Over the years, because the film is in the public domain, Night of the Living Dead has been revisited quite a few times. But this article will be specifically comparing the original 1968 film to the 1990 remake. Over the last twenty-five years, George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead has only increased its classic status while the remake has become a sort of underground cult classic. But how do they hold up when compared to each other? Let’s find out.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead remains one of the most important endeavors of low-budget filmmaking, just to prove how much can be accomplished with virtually nothing. It was the first modern zombie film. The first movie that dropped notions of voodoo and witchcraft and instead focused on people living in modern American society who were facing something they could not explain. The zombies that were created here (although they would not actually be called zombies until Dawn of the Dead) set the standard for every zombie film that would follow it. Night of the Living Dead kicked off a whole new sub-genre of peopled trapped in an isolated location, fighting off overpowering forces. It cost almost nothing to make and became one of the most important horror movies ever made. It’s a socio-political horror movie to be sure, but much of that was accidental or subconscious—although that does not discredit it.
The film starts out with Barbara and Johnny, two siblings in their twenties, driving to put a wreath on their father’s grave. Right off the bat, things take a turn for the worst, as a walking corpse surprises the two of them, killing Johnny and sending Barbara to run to a nearby farmhouse for safety. There, she meets Ben, a tall and self-assured black man who immediately takes on a heroic presence in the movie. This was a very big deal at the time. Even in 1968, people of color were not given too many opportunities were available for major acting roles. This was one of the first films to ever have a black man in the lead role, playing the hero. But race does not factor into the character, and the fact that his casting helps the movie to say something larger is almost a happy accident, like the casting of Ripley in Alien (a role originally written as a man).
Race is a factor in the tension during Night of the Living Dead, but it is not the sole factor and it is not the core issue. The core issue is—like all of Romero’s zombie movies—society itself. With the small scale of the film, Romero is able to look at society under a microscope. Here we have seven people trapped in a farm house and it happens to be enough to look at and show the deconstruction of society and how a group of people forced together to work toward a common goal always disagree and collapse under their own weight. With the people in the farmhouse, we already have two political parties forming.
There is Ben, who wants to board up the windows and fortify the house. He wants them to be able to hold off the zombies in case of an attack or to be somewhat protected until they can find a way out. Then there is Cooper, who wants to barricade himself in the basement and ignore the problem. He says they’ll all be safe down there, and Ben points out that if the zombies break down the door to the basement, it’s all over and there is no way out. The bulk of the picture is actually formed by the two men arguing with one another.
In the end, because they can’t agree on anything, they are all killed. All of them except for Ben, who is tired, worn-out and completely drained. When they locals arrive in the morning to pick off the rest of the wandering zombies, they shoot Ben as well, and it’s up to the viewer to ultimately determine whether they mistook him for a zombie or whether they just shot him anyway. It’s easy to read both ways.
For such a cheap film, it made a lasting impression and it will never not be relevant. While tame by today’s standards, it was one of the first movies made in the US to actually show on-screen gore and was actually quite shocking, something that Romero would continue to push with each movie.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990)
This is one of the only horror remakes to bring back the original screenwriter. When a horror remake credits the original writer it is usually because they used the same script. But with this film, George Romero wrote the film’s screenplay, deciding that he could use it to fix what he felt were some shortcomings of the original film or just things that would not gel with a 1990 audience. And this actually works very well, because it fixes the film’s number one problem: Barbara.
In the original film, Barbara screams and cries after the first zombie attack and then falls into a catatonic state that she never recovers from, and she eventually dies. Her character is very weak and while some people would certainly react in that way, it’s more interesting if she has a little more fight in her. Well, that was what Romero thought and Barbara in the remake has a whole lot more fight in her. It’s an interesting example to showcase how changing one thing can have an effect on everything else. With Barbara being a forceful presence in the story, a lot changes, particularly the political dynamic. It’s interesting to have a third party stand between Ben and Cooper and provide the voice of reason.
The makeup effects for the film are outstanding. Obviously they were able to improve a lot in this department with the advantages of time and money that the first film did not have. These zombies are incredibly disturbing. They actually look dead. The designs were meticulously studied and the end results are unnerving, and are stand as some of the best zombie movie effects in history.
Like most remakes, this one is best when it goes in a different direction from the original, and is least successful when it tries to do the same things over again. Luckily, unlike a lot of the horror remakes out there, it actually finds a pretty good balance between the two. While the original remains the classic and has a bit more lasting subtext, Night of the Living Dead 1990 is able to stand beside its predecessor as a solid film.