I know that the general point of “Reel Rumbles” is to pit an apple against an orange, but I hope you’ll indulge me as I put the spotlight on an apple and another apple grown from its own seed – the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead by George A. Romero vs. the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake by Tom Savini. I’m personally abject to writing about content and including spoilers, but it’s somewhat unavoidable here so if you’ve not seen both films you should stop reading and watch them now. Go ahead; I’ll wait.
By design, the two films feature the same story. The premise is that seven people hole up in a farm house amidst a zombie outbreak. The chief difference between stories is that in 1968, we are privy to updates about how the rest of the country is responding to this crisis. We see news reports at semi-regular intervals, and even follow a local posse on a zombie hunt. In 1990, there are snippets of updates, but just enough to establish that outside of the farm house is sheer chaos. In 1968, we as a society still believed in the infrastructure of our government; that our local, state and federal resources could effectively mobilize if push came to shove. This establishes the clear objective from the beginning: hold out until help arrives.
By 1990, though, that confidence had yielded to cynicism and there is less sense that anyone has confidence that help will ever come. There is much more of a sense that it’s up to these people to stay alive, and that there may not be anything beyond that. As a commentary on social anxieties, each can be seen through the prism of either conservative or liberal views. It’s not for me to say whether either is preferable, but I can tell you that I’m a 1968 guy. I like to believe that in the end, we won’t be left to our own devices, that other people will be willing to help us.
There’s an awful lot of exposition in 1968 that takes place in scenes where Ben is boarding up windows, or the group sits around watching a TV broadcast. In 1990, there are zombies trying to break through the windows being boarded, energizing the scenes; no one has time to watch TV. In 1990, the emphasis is on keeping things moving, letting the tensions escalate until they reach a crescendo of violence. It’s a darker conclusion (strange, given that no one actually survives in 1968), befitting its more cynical commentary. Also, in 1990, Tom and Judy Rose have an actual reason for being in the farm house; it belongs to Tom’s uncle. No one in 1968 has any real reason for being in the house, other than they all managed to converge there, which seems unlikely. But then, so does having that many people—and zombies—all at one farm house in the middle of Nowhere, PA.
Despite shoring up the dead weight, it loses something in the process. There is a more pervasive sense of being overwhelmed in 1968, and it comes from those longer passages in which nothing is actively threatening our characters. We know the zombies are out there. We know more are coming. Somehow, knowing they’re out there and coming is more menacing than having them crash through the window. I think this is an instance where the idea of something bad happening is actually worse than something bad actually happening.
Duane Jones carries the 1968 original film with a thoughtful, sensitive Ben. It’s not just the strongest performance in either of these movies, but it’s a genuinely good performance, period. Tony Todd is admirable in the role, but Jones owns it. Judith O’Dey’s catatonic Barbara is alternately sympathetic and obnoxious to endure; Patricia Tallman’s proactive Barbara is recognizable as an actual person.
Since much of the tension in both films derives from the goings-on inside the house, Harry Cooper is at the heart of each version. In 1968, Karl Hardman was aggressive, but understandable. He’s the only one in the house shouldering the burden of being the head of a family; Tom and Judy/Judy Rose are responsible only to one another, and Ben and Barbara have no obligation to anyone else. In 1990, though, Tom Towles is less accessible; he exists largely as an adversarial oaf whose sole purpose in life seems to be to spread misery. Unfortunately, we all know real people just like that and it would be my luck to be stuck with one of them during the zombie apocalypse. Individually, I’ll take most of the 1990 cast over their ’68 predecessors, but Jones and Hardman have a lock on those two key roles.
George Romero co-wrote both films and directed the original, while turning over the director’s chair to Tom Savini in 1990. There are, as I’ve already mentioned, a lot of lingering, static shots in the 1968 original during which we as an audience are asked to absorb a lot of exposition and keep from being boarded, er, bored to death. And yet, these are the scenes that generate the sense of dread that drives the film. Savini’s film is chock full of action; the zombies just keep coming.
Aesthetically, Savini’s film is more kinetic, more dynamic and more explicit in stating its bleak outlook on society. The zombie makeup is far more sophisticated in his 1990 film, as it should have been. These may not be the most frightening zombies ever filmed, but they’re pretty convincing. It’s a lot like comparing Klingons from the original Star Trek TV series and their movie counterparts; the original versions are far more primitive, but they have a look that works for them.
Night of the Living Dead (1968). On a lot of levels, the remake is an improvement over its predecessor. And yet, I felt like I was watching a movie during the remake. It was less organic than the original, almost like going from a documentary to a dramatization, where the point of the latter is to hit the essential points of the story rather than to explore its depths.