Night of the Living Dead (1990)—a George Romero-approved remake of his 1968 cult horror classic, directed by makeup wizard Tom Savini—tells once again the chilling tale of seven people holed-up in a farmhouse besieged by armies of the un-dead. As the terrified little group fights for their lives, they begin to find themselves as plagued by the evil lurking within as by the ravening flesh-eaters battering on hastily boarded-up windows and doors. “Splatter King” Savini keeps things moving—and the blood flowing—as the survivors dwindle one by one.
"They're coming to get you, Barbara. They're coming..."
'Night of the Living Dead' (1968) is a classic, and there's no arguing that point. The film kick-started the zombie horror sub-genre, proved to be the most profitable horror film of all time when it was released, has spawned countless imitators, remakes, and sequels, and has influenced generations of filmmakers. Whether it's in black and white or colorized, it's a film that deserves respect as an innovative force that changed movie history. None of those reasons are why the film has more home video releases than possibly any other film in existence...that honor goes to a copyright loophole that has cost George A. Romero almost fifty years of lost royalties.
In 1990, Romero revisited the film that made him famous, rewriting a script based off the one he and John A. Russo wrote, reworking some of the broader themes, and altering one of the characters dramatically, due to the blanket negative portrayal of women in the first film as victims, borderline catatonic and helpless. Special effects pioneer Tom Savini would helm the remake, bringing with him a gorier set of sensibilities.
The story told in 'Night of the Living Dead' is the most basic of its genre, another reason its appeal hasn't faded even to this day. On a day no different than any other, the world is forever changed. For reasons unknown and unexplained, the recent dead have reanimated, their shambling remains feeding on the flesh of the living, their infectious bites spreading the condition. A woman (Patricia Tallman as Barbara) and her brother Johnnie (Bill Moseley) unknowingly enter the most dangerous place in this new world, a mortuary, to visit their departed mother's grave, and soon discover the terror unfolding around the world. With Johnnie killed in an attack by a risen body, Barbara finds herself holed up in a two story country home not too far away. Survival, though, doesn't just involve avoiding the bite of the dead, as other humans seeking refuge prove incapable of setting aside differences to work for mutual survival.
I've never put too much stock into comparing the 1968 and 1990 versions of 'Night of the Living Dead,' as I see both as essential entries into the zombie annuls. The changes between films, as such, do not disturb me as much as they might other fans of the franchise. There's much to appreciate with this remake, even if it lacks the cultural relevancy and important undertones that the original was so thickly cast in. Sure, the allegory for racial relations in the film is not a driving factor or even implied message in the remake, not so much as the basic selfish human nature on display, where the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. If anything, the climax is an interesting note, where the two opposing sides in the human struggle find themselves in the opposite place from where they were fighting before, a subtlety that shows both sides essentially admitting fault in their altercation.
Horror icon Tony Todd is a very competent replacement for Duane Jones as Ben, his deep, soothing yet ominous voice fitting the urgency of the character, particularly in his struggle with fellow survivor Harry Cooper (Tom Towles), playing the heel role in a manner that makes viewers loathe him, a sign that his performance is also on the money. The younger leads (William Butler as Tom, Katie Finneran as Judy Rose) prove to be more annoying than anything, with Tom's wishy-washy demeanor and Judy Rose's inability to do anything but screech and scream turning the characters into jokes. Talman's Barbara is a likable, relatable lead, an every-woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who overcomes her fears to become extraordinary herself. This new representation of the character is a little over the top at times, sure, but definitely makes for a more entertaining viewing experience.
Unlike Gus Van Sant's butchering of a legend, Savini and Romero work out a film that is a kind of homage to a classic, one that is more accessible to younger audiences, yet doesn't alienate the existing fans as much as many remakes do. Perhaps the story is less scary and sinister in this adaptation, more aimed at survival horror than general terror. This remake definitely could have been terrible, but it avoided all the dangerously stupid pratfalls that most revisions fall for. It's not quite a classic in its own right, but this 1990 adaptation can certainly be seen as more than a guilty pleasure, a fan favorite that may one day be put on the same level as its predecessor.
The Disc: Vital Stats
The 1990 iteration of 'Night of the Living Dead' went the opposite route of the 1968 film, when it comes to Blu-ray. While the original film can be found from a few companies who threw the film into their library for quite literally nothing, the remake was licensed from its rights holder (Columbia Pictures/Sony) to Twilight Time, who pressed a limited edition run of 3,000 copies of the disc. This disc, only available through the Screen Archives site, became the first title from the company to sell out in its pre-release window, driving market price up exponentially. Unlike past Twilight Time titles, though, 'Night of the Living Dead' did not come with a magnet for the first X amount of buyers, though it does include the brief booklet inside the case. The Blu-ray disc itself is a Region A marked BD25, with no annoying pre-menu content or packaging variations of any kind. The menu is static and silent.
I would be lying if I said that I haven't been keeping track of the melodrama surrounding this particular Blu-ray release. In fact, I'll admit to sitting back and enjoying the hysteria unfold. I'm well aware of the issues that supposedly taint this Blu-ray disc and have turned it into one of the biggest disc controversies of the year, and I went into my viewing with this information in mind, though my mind had yet to be made up. After one sitting with the film, I can say that, yes, there is a problem. That said, I do not believe it to be an issue worthy of a full recall, although I will plainly admit the issue on this disc will affect its market value and prevent it from being a highly sought-after collector's item like 'Fright Night' before it. I will also admit the issue affected how it was scored, though not as dramatically as some may assume.
Presented in 1080p (AVC MPEG-4, 1.85:1), 'Night of the Living Dead' (1990) provides more to talk about than just a single controversy. The disc has its shares of ups and downs, regardless of if one finds issue with the infamous tint or not. Detail levels are not entirely consistent; this can be seen in facial features, and foreground and background objects alike (grass blades particularly). Some of the issues with detail may be due to some minor DNR application, and considering Twilight Time doesn't remaster the films provided to them for distribution, it's entirely likely this is baked in. There are moments in that just don't feel right, like Tom's denim-ish jacket, which looks painted on, lacking any texture whatsoever, at times almost floating, and Ben's pinstriped shirt sees the vertical lines unnaturally fade in a few shots. There are also patches of skin that just look awkward, sometimes visible in Ben's stubble, Tom's smoother cheeks, or even on Barbara's face that don't appear to be makeup. There are a few minor splashes of noise, and a couple of bits where it looks like edges are a little less than natural, with an outlined appearance, most particularly the shot of the trees in the first shot when the siblings exit their vehicle.
Now, that all sounds bad, but there are positives, I swear. I was regularly impressed with the amount of stray hairs, and how clearly they stand out, on top of a few cute bits of peach fuzz popping off Barbara's features. Skin tones and colors are natural and strong...when they aren't blown all to hell. There's solid depth of picture regularly, and there's nary a bit of banding or artifacting, or any other compression artifact throughout the entire runtime of the film. All that leaves us to talk about is the blue tint...
For those who aren't fully aware, this disc was shipped out early by Screen Archives, the distributor for Twilight Time products, and as soon as it found its way into the hands of consumers, the gripes began to hit the net. It didn't take long, because the issue is found in a very early part of the film. A number of scenes are heavily tinted blue, removing any natural hues, to create a darker, more ominous tone, visually. As of the publication of this review, there has not been an official statement as to what exactly happened, but needless to say, it does affect the viewing experience. Take, for example, the first scenes of Ben and Barbara inside the house. Later scenes with them will show her hair a stunning orange, his shirt a clean white, but that isn't apparent until the shot of the moon designating the sun has set. For a short period of time, the picture looks blue in its entirety. Even exterior shots in the affect sequences look ominous, unnaturally overcast.
Whatever (and whoever) caused this, all that matters is that once it's seen, it can't be unseen. It's also odd that skin tones return to normal once night truly begins. Am I happy with the product I paid a handsome fee for? Honestly, no. The product inside this expensive package belongs in a budget bin, not a high end collector's line.
The audio for 'Night of the Living Dead' (1990) also has come with some minor controversies, though they apparently require someone who is very familiar with the film to catch, but, like the video, we'll save the details on that for last. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track issued this release is actually a pretty darned good one. Dialogue is clear and very clean, with natural fades and surges in volume, without even the slightest bit of lost information under more hectic scenes. When the moaning gets louder, the hammering surges in urgency, and the score equally swells, dialogue remains very understandable, which is an accomplishment indeed. Rears get some very minor ambiance, but are mostly present for a very powerful score bleed. Bass pops its head up as an atmospheric effect and increases in urgency as the film rolls on, for a nice added bump, albeit a light one. The film features solid directionality later in the runtime, as the surrounding zombie horde's banging and thumping does come across from numerous angles properly.
And now, the controversy. Some sound effects found on the DVD are no longer present in this Blu-ray edition. I can confirm, for a fact, that the two reported issues making the rounds are indeed not on this disc. When Cooper first takes hold of the shotgun and fires until it's empty, an audible clicking is discernible, clearly, but when he is upstairs after a frantic, short reload and again runs empty, the hammer click is incredibly muted, to the point that it sounds like it were erased from the mix, with just a ghost of it remaining. The DVD edition isn't blatantly loud, but it's much more apparent than this. Additionally, I can also confirm that once the film is over, and we flash over a few still photographs (in an orange tint) before the main credits, the camera snapshot sound with each transition has been removed. Not taking these alterations into account, this disc would have been given a four out of five star score for the audio. However, this loss of information in the audio track is not something that should be ignored, and the score has been knocked down accordingly.
The audio track supplements (commentary and score track) are found in the Set Up tab of the menu.
'Night of the Living Dead' (1990) is not a horror essential...not yet. It's still a very entertaining film, one that fixes some wrongs of the original film, and actually has a purpose, rather than just money. Fans of the film don't need to be told about the movie, though, they already know they love and/or need it. What they don't need, though, is a Blu-ray that taints their memories of the film, and this disc does that, with altered video and audio elements that are a travesty. There is, quite honestly, no excuse for the mistakes found on this disc, whatsoever. This disc will command a high price for low quality. That sounds like a bad formula to me!