Remakes Vs. Originals: Night Of The Living Dead

Tom pits Romero's classic Night Of The Living Dead against, er, the 'less classic' 1990 remake...

I was pleased to see my article on Dawn Of The Dead caused some debate amongst you all, and although still standing by my original decision, your comments inspired me to take a detour from my original idea for this piece and to go back to the film that well and truly put Romero on the map: Night Of The Living Dead.

Night Of The Living Dead is the first of George A Romero’s Of The Dead films. Night Of The Living dead was released in 1968, and although not becoming an instant success, it (much like its sequel in 1978) garnered media attention worldwide due to its graphic and unusual nature (the likes of which had never been seen before).

Night Of The Living Dead eventually gained itself a place on everyone’s list of ‘films to see before you die’ and is the definition of a cult classic. Upon its initial release it was, however, also confronted with much criticism. Although I’m sure this negativity was intended to put people off the film, it actually boosted its notoriety.

The line “They’re coming for you, Barbra” is now written in stone, and a phrase I’m sure everyone knows.

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A few months back, while doing some rummaging online, I became aware of the fact that Tom Savini (a big contributor to the original films) had remade the film in 1990. This remake wasn’t really given much of a chance upon its release, so I saw fit to order it and give it a go myself.

By this point, I’m sure you know the drill. I’ll send the films head to head, and find out which I think is superior.

Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

I’m sure most of you know the basic plot, but just to sum it up for those lacking in movie trivia: the dead mysteriously begin returning to life, and it isn’t long before one of our main characters, Barbra, encounters one of these creatures, who kills her brother in no time at all. She eventually finds herself boarded up in an old farmhouse with six other survivors: Ben, Tom, Judy, Helen, Harry and Karen (Harry and Helen’s daughter).

This movie is filmed completely in black and white and, sadly, I feel nowadays a lot of people would knock it for that reason alone. However, I actually believe the fact it’s filmed in black and white adds to the eeriness of the film in some sort of strange way, and part of me thinks it would have been a nice touch to film the remake in such a way.

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The portrayal of Barbra in this film is in large contrast to the portrayal of Francine in Romero’s sequel Dawn Of The Dead. While Francine was written as a strong female lead, Barbra succumbs to ‘the curse of the stupid screaming woman’ and spends most of the film screaming, crying or shaking erratically. Although this began to grate on me, I am fully aware that at the time this was the way women were stereotypically portrayed in horror movies and because of that I struggle to be frustrated in any way by this character and just accept it for what it is.

I think it worked in the sense that it threw yet another obstacle in front of our survivors, adding even more tension to an already extremely intense situation.

I have to admit that part of me laughed a bit at the zombies in this movie.  It was made very clear to me how far the interpretation of such creatures has advanced over the years. In this film they saunter about, and are forced back fairly easily. At one point someone even suggests that the survivors just run past them rather than stay locked up in the house, Whereas in films like 28 Days Later and other modern zombie flicks (accepting that many don’t regard 28 Days Later as a zombie film of course!) they portray the zombies as being able to run extremely quickly and possessing superhuman strength. In some cases they are even able to jump great heights (which, in my opinion, is a little farfetched).

Whichever portrayal you prefer, there is no denying that watching this film will make you smile for some reason, whether it be because you’re laughing at what you deem to be funny, or whether it be because you appreciate the fact you are looking at what I think is a piece of movie history.

A division is quickly formed between the survivors. While Ben, Barbra, Tom and Judy remain in the house Harry, Helen and Karen choose to hide in the cellar. The survivors upstairs plan to find a way to escape while those downstairs plan to sit the whole thing out.

Tom, Judy and Ben take a truck Ben had originally been driving before entering the house, and plan to fill it with gas in hopes of speeding into the city. Sadly, we are never treated to the horrors that might await our characters there, though, as Tom and Judy become the victims of a freak accident when the truck explodes and they are blown to pieces.

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What put a smile on my face about this film was the fact that the survivors’ worst enemy is not the hordes waiting outside, but each other. This is finally confirmed nearing the end, when Ben shoots Harry after an altercation. Harry stumbles into the cellar and dies. Helen quickly heads downstairs to see if he is still alive, but is greeted with an unwelcome surprise when she discovers her daughter Karen is one of ‘the un-dead’. Karen kills her mother.

Now, some of these shots seemed a little cheesy, and Helen’s scream was extremely over dramatic. However, this really didn’t bother me. As I have said numerous times about numerous films, it’s hard to call a film that was the first of its kind cliché.

I’m sure everyone reading this is aware of the ending and if they’re not then they should be ashamed. All I’ll say on it, though, is that the irony is pure genius.

This movie is more than a film in my opinion; it’s a piece of history and created a whole new genre. The acting may not be brilliant, but it does the job, The effects are what you’d expect but once again do the job. The overall feel of the film is where it really succeeds, though, providing for a very interesting watch, but at the same time making me feel more uncomfortable than a seat on an EasyJet flight. The simplicity is what makes it so brilliant.

So with the original out of the way, we’re onto the remake. Can it even compete with this? I fear not.

Night Of The Living Dead (1990)

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I have to admit that part of me had reasonably high hopes for this film, and I really wanted to love it. However, I was disappointed on a pretty large scale.

Except for a few minor differences this film pretty much follows the story of the original line for line, word for word. I can pretty much list all the differences on the back of a matchbox, and I have very big writing.

My first beef with this film was its need to blow everything out of proportion and over dramatise the most minor of situations. Within only the first few scenes I was made aware of this when Barbara and her brother Johnnie are attacked by a zombie. Let’s face it, we all know what happens. Johnnie falls over and breaks his neck, but even something simple like this had to be dragged out and turned into a hand to hand fight that seemed to last forever. But it really failed to scare me, instead just making me laugh. I would complain about the lack of build up to this scene, but there is none whatsoever.

Barbara is portrayed as a much stronger character than in the original. While in that film she slowly faded into the background as a whimpering mess, in this film she takes centre stage and remains one of leads throughout. This was a nice touch, but just didn’t feel right.

Although most of the acting is an improvement on that in the original, all the characters in the remake just seem like caricatures of those in the original.

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Normally, by this point, I would divulge some information about the story, but I really can’t put anything, as the story is identical to that in the original. This is the first time I am truly lost for words. The creators pretty much took the original script and made minor adjustments to small things in the original (for example, the explosion of the car is altered slightly so it’s made easier to understand why it happened).

Is this seriously enough to justify the creation of a whole a new film, though? Is it necessary to remake an entire film just to clear up a few small issues? Should a film like Titanic be remade purely due to the historical mistakes? I think not.

The ending of the film was slightly more interesting in the sense it had been completely changed. In this version Harry shoots Ben and hides in the attic. Ben then locks himself in the cellar while Barbara goes in search of help. When she returns she finds Ben has transformed into one of the undead and that Harry is still alive. She quickly shoots Harry and his body is burnt.

I don’t deny the performances were good, and that the effects were an improvement on the original, but to be as blunt as a hammer, this is the worst kind of remake going. It took an original idea, and copied it without adding any personal response whatsoever.

If you truly can’t bear watching a film in black and white, then I suggest you get this copy, otherwise avoid it like the plague. I don’t deny this film proves for an hour and twenty-five minutes of ‘fun’ and works as a great tribute to the original, but this is it, really.

I’m sure you’ve guessed I was going to say this, but I definitely prefer the original.

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Maybe the remake will stand a better chance next time?