Trick or Treat 2020: Two Cents Spends a NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (not that one, the other one)

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

There are countless great horror films, but very few of these can be said to have invented an entire subgenre. But George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead did just that, cobbling together a few classic tropes to arrive at the modern conception of the zombie, a subgenre we are still enjoying/suffering through to this day.

But for all the success that Two Cents alum Night of the Living Dead achieved, its creators never saw much in the way of actual financial reward. Due to various distributor shenanigans (and an oversight over the copyright), Night of the Living Dead lapsed into the public domain.

So Romero decided to remake his own movie and this time actually get paid for his efforts and imagination. Romero re-wrote his own screenplay and hired his longtime collaborator Tom Savini, the Mozart of pulverizing human flesh, to direct.

Night of the Living Dead ’90, as we’ll call it, for the most part is a faithful redo of the story from the original film. Once again a young woman named Barbara (Patricia Tallman) has a visit to the cemetery interrupted by some flesh-eating ghouls newly risen from the grave. Barbara flees to a farmhouse where she encounters the heroic Ben (Tony Todd, pre-Candyman). The two quickly discover another cache of survivors including the tempestuous Harry (Tom Towles) and his injured daughter. As the hungry dead close in, it becomes clear that the true threat to survival isn’t the zombies outside, it’s the living inside.

Savini and Romero do play around with the original film, beyond the obvious updates of the movie now being in color with grislier ghouls. The female characters are now much more assertive, particularly Barbara, who spent most of the original Night catatonic but this time out is a cool and collected co-lead alongside Todd’s Ben.

Also updated is Night’s apocalyptically grim conclusion, a final series of images that traumatized an entire generation who thought they were getting a fun night of spooky thrills at the picture show. Savini’s ending isn’t a “happy” alternative, if anything it could be argued to be even more nihilistic, but it does offer a different take on the Living Dead series’ ongoing dour perspective on the human race.

So, which Night of the Living Dead would you rather spend the night with? Let’s ask the team.

Next Week’s Pick

Rich people suck.

You know this, we know, and the makers of Ready or Not found an especially fun/nasty story with which to make this well-established but still quite valuable point.

Ready or Not is streaming on HBO Max.

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at) anytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests

Trey Lawson:

The original Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a damn near perfect horror movie. Somehow, miraculously, Tom Savini’s 1990 remake manages to stand on its own, even if it doesn’t entirely live up to that classic. It doesn’t hurt that George Romero wrote the updated screenplay, based on the original by himself and John A. Russo. Plus we get the benefit of some effectively grisly early 90s practical effects. The cast is very good too — especially Tony Todd as Ben. And it’s always nice to see Bill Moseley being his usual weird self, even if just for a few minutes.

The big change in this version is that it takes a somewhat more feminist (in early 90s terms at least) slant with a more proactive Barbara played by Star Trek & Babylon 5 alum Patricia Tallman,, and of course a drastically different third act/ending. And this is overall definitely a good thing — Barbara’s “hysteria” and near-catatonia in the original is probably the weakest, most dated thing about it.

All of that said, the original is still better. The remake may have higher production values, but it loses some of the urgency and immediacy of Romero’s almost documentary-style filmmaking. It also loses the original’s utterly bleak gut punch of an ending with all of its (intentional or not) racial subtexts. But on its own terms, Night of the Living Dead ’90 is a solid, entertaining, and dare I say underrated horror flick. It’s not the pop cultural powerhouse of the original, but that’s okay. It’s a fine film in its own right, and I’m glad I got a chance to revisit it.

Verdict: Treat (@T_Lawson)

Austin Wilden:

Confession time: I had never seen any of the late George A. Romero’s “Of the Dead” movies before last week. I’d seen them discussed plenty, like in the documentary Horror Noire, and caught bits of Zack Snyder’s Dawn remake on TV, but never any of the originals. When I saw the 1990 remake of the original on the docket for this year’s Trick or Treat, I figured “may as well” and watched the original three movies over the weekend to have proper context for how that series evolved before diving into the remake.

And those are some damn good movies!

Night showed the promise of a young director working on a nothing budget to make the most effective movie he could, with one of the most iconic endings of any horror movie (but I’ll get back to that!) Dawn reflected a decade of experience since then and an increased social conscience in its satire drawing on the war in Vietnam, racial injustice, and consumerism. Day showed what happens to the few left living when their options have finally run out and are forced to accept that the world at large belongs to the dead now. All of them boosted by fantastic central performances and the latter two further boosted by the work legendary makeup artist Tom Savini.

However, that’s what makes Savini’s 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead even more frustrating. This wasn’t some rando director’s assignment, but rather comes from someone who worked closely with Romero on those classics (and not too distant ones considering Day came out only five years earlier.) That the Night remake so aggressively misses the point goes from something that might be shrug worthy to baffling, especially with Romero still credited with the screenplay for this one.

Before I go on to why this version did not work for me, I’ll go into one thing I liked and one I like… in theory.

The makeup on the zombies is better than ever in this version. Little touches that indicate how they became the recently deceased before turning into flesh eating ghouls, like one with a needle still stuck in its arm indicating death by overdose. The work on display and how varied the zombies’ states are is impressive to behold.

On the “in theory” side of the equation, turning the role of Patricia Tallman’s Barbara from someone too paralyzed by the trauma of her first experience with the undead to do anything in the original to an active problem solver here makes sense. If there’s anything that would be worth changing from the original, it’s the gender dynamics. However, her turn in the remake from processing her trauma to the lone even-tempered person in the house with an assuredness that escape is not only possible but simple, which the movie does vindicate in the end (in the worst way, but again… I’ll get back to that), comes at the expense of the best part of the original, Ben.

Duane Jones as Ben in the 1968 version is iconic for a reason. His performance was exactly the kind that elevates a shoestring-budget independent feature into a classic. He was calm and collected for most of the movie until he was literally out of options and quick to show sympathy to the others caught up in the madness of fighting the undead. Only raising his voice when that sympathy was not returned in kind by the likes of Henry Cooper. He thinks things through and gets ready to bunker down and board up the house the second they’re certain its zombie-free. Later formulating a plan once they learn about safe harbors that have been set up. There are moments when his plans fall apart through bad luck or being overwhelmed by the oncoming horde, but he’s still pragmatic every step along the way.

While Tony Todd’s a good actor giving his all to the 1990 version of Ben, the shift in the framing of the character breaks what worked about him. He’s just another loud ego in the room here. Exactly as paranoid and short-tempered as Cooper, leaving Tallman as Barbara to be the den mother talking down the rowdy children (a comparison she makes herself in the remake.) It takes him hours to come up with the plan to board up the house, while they have a broken window in the backdoor. Then the remake goes out of its way to undermine that plan by showing the noise of hammering in the boards attracting the zombies. It takes a great black lead from one of the all-time classics of horror and dumbs him down to make the white woman look better by comparison.

Which brings me to the ending. If there’s one thread that defines three Romero-helmed Of the Dead movies before this remake, it’s that men obsessed with guns only ever make things worse. They look at the kind of people who’d revel in the chaos of a zombie apocalypse and shows them for what they are, violent idiots looking for an excuse. The original setting that in motion when the militia at the end of the original Night of the Living Dead, where the militia tasked with clearing out the ghouls indiscriminately shoots the surviving Ben and declares him “another one for the fire.” A damning look at a lack of empathy and consideration during a disaster.

Savini’s remake, with its center shifted from Ben to Barbara, not only has Ben not survive to the end, but also has the gun toting Pennsylvania hicks take Barbara into their safe zone. There’s a mild attempt to echo the thoughtfulness of the Romero directed movies when Barbara considers the zombies and says, “we’re them and they’re us”, but the idea’s dropped as quickly as the it’s introduced. The final touch that especially got on my nerves was Barbara shooting the surviving Henry Cooper. It’s a moment I’m sure is meant to be cathartic, seeing the angry coward that made things worse for everyone get his. But it more spoke to a coldness in Tallman’s Barbara I found off-putting as she’s the one to echo the line “another one for the fire” after she takes the shot. Maybe that’s the intent rather than catharsis, but it certainly didn’t feel like it.

Romero’s movies defined what a zombie movie is for all time and are often smarter than 90% of what they inspired.

Savini’s remake is just another zombie movie.

Verdict: Trick (@WC_WIT)

Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd):

I really appreciate how Romero’s “DEAD” films are something of an ongoing conversation, even to the point of the not-Romero-directed, but Romero-written remake being a deliberate commentary on its predecessor as well as exploring a new thematic angle.

Now, this film in no way tops the horror remake charts with The Thing, The Fly, or even Let Me In. However, the way it reexamines the character of Barbara (Judith O’dea in the original, Patricia Tallman in the remake) transforms arguably the original film’s biggest weakness into one of the more fascinating horror heroines of the era. Combine this with the zig that Romero’s script takes into the jockeying for position in the farmhouse (and the ideological war between competing zombie prepper plans) to be as much toxic posturing as survival skills, and you have a choice companion to the thematic core of Romero’s Day of the Dead. It’s also great to see Tony Todd give his riff on such an iconic horror role, and Savini proves an able director.

(At least, of actors other than Tom Towles. Cooper is…oof.)

Still, I would absolutely count this among the “lesser, but worthy” horror remakes — but then, I’ll also defend the 2009 Friday the 13th so, much like Ben’s unfortunate pickup, your mileage may vary.

Verdict: Treat (@BLCAgnew)

The Team

Brendan Foley:

For the most part, this Night of the Living Dead falls into the remake trap of following the original film so closely that there hardly seems to be any point to it besides George A. Romero finally making a few well-deserved bucks off his masterpiece. Only when the movie at last leaves the farmhouse in its final ten or so minutes does it actually start to feel like it has something new and different to say about this story and these monsters, and by that point it’s too little too late.

Other choices Romero/Savini make to try and update and/or fix the original film only create new problems. Re-imagining Barbara as a post-Ripley badass isn’t a terrible idea, especially if Romero grew to be ashamed of how passive and broken the original Barbara was. But this incarnation goes so far in the other direction as to barely feel like a character at all. Tallman’s Barbara is so competent, so level-headed, so completely on top of everything from moment to moment that she never seems believably in danger. Instead you spend most of the runtime wondering why the hell she’s wasting her time in this house with these screeching idiots when she very clearly would be better off alone.

But the real miscalculation in casting/performance is Towles as Harry. Harry in the original film is an asshole who ruins everything, but as written and played in that film he’s an extremely recognizable asshole, a petty little man who cannot handle the galactic horror of the risen dead and so he retreats into that pettiness. Towles instead opts to play the character as, I guess, a raving psychopath. Every scene he’s bulging his eyes out of his skull like they might pop out, and every other line he screams at the top of his lungs. And because Towles is playing everything so loud, Todd and the other actors have no choice but to play to the back-rafter too. Instead of a “woe is man’s inability to get along” tragedy, the Night feels more like a bunch of useless dumbasses getting fed into a meat grinder because that’s all they deserve.

Verdict: Trick (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

My companions outline some fair criticisms of this 1990 remake (some of its acting in particular seems to hyper aggressive), and I’m not sure how well it would work as a standalone film, but it‘s an astounding companion to the original. The ‘68 film obviously makes a social statement about race which is noticeably absent here, but as a remake this works extremely well: largely faithful to the original but with a few key changes that introduce some elements of surprise and keep it from being a slavish retread. There’s an undercurrent here in which each of the squabbling characters has both some validity and flaws to their arguments despite their various attitudes, and I don’t see this as a weakness: it’s a dose of grim reality and an admonishment for people to hear each other out and work together.

Verdict: Treat (@VforVashaw)

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