Barbara and her brother Johnny are visiting their aunt’s grave where they find themselves attacked by a violent man. Barbara escapes with her life and runs to an old farmhouse nearby where she takes shelter. Shortly afterwards, a man named Ben arrives and tells her stories of what is happening across the state. It appears that the dead are returning to life and attacking the living. More survivors are found but it isn’t long before tension begins to rise amongst the group as to the best way to proceed. Soon the group find themselves trapped in the farmhouse by an ever-growing number of zombies outside.
Long before Hollywood ran out of decent script writers and decided to just remake everything under the sun, legendary horror director George A. Romero set about remaking his classic 1968 horror hit. Brought about in part due to the fact that Romero saw little profit from the original due to copyright issues (the copyright wasn’t issued and so the film is in the public domain meaning he gets no royalties) and that other studios were looking to do a remake, Night of the Living Dead works far better than it has any right to do given that it’s a very faithful remake. Dismissed by almost everyone upon release, Night of the Living Dead has since gained a cult following – maybe it’s due to the fact that the majority of remakes these days are terrible and so this stands out a country mile! Or maybe it’s due to the fact that the majority of people who were involved with the original were involved here too, adding that extra heart and soul into proceedings.
Night of the Living Dead is an excellent remake which updates the story to a more contemporary setting for a whole new generation to fear. Sticking fairly closely to the original’s narrative with the introductions of Barbara, Ben, the farmhouse and the impending zombie apocalypse, there are some new twists and turns thrown in to keep things fresh. It’s nowhere near as creepy as the original, no doubt its effect watered down considerably given the vast number of zombie films that have been released over the years, but there is still an overwhelming sense of dread. Even though, as hardened horror fans, we know what to expect from a zombie film, the shuffling flesh eaters still pose quite the menace and threat. As time passes through the night, the tension and suspense really ratchets up a couple of notches as the characters become more stressed and the zombies become greater in number. Regardless of whether you’ve seen the original, you’ll know that things aren’t going to turn out well for the survivors. The sense that no one knows what is going on also adds to the confusion and I’m glad no explanation is added to the zombie apocalypse. You don’t need to bother about the why, just the fact that it’s present.
Make-up effects legend Tom Savini made his directorial debut for this one and he does a good job of keeping everything flowing. The pace is good and there’s not an awful lot of filler, though some of the scenes involving the verbal conflict between Ben and Harry tend to drag out a little longer than needed. Ironically, it’s in his speciality field where the film fails to live up to usual expectations. There’s not a lot of gore on show here, though this was down to the special effects team wanting to keep things restrained out of respect for the original. The zombie make-up is the stand-out, with a number of featured zombies looking the part, particularly the memorable cemetery ghoul and autopsy corpse at the beginning.
Romero’s changes to the original script come mainly in the form of the characters, ably portrayed by a solid cast. Patricia Tallman is decent as Barbara, though in this post-feminist world the script has changed her character from frightened, screaming girl-in-distress to Ripley-esque wonder woman who learns how to shoot and take care of herself in no time at all. Tony Todd stars in the role of Ben, a character who caused a bit of a stir back in 1968. Much focus was given to Duane Jones’ appearance as Ben in the original – a black actor being cast as the hero was not exactly something new at the time but if you read any academic literature that talks about Night of the Living Dead, then this is always highlighted as important. Jones was cast because he was the best person for the role, not because of his skin colour. Likewise, Tony Todd has been cast not because of the colour of his skin but because he’s a great actor with a powerful, commanding voice and a towering, somewhat menacing, stature. He beat off some stiff competition for the role including Laurence Fishburne and Ving Rhames. Todd’s first appearance in the film sees him wielding a ‘hook’ in his hand – foreshadowing his iconic portrayal of the title character in Candyman two years later.
Night of the Living Dead is an overlooked horror classic. With enough homages and certainly more than enough changes to keep audiences anticipating the next twist, it adds a modern slant to the original and brings Romero’s nightmarish vision of the zombie apocalypse right up to date.
Shamefully, I have to add that I saw this version first and so wasn’t coming in with any preconceived notions about what it should be. Both this and the original are, on their own merits, excellent horror films with enough shocks, scares, suspense and satire to keep any horror fans happy.