Sunday, June 21, 2009

Twice-Told Tales

Though remakes were hardly uncommon by 1990, the word ‘remake’ didn’t quite have the connotation it does today. The idea of a modern film that does exactly what some older film did except with different people (usually Americans in place of an originally foreign cast) didn’t really become part of the modern vernacular until 2002 or thereabouts when The Ring showed up and did effectively what it’s Japanese progenitor did but in English and, in my opinion, better. The first film like this though, again just as I see it, was Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead. It does exactly what George A. Romero’s 1968 film did with one notable exception. It’s a shame that this film doesn’t measure up in any way to the original because it had a lot going for it including a cast of then-rising character actors and a conclusion that predicts one of the major trends in today’s zombie films.

Night of the Living Dead
by Tom Savini
When I said the plot was exactly the same, I wasn’t kidding. Barbara and her brother go visit their dad’s grave, poor Johnnie gets his head knocked in, Barbara flees to a house, meets Ben and then the people in the cellar. There are news reports, a lot of barricading, a botched gas’n’go, and then things go south at the end. I won’t ruin the only surprise the film has in store for you by telling you what George Romero altered in the script to make this film unique from his original story. And while we’re on the subject of George, let’s discuss my biggest problem with this film. In order for a remake to prove its worth, there has to be a good reason that the producers or the director decided to tell the same story twice. In the case of The Blob and The Thing, they had improved make-up and effects technology to add horror to two interesting stories. In the case of The Ring, Gore Verbinski added a much needed layer of atmosphere to Hideo Nakata’s screenplay and made one of the most moody and perfectly stylized horror films of the last twenty years. But then there are films like Quarantine, the remake of Jaume Bolaguero and Paco Plaza’s [Rec]. That film offered nothing to make the story of [Rec] more effective; the only difference was that Americans did all the screaming. That’s not a good enough reason. If I could ask George A. Romero anything, I’d ask him why he remade Night of the Living Dead.

Night of the Living Dead is a nearly perfect film. Like Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up It's timeless but it's also a snapshot of the time period in which it took place. When it isn't hinting at really important social issues (which this country is still in the process of solving) it's actually legitimately scary. It redefined what horror could do and showed that you didn't need to be a major studio to scare people and direct actors convincingly. The remake of Night is really just a speedy, colorized version of the original film with none of its implications. Ben and Harry argue a lot quicker and a lot more angrily but their conflict doesn’t change in any meaningful way. If anything the script changes just make this film feel more like the B film that the original Night refused to be. I don’t know if Romero’s script called for less convincing delivery or if Tom Savini just isn’t much of a director, but no one feels like a real person so much as they do caricatures of the original cast. I know it wasn’t the fault of the actors because we have the finest low-rent character actors of the day in the important roles. As Ben the always captivating Tony Todd (who you can't avoid if you watch enough horror films. He was the title character in Candyman and shows up in trash like Hatchet in his spare time) does his level best but he does too much shouting for no particular reason. Patricia Tallman who was a few years away from a small cameo in Army of Darkness as a witch and many years from Dead Air, a ripoff of both Bruce McDonald's Pontypool and British mini-series series Dead Set, is fine but her transformation from catatonic to cool feels a trifle forced. Bill Moseley only gets a few seconds of screen time as the doomed Johnnie which is a shame because he does tend to shine in movies like this. Tom Towles, who promptly faded from the public eye after this film, is not quite as good as he is in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer but I sure did hate him so job well done I guess. The real problem is that the film is in over-drive the entire time and no one calms down until most of our heroes are dead. By 1990, no one who was going to see this movie hadn’t already seen Night of the Living Dead and knew the story by heart. So why is everyone in such a big hurry to get to the end, they've got nowhere to go? Tony Todd and Tom Towles run around the house delivering their dialogue at break-neck speed as the movie careens headlong towards a conclusion we already know is coming instead of reveling in what it could have done differently. Tom Savini seemed to understand that the movie was just a rehash and wanted to skip to all the gory stuff and the altered conclusion, which brings me back to my original question.

Tom Savini, for those of you scratching your heads, is or was anyway, one of the most respected make-up men in horror movies. He was a photographer in Vietnam for a short period during the war and saw enough real viscera to know how to reproduce it convincingly. He came home and apprenticed under Alan Ormsby on the films Deranged and Deathdream before meeting George A. Romero. From Martin on, Savini was Romero’s go-to guy for blood and guts. When he wasn’t busy making Day of the Dead look totally sick, he was ladling the innards on slasher films like Friday The 13th, The Burning and Nightmare in a Damaged Brain. Anyway, except for a few episodes of Romero’s TV program Tales from the Darkside, Savini was new to the director’s chair, which probably accounts for the artlessness of Night of the Living Dead. Everything is lit way too much and no one’s acting is ever more than unremarkable. Worst of all, the effects are really pretty lame. Savini’s biggest mistake was delegating the gore to other people. There really wasn’t anyone more qualified to do that job than Savini himself so while he turned his attention to directing, the effects were necessarily going to suffer. Even the zombies in The Dead Next Door were better executed. And actually the ending isn’t all that dissimilar to that films as implications go.

When the film has shown its final hand and the action has run its course, we take a long, slow tour of what the ‘resistance’ looks like. The same rednecks who were content to shoot Ben as if he were a zombie in the original go one step further in Romero’s revised script. We see them tying zombies to trees, hanging them, and wrestling with them in the ring. In essence we have a run-through of the debauchery scenes in Land of the Dead. That coping-with-the-living-dead motif has been a staple of the new school zombie film and has shown up in everything from comedies like Fido to low-budget films like Severed: Forest of the Dead to major studio outings like the upcoming Zombieland. It’s a theme that Romero really loves and has, since failing to do so in the original Night of the Living Dead, brought it out in everyone of his zombie films. That said, I can’t imagine that the reason he decided to sink money into this movie was for a five minute exploration of something he knew he could do better. Nor do I think it was an excuse to put returning cast members Bill Cardille (who reprises his role as a newscaster) and producer Russell Streiner (who played the original Johnny) back in front of a camera.
So while I can’t figure why Romero decided to do it if you’re looking for the stopgap between Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead this is it. I feel like it was compulsory to want to redo Night because there was nothing about the production that screamed “new and exciting”. I’ve seen much better and I’ve most assuredly seen worse, I just don’t know that I’ve seen any quite so workmanlike and purposeless.

No comments: