George Romero's 1968 "Night of the Living Dead" has deservedly become a horror classic, a work of relentless terror in which seven people, holed up in a Western Pennsylvania farmhouse, fight a seemingly losing battle against an invasion of remorseless flesh-eating ghouls.
No remake could hope to be as scary as the original, but the smart new remake "Night of the Living Dead" (citywide), suggests that Romero, this time serving as screenwriter and executive producer, and Tom Savini, the veteran horror makeup maestro making a dynamic directorial debut, realized this going in. And well they should, since between them they have contributed substantially to the grisliness on the screen to which many of us, for better or worse, have become inured over the years.
What they have done--quite shrewdly--is to play for a dark, saving humor when the Living Dead start coming at us in Living Color (instead of the original's grainy black and white) and then discover a contemporary relevance within the old plot, sharpening the implications of the evils of an overweening, cowardly self-interest and suggesting that the ghouls, regardless of whatever mysterious force has activated them, represent the brute, destructive underside of human nature.
In a very real sense Romero and Savini have taken the hard, cynical humor audiences have come to expect in comedy and action, the two genres having become virtually one, and confronted us with it, showing us what it reveals about ourselves. In short, this remake is to the original what Philip Kaufman's 1978 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was to the 1956 Don Siegel film: not to copy or attempt to improve on a classic but to discover what it has to say to us today. The impact of the new "Night" is allegorical rather than visceral, its blood and guts patently phony no matter how skillfully designed.
Not surprisingly, there's more technical finesse, more character development, this time around. The plot is essentially the same, but Romero comes up with disturbingly thoughtful fresh meaning at the finish.
As before, the natural leader of the seven besieged people barricaded in an old farmhouse is a forceful black man (Tony Todd), but moving gradually to the fore is a woman (Patricia Tallman) who discovers within herself strength, courage and determination she never knew she had. Defying Todd at every turn is a bombastic, know-it-all middle-aged man (Tom Towles, just as loathsome as he was as Otis in "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer"), who has commandeered the basement for himself, his wife (McKee Anderson) and ailing daughter (Heather Mazur). A young couple (William Butler, Katie Finneran) go along with Todd. The entire, largely unfamiliar cast works up terrific intensity.
While this "Night" hasn't the chilling, almost cinema-verite credibility of the original, it is certainly a well-sustained entertainment, with one foolish or unlucky incident triggering another. Like the original, this R-rated production is definitely not for children.
'NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD'
A Columbia release of a 21st Century/George A. Romero presentation of a Menahem Golan production. Executive producers Romero & Golan. Co-executive producer Ami Artzi. Producers John A. Russo, Russ Streiner. Director Tom Savini. Screenplay Romero; based upon the original screenplay "Night of the Living Dead" by Russo & Romero. Camera Frank Prinzi. Music Paul McCollough. Production designer Cletus R. Anderson. Special makeup effects John Vulich, Everett Burrell. Costumes Barbara Anderson. Line producer Declan Baldwin. Film editor Tom Dubensky. With Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles, McKee Anderson, William Butler, Katie Finneran, Bill Mosley, Heather Mazur.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (younger than 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).
BACKGROUND "Night of the Living Dead" was the first gory feature for horror-film master George Romero. Shot in 1968 in Pittsburgh with an unknown cast for $114,000, the film unexpectedly became a cult classic and went on to gross about $50 million. Romero also directed two sequels, "Dawn of the Dead" in 1979 and "Day of the Dead" in 1985.