Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
“They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara”
The remake of Night of the Living Dead succeeds as an homage to the 1968 film, but it does not recapture the revolutionary terror of the original.
The characters and basic premise remain the same: seven strangers take shelter in an old Pennsylvania farmhouse as they are besieged by reanimated corpses of the recently deceased. The main danger comes not from the flesh-eating zombies outside but from the dissent among survivors as their distrust and in-fighting are amplified by claustrophobia and isolation. Even the names of the characters are the same, letting fans of the original follow the remake with ease.
While the relationships among them are similar between movies, the development and fate of several characters are significantly altered in Tom Savini’s revision. Barbara (Patricia Tallman), for instance, snaps out of her catatonia and becomes an active participant in the struggle. Her survival and manners of death that find Ben (Tony Todd) and Cooper (Tom Towles) are complete deviations from the original film. What Ben’s fate adds to the story is questionable, but Barbara’s killing of the treacherous Cooper charts her significant change since the movie’s opening sequence. In some ways the tragedy of the original's ending is blunted, but in the remake, Barbara's insight into the condition of the living dead and their treatment by the living plays up the concept of human cruelty and present in the first film by Romero.
The most noticeable changes in the update are the switch to color and the amount of on-screen gore. While some of the special effects in the original have not aged well, Savini’s remake uses top quality make-up and practical special effects, so there is no shortage of visually impressive moments such as torn off limbs, bullet wounds, and the zombie film standard of gunshots to the head. The practical effects give the living dead and scenes of violence a weight and verisimilitude that is largely lacking in contemporary productions that rely more on computer-generated special effects.
Keeping with the times, one theory for the return of living dead is a disease or virus. Gone is the radiation theory of the original which fit into the fears surrounding nuclear testing and space exploration in 1968. The idea of a disease or virus, however, is equally symptomatic of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when the HIV and AIDS epidemics became more fully known by the American public. This interpretation has remained the standard in zombie mythology with The Walking Dead and World War Z both addressing zombies in terms of a public health crisis.
The remake also plays up an understated quality of Romero’s original: how the characters feel toward the zombies. Soon after his introduction, Ben gives his survivor monologue in which he cries as much for the unthinking living dead as he does for the collapsing world around them. Barbara, too, changes as she comes to almost feel sorry for the awkward undead. Toward the films close, she witnesses the barbarity of other survivors and their treatment of the living dead, leading her to mutter, “We’re them and they’re us.”
Cooper, on the other hand, has nothing but contempt for the zombies—not to mention the survivors—and lashes out as everything spins out of his control. Since he refuses to believe in what he is seeing, Cooper cannot acknowledge when his daughter turns into a zombie leading him to endanger and betray the other survivors who act to destroy her. It is Cooper’s lack of sympathy for the living and the dead that causes the already desperate situation to become a catastrophe.
The Night of the Living Dead remake is successful in delivering fear and gore to the audience. It similarly captures some of the tension and atmosphere of Romero’s original. Since it is a remake that close follows its predecessor, however, the film cannot be as daring, shocking, or inventive as the original movie. Nevertheless, as a set up to contemporary zombie stories in film and books, the remake stands as a worthy addition to Romero's vision.
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© 2010 Seth Tomko