Savini’s Night of the Living Dead: Re-Visiting the Divisive Remake

Aside from John Carpenter, Hollywood has re-imagined George A Romero’s work more frequently than just about any other horror filmmaker. To date, we’ve re-visited Day of the Dead twice with diminishing returns (see Day of the Dead: Bloodline). Zack Snyder got more right than wrong with his “fast zombies’” 2004 Dawn of the Dead. And Night of the Living Dead got a 3D update in 2006, but the less said about it, the better. Somewhere in between in these remakes and legitimate sequels, Tom Savini turned in his own version of Night of the Living Dead in 1990. Apparently, Romero himself tasked Savini with the remake, even re-writing his original screenplay. As remakes go, audiences and critics were split, though consensus has lightened over the years.

Night of the Living Dead Remake Plays it Safe With the Material

Given its well-earned status as a classic horror movie, you’d be right to argue that Night of the Living Dead (NotLD) didn’t need a remake. In spite of its low budget, Romero’s original zombie movie still has genuine shocks and scares. Arguably, the movie’s low budget just adds to the overall horror experience. Nevertheless, Romero’s penchant for social commentary in his undead movies also made NotLD an ideal candidate for a remake. Yes, Snyder sidestepped any serious social critique in his 2004 remake. But some of the best recent zombie movies have embraced the undead as a critical lens for social ills. And with over 20 years separating the original from Savini’s remake, and Romero re-visiting his own screenplay, the 1990 NotLD had an opportunity to take the basic premise in new, potentially interesting directions.

In fact, the 1990 NotLD makes few changes to Romero’s story, even keeping much of the dialogue intact.

Instead, Savini’s NotLD plays it safe, following the original story closely. Very closely. In fact, the 1990 NotLD makes few changes to Romero’s story, even keeping much of the dialogue intact. Of course, this isn’t entirely surprising. Based on various sources, Romero’s intent was either to cash in on money never seen from the original and/or to capitalize before someone else did their own remake. And there are some welcome updates. Savini’s early cemetery swerve on a classic scene, for instance, delivers a fun scare. In particular, the 1990 NotLD’s updates to Patricia Tallman’s “Barbara” were necessary. The 1968 catatonic and helpless “Barbara” had no place in NotLD by 1990. Other characters would have benefited from some updates. Country bumpkins Tom and Judy Rose feel like they’re fresh out of Green Acres. And Tom Towles’ “Harry Cooper” is reduced to a one-dimensional curmudgeon.

Savini’s Make-Up Effects as Good as Expected, But Something is Missing

Stan Winston. Rick Baker. Greg Nicotero. Rob Bottin. Jack Pierce. And Tom Savini. Horror fans know these names. They’re among some of the best make-up artists in the genre. Not surprisingly then, Savini’s NotLD remake ups the ante in one critical regard – its make-up effects are outstanding. And the zombie make-up holds up well even after 30 years. Savini’s “undead” look every bit the part of animated, rotting corpses as one would expect. No CGI effects – this is pure craftsmanship. Clearly, there’s a gritty realism found in the remake absent in Romero’s original classic. Moreover, some of Savini’s zombies have some cheeky fun. Expect a little more full-frontal zombie action and an occasionally morbid dedication to realism, such as an “autopsy zombie” complete with a stitched-up Y-incision.

Night of the Living Dead Remake Quickens the Pace at Expense Of Some Focus

If Savini’s remake diverges from the 1968 original in any other way, it’s the pacing. Though Romero’s classic was by no means a slow-burn, Savini quickens the flow of his movie. In particular, the farmhouse siege rarely lets things slow down, capturing some of the desperation of its characters. There’s a bit more of a sense of urgency here. Of course, the quicker pacing comes at the expense of some minor exposition and world-building. Missing are the news broadcast scenes that offered a bleak glimpse beyond the farmhouse. Though minor bits of Romero’s movie, they tapped into the same sense of panic that Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast created. As a result, some of the original’s atmosphere is lost. Savini’s ending also feels like a more generic statement on humanity as compared to Romero’s more focused critique.

Night of the Living Dead a Good, If Unremarkable, Retread

How much you enjoy Savini’s remake of the Romero classic likely depends on what you wanted. If you were hoping for a version that hued closely to the original, while offering upgrades on zombie effects, then you’re likely to enjoy the 1990 remake. Most of the remake’s upgrades are superficial and, by today’s standards, may already feel outdated. But Romero handpicked Savini for a reason. And Savini knows the material and his way around a camera. Not surprisingly then, his NoTLD is a technically sound update. Comparatively, if you wanted Savini to take risks with Romero’s premise – maybe even go in a new direction – the 1990 NotLD may disappoint.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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