Director George A. Romero didn’t need color film to make “Night of the Living Dead” a horror classic.
The film’s 1990 remake adds color, and gore, and a neo-feminist leading lady, but it still can’t match the raw intensity of Romero’s original vision.
It comes close during some tense stretches, and seen strictly as a zombie movie it’s a sturdy addition to the genre.
The “Dead” Blu-ray version, released on a limited edition basis by Twilight Time home entertainment, follows a brother and sister visiting their mother’s grave. Before they can pay their respects they’re attacked by a lumbering zombie.
Barbara (Patricia Tallman) fights off their assailant and flees to a nearby house, leaving her brother for dead. The home in question has its own horrors inside, but it quickly becomes a shelter for Barbara and a few zombie survivors.
Ben (horror movie vet Tony Todd) is the group’s unofficial leader, and he finds support from both Barbara and a young couple (William Butler, Katie Finneran) who only want to help. The humans are under constant assault from zombies lurking outside the boarded up house, but another threat – to both our heroes and the film itself – lurks under their own roof.
Tom Towles monstrous turn as a thug who thinks they should barricade themselves in the basement may be the single most unpleasant character ever to serve as zombie bait. He dominates nearly every scene he’s in, underscoring the standard zombie trope that man can be just as inhumane as the flesh-gnawing undead.
Blame both director Tom Savini, the special effects guru turned auteur as well as Romero who wrote the script for this remake.
Otherwise, the remake chugs along with the requisite flourishes – some zombies feasting on flesh, a gaggle of undead kills and a dwindling supply of fresh meat.
Savini choreographs the bloodshed with a nod to the genre’s fan base, and his makeup (pre-CGI) holds up nicely. He also commands the necessary sense of isolation the survivors experience as the zombies slowly tear away the boards securing the home’s windows and doorways.
The film’s final act features more of Romero’s cynical sermonizing, showing how the living turn the dead into a sort of hunting sport complete with redneck caricatures.
The original film’s racial subtext is cast mostly aside, while the new, improved Barbara strikes a blow for modern feminism. Tallman handles the task nicely, never sacrificing her plainspoken beauty while protecting her fellow humans.
It’s hard not to view “Night of the Living Dead” as anything less than an unnecessary remake, but with Savini and Romero they transform a thankless project into a rigorously engaging one.