top of page
  • Writer's pictureRob Binns

Night of the Living Dead (1990) Review

"They're coming to get you, Barbara..."

Warning! This Night of the Living Dead review contains (some) spoilers. Read with caution!


Revisiting Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead remake – as the credits open up over those oh-so-familiar aerial tracking shots above a car, making its way slowly into a graveyard – it’s hard not to be struck by a sense of, oh, I dunno.


Deja vu?


Well, yep – shot-for-shot remakes will do that to you. And, while Savini’s retelling of Romero’s zombie masterpiece (that word undersells it a little, though, doesn’t it?), released 22 years on after the original shocked the world, isn’t quite up there with Gus Van Sant’s much-maligned reproduction of Psycho (1960), it is playing in a very similar sandbox.


Fortunately, this Night of the Living Dead remake does bring a few refreshing new twists to the table. For one, Patricia Tallman’s Barbara – played with that air of frustratingly incapable damsel-in-distress style by Judith O’Dea in the original – comes equipped with a more steely resolve. From that opening scene in the necropolis, we get the sense that this isn’t the flailing, screeching Barbara of the 1968 film – even if the scene itself plays out exactly as a carbon copy of the original. (With the same fate for Barbara’s brother, Johnny; played, in the 1990 film, by Bill Moseley.)


Bill Moseley as Johnny in Night of the Living Dead 1990

Johnny (Bill Moseley) is a convincing doppelgänger of his 1968 counterpart.


To pontificate on that scene in the 1986 film for a moment, I just love how Romero drops us in right at the start of the zombie apocalypse; when our fictional heroes have no idea what’s going on around them. Their reactions to the zombies first appearing feel so natural, so human – so understandable and relatable in those situations.


So many zombie flicks and TV of the growing undead oeuvre these days kick off the action in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland – one already dominated by the threat of the restless dead. Even Fear the Walking Dead – a show created, ostensibly, to portray the zombie apocalypse from its very outset – gave us a few measly episodes set at the start of the end of the world, before skipping, via a few time jumps, to a period roughly parallel to that of the main show. It’s also a temporal slice of the apocalypse Romero himself never returned to – with Dawn, Day, Land and the rest all toying with different, more progressed, eras of life under de facto zombie rule.


Anyways. Having seen her brother Johnny fall and whack his head on a gravestone (we see him later, not zombified but simply dead in a truck), Barbara runs off, where she arrives at a seemingly abandoned farmhouse. (Quickly, on Johnny. I’ve always wondered about why the zombies don’t fall on him and rip him to shreds when he goes down on that grave. You know? Feels like there’s definitely some scope for a short film or comic strip detailing his journey, as a zombie, from that moment until later when he shows up to help drag the Barbara from the original film into the invading undead horde.)


At the farmhouse, things play out as expected. Ben – played with a fierce intensity, and full commitment to the bit, by a pre-Candyman Tony Todd – shows up and quickly forms a bond with Barbara.


Ben and Barbara in Night of the Living Dead 1990

Ben (Tony Todd) and a reinvented Barbara (Patricia Tallman) make a good team.


They dispatch a few of the zombies, before the farmhouse’s hidden denizens show up.


a zombie looks down from an upstairs landing on Barbara in Night of the Living Dead 1990

I see you watching me, watching you, watching me...


There’s Harry (Tom Towles), his wife Helen (McKee Anderson), and their daughter Karen (Heather Mazur). We don’t see Helen for most of it, nor Karen – who, of course, has been bitten – and Harry’s role is simply to make as many annoying decisions as possible.


The film, like in the original, soon becomes Harry as the agent of chaos, arranged against the order of Ben and Barbara, as the gang – who are also joined by Tom (William Butler) and Judy (Katie Finneran), copies of their 1968 counterparts to a fault – attempt to survive the oncoming night.


William Bitner as Tom in Night of the Living Dead 1990

Tom, played by William Bitner in Night of the Living Dead (1990).


Here’s where the film gets down to its raison d’etre – showing that it’s not the dead our gang have to worry about. But the living! Mwahaha.


Sound familiar? Of course. It’s become the zombie genre’s fallback thematic safety net. A way to justify the series of slipshod, meaningless zombie films (at least in the 90s and 00s) that would follow; a reflex that is, for the genre, as much of a staple as the gnashing teeth and shambling gait of the undead. Anyone who sat through 11 seasons of The Walking Dead (at least five of those contrived, poorly executed pieces of claptrap; and I know, because I watched ‘em all) will recognise this theme in those many, circuitous plot lines.


Remember? Where the show’s heroes find a new community, struggle to integrate, fall out, and end up leaving the place in ruins. The original Night did this first, of course, so it gets a pass. The remake has to exhaust similar themes, I know – and Barbara’s eventual survival does give the thing a bit more of a feminist twist than the OG – but on more modern viewing, it may get tiring for just those reasons.


Anyways.


If you’ve seen the original film, you know the rest – is there any point exhuming that plot? I’ll save it for my review of the 1968 version. (Although how any writer does justice to that in a review 55 years after the fact is beyond me.) What I will talk about is the zombies: which, for 1990, look damn good.


That should come as little surprise given Savini’s CV, of course. What is more surprising, though, is how the zombie makeup – to my untrained eye, at least – seems to have evolved since Savini’s work on Day of the Dead (1985) just five years earlier.


In that vein, some quick honourable mentions go to:

  • The zombie that looks like a regular fella in his Sunday best, until we see his suit – the suit he was buried in – flapping in the wind at the back, revealing his autopsy scars as it slips down over his chest. Scary!

  • The zombie with the low forehead and his legs bent back at preposterous angles behind him (a nod, perhaps, to the low-forehead helicopter zombie from Dawn? I like to think so).

  • The bald, bare-chested zombie. Good jump scare, too!

Here they are...

the Sunday best zombie in Night of the Living Dead 1990

Sunday best zombie. I call him Rich!

the upside down zombie in Night of the Living Dead 1990

Look! Here's one of them now!

the bald zombie in Night of the Living Dead 1990

Stephen King's "Ballad of the Bald Bullet".


Hot take I know, but the zombies feel to have even more menace than those in Romero’s 1985 film. Providing, that is, they’re shot up close – and this leads me to my biggest gripe of the Night of the Living Dead remake.


That downside? That, in sticking to the slow zombies – a principle it would still be 14 years before Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake would shuck – Savini’s film robs the undead of much of their terror. They’re too scattered, too spread out; too easy to deal with one-on-one. It’s not until the film has chewed through a good two-thirds of its runtime that we see the zombies begin to gather en masse – and even then there’s still a sense that the heroes could still, I dunno…just run away?! The zombies only ever seem to be two- or three-deep around the farmhouse’s entry points that the film’s mid-tier levels of dread never feel in danger of overwhelming a modern audience’s sensibilities.


Maybe naked people were scarier in the 90s.


the zombie horde shrinks back from a flame in Night of the Living Dead 1990

Come on baby, light my fire.


Anyways, the Night of the Living Dead’s 1990 remake – despite exceedingly average reviews upon release – is certainly worth a watch. I think it’s aged well: providing you view it, as I’m sure Savini himself does, as a tribute to the original, rather than something that could ever come close to displacing it. It has some pacing issues and gets bogged down in the middle, but most of the actors are game and, like I said, the creature work is predictably solid.


Heather Mazur as Karen in Night of the Living Dead 1990

Karen eventually becomes a zombie. (But come on, you knew that, right?)


Obviously, this remake lacks the scathing social commentary of the original, with the parallels to the Vietnam War and biting critique of America’s treatment of black people simply lost to the winds of the intervening decade.


Still, the film is watchable, providing you treat it as a popcorn horror flick; a piece of latter-day nostalgia, rather than as the artform and protest that marked the original out as an important – and still resonant – piece of cinema.


And, like I said, Night of the Living Dead (1990) does throw up a couple of small – but ultimately significant – twists that I won’t spoil here.


Well, I might spoil one. The film did come out 33 years ago, people!


Tony Todd as Ben in Night of the Living Dead 1990

Gotcha!


The Night of the Living Dead (1990) is available to watch for $4.99 on Amazon Prime or YouTube, or for $3.99 on Google Play Movies & TV. Enjoy! (Oooh, and for more zombie action, be sure to check out my review of Braindead (1992) and Malum (2023). Okay, so the creepy corpses in that latter aren’t strictly zombies, I guess – but they’re still worth a watch!)


Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page