Saturday, October 20, 2012

Halloween Horror Countdown #3: Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a teenage horror fan in the mid-90s.  You’re just now getting into the swing of the genre – you don’t know much about it and most of the movies you’ve seen so far have been by way Monstervision with Joe Bob Briggs.  There’s no internet, at least not that you have access to, and you’re really only introduced to new movies by way of the video store, your buddies, or wandering into them on television.  Try to imagine then, that one night in the middle of week you happen to turn on TNT and a movie is playing that you ever so slowly come to recognize as a color remake of the classic Night of the Living Dead.  You watch it, amazed, and as soon as you beg or buy transportation to the nearest Suncoast (Because, damn it, Suncoast was still the place to buy movies back then.) you buy your own VHS copy and watch it…well…maybe just a few too many times.
            As you may have guessed, that’s a story from my formative days as a horror fan.  It should come as no surprise then that film #3 on my Halloween Horror Countdown is Tom Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead.  I’m aware that there’s probably some weird dissonance going on when I call the original Romero Living Dead a classic, then omit it from my Halloween top five in favor of the remake.  The Romero film is a classic – not only did it singlehandedly launch the zombie film as modern audiences know it, but it also pioneered the gritty, gruesome style of shooting horror films that would more fully take hold in the 1970s with films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  That said, this is my list, and the Savini remake undoubtedly had more of an influence on me personally, so here it is.

            Starring Tony Todd and Patricia Tallman, Savini’s vision of Living Dead is to Romero’s film what the Hammer series was to Universal’s horror cycle.  Okay, so maybe that’s stretching things a bit, but what I’m getting at is that it’s a recognizable remake that still has enough original content to stand on its own.  Coming 22 years after the original, Savini’s film benefits from comparatively amazing zombie effects and, frankly, a somewhat better script.  The film’s plot is one we’ve since seen many times: a band of strangers, all of whom are fleeing an inexplicable zombie plague, are trapped together in an isolated farmhouse.  With few resources and far too many zombies closing in than can possibly be repulsed in a fight, they have to set aside their differences and try to escape.  The drama still comes from the breakdown of cooperation amongst strangers in a terrifying situation, but in my opinion the Savini film just handles things better.
Most notably, Patricia Tallman’s Barbara is actually, well, a character this time, whereas Judith O’dea’s Barbara spent the entire 1968 film either catatonic or screaming.  That’s not a jab at O’dea, but I just find Tallman’s portrayal of the character a lot more fun to watch.  Tallman’s Barbara actually manages to find the will to fight back despite all the horror swirling around her, but the character is written well enough not to suddenly metamorphose into a clichéd movie badass. (That was one of my few complaints about the 2005 Dawn of the Dead remake – I don’t think anyone in that movie ever fires a gun and misses.)  Tony Todd is fantastic as Ben as well, a fitting heir to Duane Jones from the original.
The film’s zombie effects are some of the best out there, even compared to more recent movies.  Many of the zombies have a gross, slick look…kind of like an old piece of lunchmeat.  The effects crew was also smart enough not to overdo the blood on the zombies to the point that it obscures the other makeup work.  From the ‘autopsy man’ at the beginning of the film to Sarah Cooper, a young survivor who succumbs to a zombie bite at the climax of the film each zombie has a unique, but always high quality, look.  In addition to being gruesome, in-your-face monsters, they manage to be just plain creepy as well.
The sound design in this movie is great as well, with a fairly austere soundtrack but a lot of great musical strikes throughout.  The operatic “haunted castle” music that pops up out of nowhere when the zombies finally invade the farmhouse near the end of the film always seemed out of place to me, but everything else is great.  As the film progresses, the constant low moans and pounding that invades every scene as the undead hammer away at the farmhouse’s defenses always manage to keep the viewer on edge – you never get to forget the danger lurking all around.
I guess I can’t wrap up this review without a few remarks about the ending.  The original film was famous for its dark climax in which none of the main characters survive.  At the time, that was something that simply didn’t happen in horror movies and I can only imagine how shocked 1960s audiences were.  Savini offers us a slightly more hopeful ending in which Barbara survives.  There’s nothing feel-good about it, though: We’re reminded throughout the film’s climax that nearly everyone could have escaped the farmhouse if only things had worked out slightly differently.  Even worse, Barbara finds that after only a single night of the chaos, the worst of humanity has already been brought to the fore.
Before I wrap up, I suppose I’ll make a few remarks about the recent debacle with the Blu-Ray release of Night of the Living Dead.  I should note that I’m an unrepentant foot-dragger when it comes to upgrading my media formats.  I didn’t buy a DVD player until 2001 and I still don’t have any Blu-Ray devices.  The release of the film that I reviewed is the 1999 double-sided (boo) DVD that contains both the widescreen and TV-cropped versions of the film.  It’s widely available and can be had for something like $6 on the internet. 
On the other hand, the Blu-Ray release, which apparently came out only this month, is some kind of limited edition that is already commanding prices of over $100 in most places.  That’s ridiculous in and of itself, but the Blu-Ray release has also had its color levels tinkered with, resulting a bizarre dark blue tint for the majority of the film.  There are screen caps available over at Dread Central, and it looks amazingly bad – like the clumsy day-for-night shots in old Toho movies.  Seriously, head over there and check it out.  It’s a travesty.
In any event, this Savini’s Night of the Living Dead isn’t an especially original zombie film, but there’s something to be said for a formula being done right.  It’s a tense, creepy zombie film that’s certainly worthy of inclusion in anyone Halloween movie marathon.  I strongly recommend it…but only on DVD.
Well, we’ve crossed the halfway point.  Halloween is less than two weeks away, and there are only two more movies to go in my countdown.  Come back next week to check out my second-favorite Halloween movie.  Our runner-up is the newest film on this list, and while it’s inclusion may some as a surprise to some folks who know me as a staunch defender of the old guard, I have a feeling that this one may one day be considered a Halloween classic.  See you then!

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