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Tom Savini's 1990 Remake Of 'Night Of The Living Dead' Deserves Way More Credit Than It Gets

Remakes get a bad rap. Especially remakes of films as universally beloved as George Romero's genre-defining 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead. But as remakes of horror classics go, they don't come much more respectful than Tom Savini's 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead. It was, after all, written by George Romero himself, and it reunited Romero with many of the people he had worked with on the original film for the first time in more than 20 years.

The result is a picture that is virtually unique among horror movie remakes for both taking bold chances with classic material while also not striking off in an entirely new direction. It's not the instant classic that the first film was, but it flexes new muscles, expands some of Romero's themes, and reimagines Barbara as a tough action hero. Plus, jaw-dropping zombie effects by Savini, who had been invited to work on the original but was unable to because he was fighting in Vietnam at the time, and an early-career performance by Tony Todd make this one remake that's absolutely worth checking out - or giving a second look. There's a lot more meat on these bones than you might expect.

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  • It Was Written By George Romero - And Expands Many Of His Themes

    More than 20 years after the release of his 1968 classic, the father of the modern zombie movie, George Romero, was back for the 1990 remake, at least as a screenwriter. While he gave director Tom Savini free reign to make changes to the original story, Romero's vision is very much at play in the new Night, and having spent two ensuing decades watching people analyze, overanalyze, and react to his previous zombie films, Romero knew how to put the focus where he wanted it to go.

    In this case, that's squarely on us. "My stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly," Romero told Vanity Fair. "I'm pointing the finger at us, not the zombies."

    As Felix Vasquez Jr. writes in an appreciation of the film for Bloody Disgusting, "Much of the tension in Night 1990 centers around the fact that if these characters just stopped for a moment and worked for one goal, they could probably make it through the night. In the midst of their nightmare, however, the simple solutions are completely ignored as the sheer stubbornness of the characters makes the scenario worse than it has to be."

    Roger Ebert, ever the humanist, couldn't get on board with Romero's point. "The ending of the movie, with its bonfire and tortured freeze-frame scenes, is apparently intended to suggest that we really are no better than the zombies," he wrote in his 1990 review of the film, "a conclusion which, even based on the evidence of the characters in this movie, I have trouble in accepting."

  • Subtle Changes Throughout The Narrative Help Amp Up Suspense

    The 1990 Night of the Living Dead hews pretty closely to the events of the original - it's still written by George Romero, after all - but little changes littered throughout the narrative help to keep even familiar viewers on their toes. "This Night has every opportunity to be a lifeless shot for shot copy of the 1968 original," Felix Vasquez Jr. opines at Bloody Disgusting, "but Savini switches almost every scenario so subtly that it’s quite brilliant."

    Almost from the first frames, it's apparent that this film is going to both follow the original more closely than many remakes while also staking out its own new territory. The classic "They're coming to get you, Barbara" line is still here, though it's given a more '90s twist when Johnny adds that, "They're horny, Barbara. They've been dead a long time." Even the initial action scene is accompanied by a fake-out nod to the original and then a much grislier first zombie.

    From there to the differences in how the film ends and how Barbara's character arc is portrayed, this new take walks the fine line of following the original film almost beat-for-beat while also creating something new and surprising for fans.

  • Barbara Goes From Catatonic To Ripley-Level Action Hero

    The Barbara of Romero's original (played by Judith O'Dea) was rendered virtually catatonic by the horror of what was happening around her. When it came time to update the film for 1990, however, Tom Savini decided to transform Barbara's character "from a victim to someone who decides she has to fight now, cry later."

    "I had seen Sigourney Weaver as this great woman hero in Alien," Savini said of the decision, "and I wanted Barbara to become a woman action hero, too."

    Savinia also already had the perfect person in mind for the part - Patricia Tallman, a stuntwoman who Savini had met in college. Tallman had previously worked with Romero and Savini on projects like KnightridersMonkey Shines, and the Tales from the Darkside TV series, not to mention providing stunts in films and TV, including Star Trek: The Next Generation. Just two years after her appearance in Night of the Living Dead, she also showed up briefly in Army of Darkness.

    As Barbara, Tallman gets to swing the pendulum from borderline-catatonic - as she is when Tony Todd's Ben first finds her - to tough-as-nails, all within the span of about 90 minutes.

  • Tony Todd Gives A Superb Performance As Ben

    Tony Todd had already been in quite a few movies and TV shows - including an early role in Oliver Stone's Platoon back in 1986 - but it wasn't until he played the title character in 1992's Candyman that he was thrust into the pantheon of horror stardom. 

    Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead was two years before that, and gives us a good view of Todd's acting chops - it ironically also prefigures Candyman's hook for a hand, as the first time we see Todd's character, the camera shows just his shoes and then the metal hook of the crowbar he's carrying.

    Todd plays the role of Ben, which had previously been carried by Duane Jones in Romero's original. While the dynamics of race and class warfare from Romero's film are certainly still present here, in the 1990s, the clash between Todd's Ben and the blowhard Harry Cooper character - originally played by Karl Hardman, here played by Tom Towles - takes on more of an air of machismo and joint stubbornness. Todd handles all the shades and complexities of Ben's character, which would have been easy to position as a cut-and-dry hero. 

    In an interview with Daily Dead, Savini recalled casting Todd for the role, "Tony Todd came in to audition, I handed him the script, and he walked outside for five minutes then came back in without the script. He knew all the dialogue and produced tears. I closed the book right then and there and said, 'This is Ben.'"