Saturday, July 9, 2011

Another Night In Pittsburgh

Night of the Living Dead(1990)
Director: Tom Savini
Cast: Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles

Night of the Living Dead(1968) was one of the most groundbreaking films in the history of the horror genre. It reshaped the structure of terror filmmaking, ushering in an era of cynicism and bleakness that was fitting for the increasingly turbulent times and focusing on stark realism. George Romero completely re-defined the role of the zombie in popular culture and in the process created the first modern horror film. 1968 would be the end of the classic Hollywood cycle of horror, perhaps most poignantly highlighted by the passing of Boris Karloff, the following year. Night of the Living Dead was just unlike anything made at that time. This film was brutal and uncompromising with an incredibly downbeat ending and role reversals that were not evident in earlier genre films. However, this low budget film from Pittsburgh, despite it's impact on filmmakers and audiences, never made a dime, owing to a lapse in the film's original copyright, which explains why there have been so many prints circulating on DVD.

Years down the line, after numerous sequels and rip-offs, the original filmmakers decided to get their money back by remaking the classic in 1990. Money is hardly ever a good enough reason to remake a classic and certainly makes a case for approaching this project with some trepidation. Romero and original screenwriter, John Russo, were working on the scriot again to create an update and that sounded interesting, plus, they were hiring ace makeup artist, Tom Savini to direct! It all seemed that everything was right in the city of Pittsburgh, but was eventually released was one of the more fascinating misfires of the several horror remakes made. It illustrates a few interesting concepts, but fails to introduce any new concepts worth anyalyzing and ultimately proves to be what it was intended as, which was a cash grab. It also pinpoints the downfall of Romero as a writer, which was already in evidence on the last Living Dead entry, Day of the Dead(1985), where his take on social politics take an obvious and heavy handed turn for the absurd.

The film begins very much the original film does, with a brother and sister visiting they're mother's grave out in the country, where they are ambushed by the walking dead, which slay the brother and leaves the sister, Barbara(Patricia Tallman) running off in a panic. She encounters a farmhouse, finds more of the living dead and runs into another survivor named Ben(Tony Todd), who tells her to pull herself together if she means to survive and they both try to find a reason for all this current madness. They soon discover that there's also five other survivors, that include Harry Cooper(Tom Towles) and his wife, Helen(Mckee Anderson), who also have an injured child, Sarah(Heather Mazur) and two teenagers, Tom(William Butler) and Judy(Katie Finneran).(By the way, just noticed that the kid's names are Tom and Judy. That's cute)

Anyway, that's where the film basically takes a new turn for the worse and all sorts of hilarity ensues as Barbara, who has just witnessed her brother's brutal death, seen several horrible walking corpses try to kill her and having slain one herself, now becomes a Sigourney Weaver-like heroine, taking off her dressm putting on some pants and grabbing a Henry rifle, that she never holds correctly, but seems to be able to shoot like Annie Oakley. In other words, she's Ripley-lite and it's one of the most unbelievable character transitions that you'll ever likely witness.  In the original she was catatonic throughout because of the shock of the situation that was escalating around her. It was a realistic approach because it's doubtful that everyone is such a crisis situation, albeit one so horrifying, would instantly take control and become heroic. The character change is not bad in itself, in fact it's actually welcome, but the way it's presented is just to forced and unrealistic that it just distracts from the plot and story at hand. How can we believe in the film if we can't believe in the characters? It's not that Patricia Tallman is totally horrible, but when you are saddled with dialouge like, "Whatever I lost, I lost a long time ago and don't plan on losing anything else", there's just not much you can do, I guess.

The other characters begin to fare little better. As the characters fight over what to do, should they stay in the cellar or board upstairs and fight it out, the bickering takes on comical proportions. The original film dealt with the cost of ego and false pride, as the two men fought each other and never compromising each's ideals. There was also a subtle current of male territorialism present, that is brought out full scale here as the characters of Ben and Harry engage in full out war againts each other, ludicrously ending in a protracted gunfight that seems axtraneous given the proceedings. Harry Cooper was something of a bigoted bastard in the original, but we could reason with his mindset. Here is portrayed by Tom Towles as a pop-eyed, obscenity spewing madman who does nothing but scream and say hilarious putdowns like the classic, "you lamebrains!" or my all-time favorite, "You bunch of yo-yos!" (What does that even mean?!) Of course, he is also depicted as being lazy and uncooperative, even if this contradicts his character's motives at points. Does he want to protect his family or is he out for himself? Why is he a villain? Was a human villain neccesary? The tragedy of the original film was the group's inability to work together. As Romero's films have gone on, the irony and context become lost in the land of soap opera melodramatics, best evidenced by Towles here who must have been channeling Joe Pilato's Captain Rhodes from Day of the Dead(1985).

Tony Todd has the most mult-dimensional character part in the movie, being able to be gruff and commanding, while also showing understanding and even shedding a tear as he witnesses the carnage around him. Todd is a decent replacement for the late Duane Jones from the original, showing the same levels of compassion and courage that he did in that one, but unfortunately with a script that offers him much less to work with. Besides the fighting with Cooper, the real debit to his characterization, Todd is a formidable enough opponent to the living dead that his kung-fu scenes with them as he attempts to fight his way back to the farmhouse after the failed attempt at fueling the truck, is priceless and often recieves howls of laughter. Barbara comments on the zombies being so slow and that they should just run for it, which i'm sure would be a good idea, considering all you would need is to unleash Todd and his karate skills on them! What really makes Todd work so well is his ability to channel various emotions within his characterization that make us care about and ultimately root for him. Despite some scripted silliness, he still is able to imbue the character with enough believability to anchor the film in reality and make it easier for us to accept the fantastic situation.

The plot still retains several of the key points from the original, but plays with them to mixed effect. Tom and his annoying girlfriend, Judy, get to the gas pump and like in the original, can't seem to use the lock. In one of the most ridiculous scenes, Tom uses a shotgun to shoot off the lock, predictably blowing both of them to kingdom come. Harry locks Ben out of the house and steals the rifle and Harry's wife is killed by they're now zombified daughter, who escapes from the basement and is shot by Barbara. This leads to that gunfight, where Ben is wounded and must escape to the basement, Harry already taking gibs on the attaic, which was previously unmentioned. Barbara gets away and runs into some redneck types(the only types that apparently exist in this movie outside of the farmhouse) and they go and clean up the remaining undead. Ben by now has turned into a zombie and is shot and killed, and Harry reappears, only to recieve a bullet in the head from Barbara, who looks upon the rednecks with disdain as they drink and party over a bonfire of the walking dead, kind of like the original's ending, but with much more heavy-handedness. Consider that Barbara just shot and killed a living person with no remorse and whether that person was a jerk, does it justify her actions and does it especially vindicate her when one considers the high and mighty attitude that she takes towards the rednecks, which i'm not condoning, but dosen't that make her just as bad? Is this our idenity character that we're supposed to see some of ourselves in? I hope not.

The worst aspect about this ending is the treatment of the posse out to kill the zombies. Tied up in trees, in a manner surely meant to represent lynchings of the past, Barbara comments, "They're us" and smugly looks on, disgusted by the events. Romero attempts an important social statement here on our inhumanity and dehumanization in the modern world, but it just falls flat. Unfortunately, this would be something he'd explore again ad nauseum in future Living Dead installments, reusing the same shot for his lamentable, Diary of the Dead(2007). All of the relevant commentary of both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead(1979) is seemingly forgotten with each successive film and replaced with the sort of extremist perspectives that treat the audience as dummies.

Night of the Living Dead(1990) is really a mixed film, suffering from a weak script primarily which seems to drag down all good intentions with it. Tom Savini sets up some effective shots, but surprisingly little gore, considering the film and director! Suggestion can be very effective, especially in the horror film, but a little blood and thunder may have been more welcome in this case. Most of the film's gruesomeness comes from the excellent zombie designs, which are really a marvel. Unfortunately, not all of them work so well, when one considers that these are supposed to be the recently dead and many look a little too rotted to create that effect. It's also amazing that even with the nice touch of glassy, souless eyes for the zombies, they fail to provide as much terror as the original film's does. In fact, one of the crucial ingredients missing from this film and another that keeps it from becoming a full success is that lack of fear and dread that the first film had in spades. Color was certainly not going to compete with graininess and atmosphere of the original black and white film, but could be used effectively if a proper mood is built. No mood is substained, because the audienece does not have aas much time to know the characters or the surroundings. There's virtually no downtime between anyone and none of that approaching terror that permeated the original. The zombies just attack and the rets of the movie is just repelling the assault. It was a particularly bad idea to almost completely edit out all the television and radio broadcasts out of this version, becase that gave the original a sense of realism and urgency that this one sorely needed.

Zombie fans and Romero devotees will undoubtably rate this film marginally higher and in all fairness, it's not totally a bad film. It's entertaining, maybe not always in a positive way, but it does provide some excitement. Tony Todd is excellent and the rest of the performances range from pedestrian to mediocre and sometimes, as with Mr. Towles, hilarious. There's not much blood and gore for the splatter crowd, though and that may lessen the appeal for some. I'm sure there are people that will see this one because it's in  color and the original is in black and white and for those with such a prejudice, you deserve a film like this. For the rest of you, check it out for curiosity and/or laughs but don't expect something incredibly thought provoking or engaging. And if you haven't yet, then do yourself a favor and watch the 1968 original. That's the best night in Pittsburgh that you'll ever have.

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