Director: Tom Savini
Screenplay: George A Romero, based on the original by Romero and John A Russo
Starring: Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman
Running time: 92 minutes
A remake of this much-lauded classic must have seemed like a foolhardy exercise. Romero, reworking his original script, had admitted that it was a purely financial endeavour – having made very little from the original due to bad distribution deals and as a result of the film inadvertently slipping into the public domain. Here Romero could do nothing as his film surfaced again and again, shoddily presented and edited. Then finally, the ultimate insult, colorized – a term that is unworthy of being anglicised. Given the circumstances, it was quite understandable why Romero wanted to reassert himself on the genre he created and on the film that started it all.
The directing duties are handled with surprising aplomb by Dawn of the Dead makeup effects supremo, Tom Savini. In fact, the film is so well made it’s hard to accept that it isn’t Romero calling the shots this time round. Anyone familiar with Savini’s work will know he’s not afraid to splash the gore about, but here he keeps it on a tight reign. Nothing ever feels gratuitous, every drop of blood, dismembered limb and immolated corpse are there to service plot and character development above all.
Initially the film starts out as a straight rerun of the original. Brother and sister, Johnnie (Moseley) and Barbara (Tallman), arrive at a cemetery to visit their father’s grave. As Johnnie winds up the prissy Barbara, a dishevelled figure appears in the background. Anyone familiar with the previous version will know how the scene plays out, but both Romero and Savini are determined to wrong-foot the audience with a sly twist that instantly makes anyone expecting a lazy shot-for-shot remake sit up and take notice. After a hair-raising escape, Barbara takes refuge in an apparently abandoned farmhouse, however she’s far from safe and near catatonic with shock. With the timely arrival of Ben, a pre-Candyman Tony Todd, she is able to fight off her attackers – both know they are outnumbered and that night is fast approaching.
References to the original abound: Johnnie’s ‘They’re coming to get you, Barbara!’ opening dialogue remains, a bloodied trowel hangs on the basement wall and Bill Cardille – who played a TV reporter -reprises the role here.
Like all of Romero’s Dead films, the walking dead are almost incidental to the main dynamic of the plot. It’s the conflict within the dwindling group of survivors that poses the greatest threat. Hiding in the basement of the house are more survivors. Instead of joining together they almost immediately divide into those who prefer to remain hidden and the group led by Ben who prepare to barricade and ultimately find means to escape. The tension between Ben and Harry (Towles), who remains in the basement with his family, soon descends into petty squabbling and ultimately violence as both fight for control.
In the original, starring Duane Jones as Ben, the conflict might have been interpreted as a comment on race. While the film never directly addresses the issue of racism – even the shock ending is ambiguous – the casting of a black lead in an otherwise all white cast was unusual for its time. Romero always maintained that Jones got the role because he gave the best audition. While the remake retains a black actor as its lead the focus is unmistakeably on gender. It’s in the female characters that there is a noticeable difference. Whereas Barbra in the first film remained uselessly catatonic throughout, here Romero places her centre stage.
It’s in Barbara that Romero carries on themes raised in his previous entry in the series, Day of the Dead, where the machismo of the male lead is presented as a totally destructive force that makes any hope for survival impossible. Although not really part of the Romero directed series of films, its evolution of the ideas aired in those previous films mean that it serves ideologically (if not chronologically) as something of a missing link to his later films.
Savini’s direction is faultless throughout and it is surprising he hasn’t done more since. There are strong performances all round, both Tony Todd and Patricia Tallman are outstanding in their roles.
An extended coda features rednecks rounding up the dead. We see hanged flailing bodies used for target practice and a mob cheering as the reanimated corpses are used for sport. You can see the nascent beginnings of the society Romero would present to us in the next instalment, Land of the Dead, fifteen years later.
When Barbara wakes up to this new world, an emotionless husk of the woman we first encountered less than twenty-four hours earlier, she utters a phrase to no one in particular. It’s about as nihilistic a condemnation of humanity as you could wish for and clearly exposes Romero’s agenda. And this is what has always set him apart from his imitators and whatever the current revenants du jour happens to be – that this is a film about us, not them.