Several people have told Phil they think Tom Savini’s NOTLD 1990 is a good horror movie. He holds them in high suspicion. As we come closer to the end of our Tom Savini retrospective, here’s Phil’s take on his only stint as director.
Remaking a classic is always dangerous territory. If a movie is generally regarded as a masterpiece in its genre, why bother to risk alienating fans by telling its story again? Usually, there’s a rationale behind a remake. Sometimes remakes update the story for the current generation (the 1970s version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) or to take advantage of advances in filmmaking technology (Peter Jackson’s recent update of KING KONG). Sometimes a remake actually advances the concept of the original and turns out to be a classic itself (Carpenter’s THE THING and Cronenberg’s THE FLY come to mind).
And then there’s the remake to recoup a lost copyright.
Welcome to Tom Savini’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Any horror fan in his right mind in 1990 probably thought that a newer NOTLD, with special effects wizard Tom Savini helming a script by the godfather of the modern zombie himself, George Romero, could only amount to a gory classic. With more blood in living color and some profound, updated social commentary, this remake should’ve been a masterpiece in the making. And yet, it fails on all cylinders.
It’s important to discuss the reason for that, before examining the disappointing results. The makers of the original NOTLD left the copyright symbol off the prints when they changed the film’s title. So though the movie made millions and was on the midnight movie and drive-in circuit for years, Romero and the others saw scant profits. And so every so often, one or more of them tried to recoup those losses with variations on the original. Enter Romero’s motivation for writing this remake. His choice of Savini as director comes as no surprise. He’d gotten the f/x master to direct a few effective episodes of his television series TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, and really wanted to give him a chance to direct a motion picture, which Savini had been anxious to do for many years. Sadly, together the two created a flick that as it goes along varies wildly from the original masterpiece, and pales in comparison to the power of it .
Romero’s first mistake was remolding Barbra in the likeness of Ripley from the ALIEN movies. Critics and fans have been savaging her for 40+ years now, and Romero is still apologizing for her actions, going so far as to have his characters in DIARY OF THE DEAD mock her character type. What they miss is that Barbra’s catatonic state in the original is a completely natural reaction to watching a ghoul attack her brother and try to eat her, as the world hurls toward unhinged chaos. Plus, there are two other females in the besieged farmhouse who don’t have her sleepwalking reaction at all, so there’s a spectrum. Also, because her body’s functioning without a mind behind it, I always thought it neat that Barbara is another example of a zombie. But Romero gave in to public pressure and crafted a new Barbara.
She starts off much like the old one, but about halfway through the film, she gets up and takes action. Is she more with the times, and a better representative of liberated women? Sure. Is she a better character? No. As she strips off her schoolmarm dress and exchanges it for wife beater, trousers and requisite bandolier, she becomes a caricature of John J. Rambo. The more masculine Barbara becomes the protagonist, making Ben much less prominent in the outcome.
In rewriting, Romero also changes some events, and the fates of many of the characters. This starts early, with a swerve in things at the graveyard that should keep the audience on its toes. Though the basic plot of characters trapped inside a farmhouse by ghouls remains the same, it now reduces Ben to an impotent state of bickering with Harry Cooper. And when Barbara leaves the farmhouse, it takes away the entire power of the setting. Romero’s greatest alterations are reserved for the ending, which is markedly different from the original. It removes the nihilistic view, replacing it with a cheap “let’s kill the prick even though he’s not actually a zombie” ending that may have audiences cheering, but should have them questioning themselves for applauding. Maybe we should question Savini; when I asked him if the changes were all his idea, he said, “Of course. I came up with the changes. Because that’s what a director does.” Whatever combination of director and writer, none of the altered material make this a good film.
Savini sure does coax some interesting acting out of his cast. It’s played way over the top from all parties involved, and has solid actors Tom Towles and a pre-CANDYMAN Tony Todd in an epic test of jaw strength, to see who can chew the most scenery. Towles is a cartoonish prick, given the material, and he’s wildly entertaining. Patricia Tallman goes from bland to catatonic to John Wayne, a complicated character arc that she handles competently, though it’s still silly.
The other actors, including William Butler from every horror franchise in the 1980s, aren’t really given much to do, and don’t really create interesting characters. Bill Moseley provides the best acting in the film, with his funny takes on Johnny’s lines, and he made me wish Johnny was in the movie more.
Even with a not-so-great script and overacting, the film might be tolerable if not for its worst element. That honor belongs to the special effects. For years I thought Savini did the special effects for this film, but his directorial duties forced him to turn the reins over to John Vulich. Vulich was a longtime apprentice to Savini, and given his work on NOTLD 1990, not nearly the talent. His effects are so obviously effects (check out the scene where an obvious dummy of Johnny hits the tombstone, or when Barbara whacks Uncle Rege with the fire poker), and bad ones at that, they pull me right out of suspension of disbelief. And once suspension goes, it ruins any horror film for its audience. Vulich wasn’t ready for this job, and it brings the movie down. It also hurts the film that, following the unrated DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD, major studio Columbia shot for an R rating with this one. In an age long before the MPAA allowed the vulgar bloodshed of SAW, Vulich and Savini couldn’t get away with the more gruesome gore that Romero’s films displayed.
Savini waited for years to get a chance to direct a film. In fact, to this day, this is his only feature film as director. So I thought it would be interesting to get his take on the commentary track. Considering he’s always lively and has interesting anecdotes on the tracks I’ve heard him do for Romero’s films, I was underwhelmed here. Yes, he gives plenty of background information here, but the track is thoroughly boring. He barely addresses the controversy with the MPAA over getting an R rating, or the behind the scenes troubles with producers and the like. Had he discussed these, perhaps I would have been entertained.
The disc also has a featurette about the history of the project, which includes Russ Streiner, Savini and Vulich, among others. It features the typical behind-the-scenes stuff, and a few deleted scenes (but why weren’t they cut into the film for release as a director’s cut?). It’s almost half an hour long. It’s decent, but you could skip it and not miss much. A few trailers round out the disc.
Long before this age of horror remakes, Romero and Savini thought it a solid idea to make NOTLD 1990. For Romero, it was an opportunity to recoup money on his seminal first film. For Savini, it was his one chance to direct a motion picture. I can’t fault either of them for their ambitions here. But I do fault their final product, an update that is a pale shadow of one of the greatest horror flicks of all time.