Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Film Appreciation - Remake of the Dead: We're them and they're us

Cody Hamman shows Film Appreciation for one of the better horror remakes, Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead (1990).

We've talked about George A. Romero's immortal classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) a good bit over the two years of this blog's existence. Jay Burleson wrote an Appreciation article on it, I called it my favorite horror film of all time, have mentioned a documentary on its ghouls and a fan commentary by Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank of American Movie, met a lot of people involved with the movie at Cinema Wasteland conventions and had viewings of the movie at the Wasteland, as well as discussing other movies by Romero and cemetery ghoul Bill Hinzman. But, aside from one quick reference, I don't think there has been any talk of the 1990 remake. Since Burleson and I focused on the original film and Hinzman's zombie movie FleshEater last October, I figured that the remake's time had come this year.

The story behind the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead begins with a mistake made on the original film, an error of oversight that left a copyright notice off of the movie and, under the rules of the time, immediately entered the property into the public domain. Some (like Wasteland's Ken Kish) would argue that this fact has helped the film over the years, its multiple unauthorized home video releases and compensation-free television airings enabling it to be viewed by many more people than might have seen it under stricter guidelines, allowing it to garner even more fans... But that is little consolation to the people who made the movie, and its producers have tried for years to get their creative copyright noticed. Since they weren't seeing any residuals from the money others were making off of their movie, Romero and his cohorts eventually decided that one way to capitalize on the popularity of the property and get some control over the rights was to remake it.

Romero himself reworked and modernized the original script he had written with John A. Russo, but neither Romero nor Russo (who had directed The Booby Hatch and Midnight in the years since NOTLD '68) opted to direct it. That honor went to Romero's frequent collaborator, special effects artist and horror icon Tom Savini. Savini had proven himself by directing episodes of the horror anthology television series Tales from the Darkside and would be making his feature debut on NOTLD '90.

The remake, of course, retains the basic story of a group of people trapped in one farmhouse location by a seemingly endless stream of zombies, the recently dead who have returned to life for reasons unknown, driven by a hunger for human flesh. The characters are the same and, while it's not a scene-for-scene remake, they have pretty much the same dynamics and the story follows most of the same beats. But there are twists here and there, moments where the movie will nod at the expectations the audience has due to their familiarity with the original movie while it takes things in a slightly different direction.

A lot of the original players were involved with the remake and some make cameos in it. Russ Streiner, the original Johnny, appears as Sheriff McClelland, delivering the "They're dead, they're all messed up" line in an interview with reporter "Chilly" Billy Cardille, the same man who was doing the interviews in '68. Romero's voice is heard on a radio, keeping listeners updated on the situation. One notable absence is Bill Hinzman, who wasn't asked to be involved because at the time there was still some hard feelings over the fact that he had gone forward with making FleshEater, capitalizing on his cemetery ghoul character, despite Romero and Russo's objections to the idea.

One thing Romero did in his rewrite of the script was add answers to logic questions that might have come up during the '68 film - for example, in the original, the character Ben was able to easily find a good amount of lumber stored away in the house for him to use to board up the windows and doors. Here, the house has been undergoing remodeling, explaining why there's so much wood to go around, and even then the characters really have to search for things to block the entrances with. Romero also adds some dimensions to the characters, like giving the character Tom a personal connection to the farmhouse - it's his uncle's place. In '68, the house was just a random location that all of the characters seemingly just happened to stumble across. The biggest changes are made to Barbara, here played by Patricia Tallman of Romero's Knightriders. Over the years, Romero had become somewhat ashamed that Barbara had been so weak in the original film, sinking into a catatonic state for most of the running time after the cemetery attack that opens the movie. He attempted to make up for that in the new version by putting Barbara through a transformation; she starts off as mousy and weak, but by the end she's become hard-edged and strong, toting guns and wearing boots, reminiscent of the Sarah character in Day of the Dead.

Like in the original film, the biggest threat to the safety of the people gathered in the isolated farmhouse are the people themselves and their inability to get along or agree on any compromises or course of action. Instead of being rational, the characters - particularly Ben and family man Harry Cooper - butt heads and argue over everything, both considering themselves "boss" of the situation. As bad as the in-fighting got in the first version, here it's even worse, the characters are more volatile, angry, high-strung, and unreasonable, and Harry is even more unpleasant, fuelled by cowardice.

The zombies are nastier looking in this movie, usually seeping some kind of gross substance and almost all of them having some kind of wound appliance to their face. They're a bigger immediate threat in the remake as well. In the original, Ben was able to get the house boarded up by himself rather quickly, making the zombies largely a danger that was lurking outside a house that was pretty well fortified. Here, the boarding is a group effort that continues throughout the entire film, everything that happens in the house coinciding with the hammering of boards and doors into place. That keeps the pace up and keeps the zombies busting in through entrances that haven't been covered yet, but to spend much of the movie having the characters deal with an ultimately useless endeavor does sort of feel like a waste of time.

The original film moves at a speed much more preferable to me, and I wish the remake would've taken more chances to slow down for a while, because in the quieter moments it does achieve a very creepy tone and atmosphere. The quieter moments also really enable Tony Todd to shine in the role of Ben. Todd is given some great scenes to work with, delivering a teary-eyed monologue about his experience before he reached the farmhouse, and a moment where we see that killing zombies deeply disturbs him, after all, they are still people in some way despite their grotesqueries. After dispatching a couple of them, Ben - kneeling on the ground - screams to the heavens, damning the zombies for putting him through this, then crosses himself.

To this day, NOTLD '90 is the only feature film that Tom Savini has directed, and he didn't have the greatest time making it. While the original was made by a group of friends who were investing in the project themselves, this time the budget was bigger, and there were more fingers in the pie, more people giving opinions and striking down ideas. The movie ran into budgetary and scheduling limitations, and Savini has said that he was only able to do about 30% (I believe was the number) of what he wanted to do. He had much artier ideas than appear in the final film, scenes that would've toyed with perception, an idea for the beginning that would've had the film opening in black and white like the original, then transitioning through sepia before reaching color. Savini also had to drop special effects, and he was not happy with the film's score by composer Paul McCollough, who was brought on the project by John A. Russo.

I quite like McCollough's score myself, particularly the track that accompanies the opening drive into the cemetery. I also really like the cinematography by Frank Prinzi, I think the movie has a great look. Oddly, for a recent limited edition Blu-ray release, Prinzi oversaw the transfer and chose to lay a blue hue over the picture, making scenes that are clearly meant to take place in broad daylight appear to be happening at twilight. Even after the segue into full night at the 21 minute point, the blue hue remains. That change has disappointed a lot of fans who bought the Blu-ray expecting to see the movie as they knew it. I have a copy of that Blu-ray, but haven't watched it yet. The picture may not be ideal, but on the bright side we do have a collector's piece that sold out very quickly. Maybe someday there will be another Blu-ray release without the blue look.

One of the things I like the most about the movie are the locations. Savini found some great places for the story to play out in, the cemetery at the beginning is in a wonderfully picturesque location, and the farmhouse property is downright awesome. I love that house and property and hope to visit it one day. I know fellow fans regularly cruise by to take pictures, and it does seem kind of awkward to be so into a house in which people are still living out their regular lives, but it's so cool looking... The most ideal situation would be to attend an outdoor "rolling roadshow" screening of the movie there. The area is so hilly, the property even appears to have natural stadium seating.

The remake reached theatre screens on October 19, 1990, and despite the hope of those involved that they might make some money off of the title this time, I don't think the movie did all that well at first. I don't know how it was received at the time, but over the years it has gathered a solid following of its own. I was aware of it when it came out, but didn't see it, and for some reason never even rented it on VHS. I didn't see the movie until sometime in late '94 or '95, after I recorded it off The Movie Channel in the middle of the night. As soon as I got home from school the next day, I hit play on the VCR.

I thought the movie was alright, but even then I felt that there was too much time spent on boarding up the house, the nonstop action was not what I was looking for. But I kept watching it over the years, it was always in rotation with Romero's trilogy, in fact I had Night '68, Dawn, Day, and Night '90 all recorded on the same video tape. I think it was even an 8 hour tape with Return of the Living Dead on there too.

The film gradually won me over with its charms, I hold it in much higher esteem now than I did in the early years of my viewing it. I get an urge to watch it quite often, especially on particularly dark summer nights in the country, when its creepy tone goes perfectly with the real life atmosphere. Even more often than I watch the movie itself, I listen to the DVD commentary by Tom Savini. That commentary is one of my favorites, largely due to the way Savini shares the information in it, speaking in a voice so soft-toned that it's like he's telling stories around a campfire. That commentary has become like a familiar bedtime story to me now, I love putting it on and drifting off to sleep listening to it.

I've met some of the '90 actors over the years and gotten signatures from Savini and Tom Towles, this film's Harry Cooper, on the DVD cover. I've met Bill Moseley, the '90 Johnny, a couple times, but didn't think to have him sign the NOTLD DVD, I was entirely focused on Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 while in his presence. Meeting Towles was a pleasant surprise, he tends to play such unlikeable characters and yet in real life he's a really nice guy, very appreciative of his fans.

Twenty-two years on, it's kind of amazing to think that as much time has gone by since the release of NOTLD '90 as there had been between it and the release of the original film. The remake may not be all that Savini wanted to be, but even so, it is a fine film. NOTLD '68's public domain status has enabled a lot of people to take advantage of the property and put out inferior products with the title on it, but NOTLD '90 isn't one of those. It's definitely a worthy companion to the classic.

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