earlier), and that Tom might be able to find the keys to the gas pump in the backyard. Thatís important, because Benís truck is running on fumes, and he knows from nasty personal experience that theyíll have to make it a lot farther than nearby Evans City to reach permanent safety.
Talk of making a break for it (and of further strengthening the house against attack in the meantime) triggers the familiar squabble between Ben and Harry over whether to pursue the formerís rather ambitious plan, or to wait for rescue down in the cellar like the Coopers and their hosts had been doing before. This time, however, thereís a third option on the table, devised by Barbara after careful observation of the zombies through the windows that havenít been boarded up yet. As slow, clumsy, and stupid as those fuckers are, she sees no reason why she and her fellows shouldnít just grab Uncle Regeís carbine and shotgun, and walk right past them until a sturdier shelter or more reliable transportation presents itself. The groupís inability to settle rationally on any of those possible courses of action gets just about all of them killed before sunrise.
So if the plots are virtually identical, how does this Night of the Living Dead distinguish itself from its predecessor? Itís a matter of characterization, mostly. Tony Toddís Ben is more of a hothead than the Duane Jones version, and the new Harry Cooper, if you can believe this, is an even bigger asshole (although intriguingly, he still isnít overtly a racist). That changes the shape of the struggle between them for leadership of the refugees. Before, it was a contest between reason and pure animal terror, made disturbing in the end when it turned out that pure animal terror had the right idea all along. In the remake, though, Ben vs. Harry is nothing but a dick-fight. Here, itís Barbara who acts as the voice of reason, and she is rewarded for keeping her head about her by living to tell the tale. The experience costs her both her faith in humanity and arguably her membership card for civilized society, but she gains in return a degree of strength, confidence, and resourcefulness that will serve her well in the event that this rising of the dead goes the same way as the one from the 60ís. Thatís rather frustrating, because it makes the 90ís Night of the Living Dead so much more conventional than the original. And because the self-defeating behavior of Ben and Harry is so stridently masculine, the totality with which Barbara ends up being right about everything sneaks a cheesy note of pseudo-feminist gender essentialism into a movie that has gone miles out of its way to ensure that its heroine is nothing like any stereotype of womanhood ever held by anybody. I hope the remade Night of the Living Dead did indeed earn Romero and company back some of the money they didnít get the first time around, because otherwise its only justification for existing is a re-creation of a shot that the director dropped from the original out of a sense that heíd pushed more than enough of the audienceís buttons already. It comes near the end, when Barbara is touring the anti-zombie posseís encampment; youíll know it when you see it.