Happy Halloween! The first year I ever did this list I had to end it with one of the greatest horror films in American Cinema, Night of the Living Dead! The story of how the film rights to this film became public domain is notorious! Originally called Night of the Flesh Eaters and trademarked as such, upon release the title was changed to Night of the Living Dead with no trademark and every bit of money Romero and crew could've made would no longer go to them. Anyone could show the film without paying for it, anyone could use reels from the film without paying for it and any aspect of the film could be taken to do whatever the public wanted to do with it. Two decades almost pass with everyone ripping off the movie, showing it in theaters without paying, and taking scenes and sound bites from the film to put in other movies without any recognition or compensation for George. In the nineties, long time collaborator and special FX artist on all of George's future films, Tom Savini came to George with the idea of modernizing his immortal classic with Savini FX and changing some of the character dynamics while still retaining the socio/political commentary and power the original held. George gave the green light and busted out a script with George and original writer John A Russo in the producer's chair and Tom in the directors, they began production of the remake of Night of the Living Dead, in hopes of finally gaining the recognition and compensation the maestros so deserved.
This new rendition is of course in color as we open to both Barbara and Johnnie, this time around played by Patricia Tallman and Bill Moseley, heading to the cemetery to visit their mother's grave. With the constant bickering between the two on the car ride we can tell that their relationship with their mother was obviously strained as Johnnie constantly talks bad about their mother which greatly bothers Barbara. Johnnie keeps taunting her about ghouls in the cemetery so much more in this version than in the original which foreshadows what's to come so much more. Savini throws a few curve balls at us as we expect things to go one way with characters in the beginning especially with the initial zombie attack which forces Barbara to run off into the woods until she sees the farm which she dives into for protection. She comes face to face with several zombies and is alone until Ben, played by Candyman's Tony Todd, arrives in a truck mowing down zombies who makes his way into the farmhouse and holds up with Barbara. Todd's Ben is just as action ready but much more regretful of his actions, cursing the Lord for what he's done. Barbara is still in a shocked state and is very reminiscent of the original Barbara's catatonia, however this Barbara can fight when provoked. Ben even calls her out on it saying, he's seen her fight and she needs to help him fight. She stays silent as Ben talks about where he came from when the outbreak occurred, all the different theories trying to rationalize the irrational. How he discovered the kill shot, in a diner where he saw the only thing take down the zombies was a shot to the head, that's how they stop, "the hell on earth." Phones are dead and the world outside slowly crumbles as Ben and Barbara are isolated in this house searching for weapons to defend themselves. As they search they discover a family and a boyfriend and girlfriend have been hiding in the basement terrified. There's Tom, William Butler who weirdly enough directed Gingerdead Man 3, his girlfriend Judy Rose and the Coopers; Helen, Harry and their daughter Sarah. Harry played by famous character and genre actor Tom Towles. They all argue on what to do, where they came from and what's going on. The Cooper's daughter Sarah has been bitten and is seriously ill, but no one knows why. The Coopers stay hidden in the basement as everyone else fortifies the house from invading zombies. Barbara finally speaks up and decides they need to leave and fight they're way out. Unfortunately they need to get to some back up gas that's locked up in order to get Ben's truck going again. Survive, and get the truck going so they can finally leave, but can they even work together to achieve this?
In the original Night of the Living Dead, the character of Ben was a huge deal, being one of the first heroic leading African American men in a movie and gave great weight to the ending of the original film with it's horrifying visuals of what is done to him. Here Todd still gives great weight and importance to the character but Romero never truly repeats himself. In place of the African American rights we are given subtle tones of feminism. Tallman's Barbara becomes a true heroine, pulling herself out of her shock unlike the original Barbara, rising to the occasion. Often coming up with the ideas that save the group and actually doing something rather than arguing with the rest of the group. She is the voice of reason when the others ultimately fall apart and turn on each other. Even Judy Rose rises to the occasion and helps the group. That's not to say Todd doesn't still bring the greatness of Ben to life, if anything Tallman and Todd compliment each other perfectly as survivors and it makes the movie even more satisfying as Romero's second layer of commentary on the woman's place in horror as the true survivor is added.
Tom Towles is a man of many faces and characters. He has stated before that he never uses the same accents or characteristics for any character, always picking characters that are completely different from one another so as to never play the same kind of character twice. While repulsive in Both Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer and Night of the Living Dead, they are two different types of repulsive. Crazed redneck in portrait, he goes more abusive husband in this who has lost control of everything and is obviously threatened by the power shift from man to woman as the group follows Ben and Barbara more, including his wife. It is too threatening to him and that's what ultimately drives him insane. Towles shows that progression amazingly with his facial expressions and delivery.
The ending is something that has always echoed in the annals of horror as one of the most shocking and horrifying things in horror cinema. I of course am speaking of Ben's survival in the original film, only to be shot down by trigger happy rednecks after surviving the night as they think him a zombie. The first time I saw that, my mouth was agape and I couldn't believe what I was seeing as we watch them carry him away on meat hooks and burn his body. It's one of the most hopeless endings ever more so because of the fact that it was the humans themselves that killed our hero. Once again, Romero does not repeat himself. Barbara is the one to encounter Ben in the end with the rednecks. I will not say what happens but it is so ultimately satisfying to see Barbara pass judgement on those she deems worse than the zombies. You will not see it coming and it's done amazingly parallel to the original ending. Sadly this film did not get the recognition or compensation it so deserved and was ungraciously tossed aside, but I feel in this day and age this remake can speak volumes to our society as a piece of art and how to do a beautifully crafted remake. I could go on about the zombies, but at this pint in the list, you should know by now if I say the name Savini, you will receive nothing short of excellence in practical FX. Thank you everyone for reading all month long and wait until you see what I have prepared for next year!
Happy Happy Halloween! Halloween!
Happy Happy Halloween Silver Shamrock!
Artwork by Jeff Muncy