Night of the Living Dead (1990) Review

A remake of a classic can be a disaster waiting to happen. It doesn't matter whether its a shot for shot remake (Psycho) or a reworking (Bedazzled) the end result is usually a shadow of its former incarnation. The original Night of the Living Dead is widely revered in horror circles and indeed film circles as a timeless classic. With its tiny budget, its tight script and its bleak outlook, it remapped the horror genre when it was released in 1968. So what can a remake achieve? On release it was derided by most critics, who saw no need for a new version. All in all it is safe to say that I entered the cinema with more than a little trepidation…I was pleasantly surprised.

To all intents and purposes the film opens identically to the original. However those who have seen and know the original will be in for a surprise very early on. This sets the pattern for the rest of the film. The main structure and storyline remain the same. Several people find themselves holed up in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. They struggle amongst themselves as much as they do with the creatures outside. The script is close to the original, however the extra twists and turns certainly give us a fresh perspective on this well-known story. Given the changes involved I obviously don't want to give too much away, as this will ruin the surprises in store. This successful reworking and revitalisation of the script is understandable given the fact that George Romero himself wrote it. This isn't to say that all changes are for the better. In certain places you get the distinct impression it is being different for the sake of it.

The acting is for the most part as good as the original. Tony Todd makes a good replacement for Duane Jones in the role of Ben. Patricia Tallman takes on the much altered role of Barbara; changed so much in fact that comparisons with Judith O'Dea are pretty much pointless. The harshness of Harry is portrayed well by Tom Towles but his performance has a tendency to lapse into "ham" in places. Then again Karl Hardman was no Robert De Niro! The rest of the cast make the most of their parts and the tensions are conveyed very well by this pretty much unknown cast. The zombies acquit themselves admirably, stumbling fresh from the grave once again.

The other main difference (apart from colour) is the special effects. The makeup and prosthetics used by Everett Burrel and his team are top notch, as you'd expect from any film attached to Tom Savini. This is an area where understandably the original cannot hold a candle to the remake. Each zombie looks very different and repulsive. When they get hit, shot or bludgeoned its full-on gore all the way. Interestingly enough, these improvements didn't add as much to the experience as I expected, there is still something very haunting and terrifying about the original creatures. This is still a remarkable technical achievement though, and they are the most convincing "dead" I've seen in any of the four movies.

Tom Savini should be applauded here. I am sure he would be the first to admit that he is not a director (he says so himself on the commentary). However here he has done an admirable job in his directorial debut. His direction is assured and has plenty of energy. You can tell he really loves those zombies! Sometimes his shot composition can be a little stale when compared to Romero's original, but on the whole he should be pleased with himself.

As you can probably tell, I like this film. I don't love it though and I don't like it as much as the other three "Dead" films. Nonetheless, this film can be held up as an example of a "good" remake. It is flawed and it isn't as good as the original. Some have argued that there is no point in this remake. I don't see it this way, they have taken this classic and reworked it to give us a different slant on the original. I certainly enjoyed this film and will continue to do so. Not everyone agrees with me and maybe my love for zombie films has clouded my judgement here (but I don't think so). If nothing else it's certainly interesting to see an alternative version written by George Romero. For this reason alone the film is a success.

Technically the DVD is a pretty good one. Given its low budget and undeserved low regard I was expecting far worse.

Here we have an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer which is exactly as it was shown in theatres. The transfer is for the most part pin sharp with no noticeable artifacting. Given the fact the film occurs mainly at night the definition, black level and detail is very good. The colours are strong and the shadow detail is excellent. Unfortunately there is some evidence of print damage with regular black flecks appearing but these aren't in any way distracting. Overall I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the picture.

Sound is presented in its original Dolby surround mix. No 5.1 mix but I wasn't really expecting one. The sound is a good strong mix with plenty of bite when the shock moments occur. Dialogue is crisp and nicely up front, the music nicely atmospheric and those shock moments can be good and loud when they happen (especially in the graveyard scene).

The menu is very basic but very easy to navigate (just the way I like it). The range of subtitling available is extensive to say the least. Almost every language is covered, a U.N. mixer must.

As for Extras we have a good selection. First up, and always top of my list, is a Director's Commentary. This is very good, Savini seems comfortable talking about his creation and it shows. He is generally enthusiastic and informative giving us plenty of information and quite a few anecdotes. There are very few embarrassing pauses (which is a relief). He has a tendency to dwell on the bits the MPAA asked them to cut, which is only to be expected from a gore special effects maestro. We also have a featurette here presented in 4:3. It runs for a respectable 25 minutes and it's a very interesting piece on its own. In places it looks like a standard featurette but don't be deceived. It has a lot of information on the original, the remake, the cast, crew and Savini himself. But please don't watch it before the main feature as it gives away the entire plot and a lot of the twists. Next up is a trailer, which while awful is also hilarious as it comes complete with an inappropriate deep voice over. Finally we have some bog standard filmographies, which always strike me as being filler. Overall there are some great extras on this disc and it's an accomplished package worthy of any horror fan's collection.

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