A cunning remake of George A. Romero's black and white zombie classic Night of the Living Dead is a taut and terrifying return to the macabre scene of mayhem and dismemberment where the recently deceased begin rising from the grave as flesh-hungry zombies. Fleeing from the legion of limping undead, a small group of survivors comprised of Barbara (Patricia Tallman, Army of Darkness), Ben (horror legend Tony Todd, Candyman) and Harry (Tom Towles, Halloween), hole-up in a remote farmhouse and prepare for a bloody onslaught. As the marauding zombies surround the house, tensions between the survivors flare up, desperate to do anything to survive the hideous battle that is before them. Directed with flair and gusto by leading horror exponent Tom Savini (who provided make-up effects for Romero's original Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead), Night of the Living Dead cuts to the chase and sets the splatter count high - leaving behind a grisly trail of blood and guts, like any good zombie movie should.
"They're coming to get you, Barbara!"
I'm not someone who is inherently against the idea of a remake, or a reboot, or a relaunch, or whatever trendy term studios are using these days to put out another version of an already established property. My only requirement is that there needs to be a point to the endeavor. The material needs to be taken in a different direction or presented in such a way that it is able to stand on its own two feet and not step on the toes of the original - especially if it's a classic like George Romero's 1968 shocker 'Night of the Living Dead.' Thankfully the 1990 remake directed by The Godfather of Gore Tom Savini and starring Patricia Tallman and Tony Todd is one of those rare efforts that stays true to the original while also bringing something new to the screen.
They were just supposed to put a wreath on their mother's grave. It should have been a simple trip for bickering siblings Barbara (Patricia Tallman) and her arrogant older brother Johnnie (Bill Moseley). But a beautiful day quickly turns into a nightmare when a strange man attacks Barbara and Johnnie is killed trying to defend his sister. Without the keys to the car and more deranged attackers coming after her, Barbara is forced to flee to a nearby farm house hoping that she might be able to find help. The only help comes when Ben (Tony Todd) drives up in his rundown truck and proves he's able to fight off the strange people who appear to be dead - yet alive and moving!
As the afternoon wains into night, Barbara and Ben slowly learn the true horror of what faces them. With the world falling apart as the dead rise and start attacking people, it becomes all too clear that the best thing they can do is try and secure the house as best they can until help arrives. What neither Barbara or Ben expect to find is another band of survivors huddled in the farmhouse's basement. The brash and cowardly Harry Cooper (Tom Towles), his wife Helen (McKee Anderson), his injured daughter Sarah (Heather Mazur) and the young Tom (William Butler) and his girlfriend Judy (Katie Finneran) make up Ben and Barbara's reinforcements. As the situation outside worsens, and the number of living dead increases, the decision is made to try and get to the reserve gas pump, fill up Ben's truck, and get everyone out to safety. If anyone is going to survive the night, they're all going to have to work together or end up joining the growing army of the living dead!
The 1990 remake of 'Night of the Living Dead' worked to serve dual purposes. For starters, it was a chance to reintroduce horror fans to the world of the living dead after the popularity of zombie films had diminished. Most importantly, this remake served as the means for George Romero, Russ Streiner, and John Russo to regain control of the rights to 'Night of the Living Dead.' Due to a copyright oversight, the makers of the original film had effectively lost control of one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments and this remake gave them the chance to reclaim what was always theirs by bringing something new to theaters.
As far as remakes go, this 'Night of the Living Dead' is actually a pretty solid effort, it isn't simply the same movie shot again in color like the woefully unnecessary 'Psycho' remake. George Romero served as screenwriter once again and wisely decided to upgrade one of the original film's more languid characters, Barbara this time played by Patricia Tallman. Originally played by Judith O'Dea, the 1968 Barbara was a fragile, near-catatonic woman in a state of shock throughout most of the film. This Barbara starts out as a weak, frail woman who becomes a hardened survivor as a result of being attacked. This changeup not only makes this film a little more interesting, it also brilliantly plays with the themes of female empowerment at a time when the only other real woman action hero was named Ripley. Barbara is Ben's physical and mental equal in every way. She has her own ideas about how to survive and how to fight back leading to several other simple but effective changes to the original film.
Tony Todd's Ben is equally impressive as Duane Jones' original portrayal. Todd brings the same level of confidence and determination, but brings a sensitivity to the role. You can see the fear in his eyes, but he's not going to let that stop him from doing what he believes is right. Tom Towles as Harry is a ton of fun, even if he's a bit whiney and shouts half his lines. He exudes a sliminess that just makes him fun to hate. McKee Anderson's Helen is also a little more action-oriented not content to simply sit back and do nothing. You get the sense that if dead people hadn't come back to life and attacked them that her Helen was about ten minutes away from divorcing her jerk of a husband. William Butler's Tom and Katie Finneran's Judy are pretty good, they do what they can with the thin characters but perhaps they're a bit too old to be playing convincing teenagers.
At the helm of this outing is the legendary gore master Tom Savini. Considering he created the gore effects for 'Dawn of the Dead,' 'Day of the Dead,' 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,' and made two turns with Jason for the 'Friday the 13th' franchise, it's amazing that this movie is his only feature film directorial effort to date, a crowd-funded remake of 'Nightmare City' is in the works. Savini proves he has a knack for directing by keeping his camera moving in tight locations, keeping the action and suspense building, and staging some pretty decent dramatic moments with his cast. His 'Night of the Living Dead' proves to be an effective creepy remake that stands alongside the original film. It doesn't outshine it, but then it never had to. Like the best of remakes, it stands to the side and does its own thing with the material. I've been a fan of this movie since the first time I saw it nearly twenty years ago. Like the original, I've watched it countless times and I never seem to get tired of it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Australian release of 'Night of the Living Dead 1990' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Umbrella Entertainment. Pressed onto a BD50 disc, the artwork indicates that this is a Region B release, however, I have had no trouble playing this disc on four different Region A players, so if you were concerned about playback with this disc, you can put that worry to rest. The disc is housed in a thicker than average Blu-ray case and features reversible artwork, one side replicates the original poster art, the other some newly commissioned art. The disc opens directly to an animated main menu featuring traditional navigation options.
Good news 'Night of the Living Dead 1990' fans this Umbrella release is sans the dreaded blue tint that plagued the Twilight Time release from 2012. If you saw this film originally in the theater or discovered it on home video, you'll be pleased to see that the original warmer primary saturated colors are back where they belong. There really isn't any need to discuss that horrible blue tinting any further, so much has been written about it already, but suffice to say I was like many of other people who purchased that disc and was disappointed with that ill-advised artistic decision. This transfer is also presented in 1.77:1 instead of 1.85:1, other than some information on the sides, it doesn't look like you're losing too much image with this slight reframing. Honestly, I didn't even notice the difference in framing until I started pulling image captures from both releases. Colors are bright and rich as they should be favoring the warmer lush earth tones. Flesh tones are accurate and healthy (for the non-zombies) and primaries have plenty of pop and presence - especially red goopy blood. Black levels are also deep black inky allowing for plenty of depth to the image without crush issues.
Now, as great and wonderful as this image is, I do have to let a little air out of the balloon. After comparing the Twilight Time Blu-ray release as well as my DVD, the print sourced for this transfer would appear to be the same one used for the DVD, or of a similar vintage. This is a solid, well-detailed scan with visible film grain, but the mild print wear and tear is evident. Speckling is abundant and pronounced during the opening credits. Once the credits pass, the speckling evens out a bit but is still present. That said, this isn't an upconverted scan of the DVD master either. The DVD had a lot more visible hairs, nicks, and other debris than this presentation so whatever speckling or mild scratches you see in this master, it's baked in the source print. There is some slight edge enhancement, Johnnie's jacket displays some banding, but otherwise, there aren't any other notable compression issues to report. No DNR appears to have been used as this transfer also displays some finer details compared to the master supplied to Twilight Time. This would appear to be the same master as the HDX version that is floating around various digital distributors, but the uncompressed image allows for a lot more facial features, production design details, and makeup effects work to come through as well as increased image depth, so if you're a die-hard fan of the film like I am, this Australian release is well worth importing. Until a new 4k restoration without blue tinting and DNR is released, this is likely going to be the best this film looks on disc.
This release of 'Night of the Living Dead 1990' arrives with a very strong DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix that should really please fans who weren't satisfied with the previous Blu-ray release. Dialogue comes through crisp and clear throughout and keeps largely front and center. Sound effects, atmospherics, and the wonderfully creepy score by Paul McCollough round out the surround elements in order to keep the channels working throughout the film's run. Imaging is pretty constant, especially once the band of survivors started to board up the windows, there is a constant feeling of dimensionality and channel movement. Levels are also well balanced without any need to adjust the volume once the action kicks in.
For those who had issues with the previous Blu-ray release's subtle alterations of sound, the good news is that all of those changes are absent on this track! That tendency for sound effects like the hammering or dry clicking of the rifle trigger that would fade away or be absent entirely in the last release? They're back and appropriately present. That odd issue with the soundtrack seeming to fade in and out? Gone. Perhaps most importantly, that sound effect of a camera that accompanied the end credits photo epilogue has returned as well. It's very easy to state that this audio mix finally gets it right.
Audio Commentary: This is the same Tom Savini audio commentary that is present on the DVD as well as the Twilight Time release. It's a fantastic commentary and Savini stays engaged throughout with only one or two odd gaps explaining what he wanted to do with the film but wasn't able to due to budget, things he liked, things he didn't like. It's always interesting to hear his exasperation at the fact most of the best gore effects didn't make it past the rating process.
Interview with Director Tom Savini: (HD 28:07) A fantastic interview with Director Tom Savini talking about the film, his history directing special effects shots and how that lead to working in television and then directing this remake.
Return to the Living Dead: (HD 21:03) This is a pretty awesome interview with makeup and special effects artists John Vulich and Everett Burrell.
Interview with Patricia Tallman: (HD 16:31) Tallman is a skilled stuntwoman/actress with a vast resume so hearing her thoughts about the film and how she became involved with it as the lead actress is pretty awesome. Also interesting, some of the cutaway moments to the film actually use the master provided for the Twilight Time release with the blue tinting so it's kinda cool to watch this extra feature and compare the master on this disc to that other release.
The Dead Walk: (SD 24:54) This is a very good look back at the original 1968 film. Originally on the DVD release.
Behind the Scenes Featurette: (SD 8:15) This is a lot of fun of these guys shooting the special effects scenes and hearing Savini's direction.
Trailer: (HD 1:06)
It's been a long and troubled road getting 'Night of the Living Dead (1990)' onto Blu-ray in a fashion that is acceptable to fans of the film. While the previous master wasn't the fault of Twilight Time, they took the brunt of the storm for releasing it. This Australian release of 'Night of the Living Dead' rights the wrongs of that release. I'm a huge fan of this film, it was part of the grand one night experience I had watching all of the Romero 'Dead' films back to back so I'm extremely happy to have this film in HD on disc without the horrid color timing issues. Even though the print sourced for this image transfer isn't as strong as it could have been, it's still very good and with the awesome DTS audio mix, fans finally have a presentation that recaptures the gory glory of their first experiences with the film. Add in a host of new and vintage extra features and you have a Blu-ray release for 'Night of the Living Dead 1990' that is well worth importing. Easily a recommended purchase.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.