Night of the Living Dead is a staple in the history of horror, be it with its bold casting choices, casting Daune Jones (a black man) as the lead character, something unheard of in 1968, or helping to spawn the cannibalistic zombie genre (even though they don’t once use the word zombie in this film), and eventually putting the names George Romero and John Russo on the map. Even choosing to make the film in black and white, even though the color format was available, was somewhat of a risky move with most new films coming out in color. But one of the biggest things it is known for is having one of the biggest copy righting mistakes in movie history or for any media history for that matter, which in returned left this movie in the public domain, meaning anyone could use the name, setting, characters, or even redistribute it without needing permission or having to pay any royalties. This lead to two things, one being the many people who worked very hard on this movie did not get the rightful money they deserved, and the second being that anybody could resell or remake the movie in any fashion they want, with the second of these things happening a lot.
If you were to look and see how many VHS distributers released this movie under their companies, you would lose count. But this didn’t stop with just the VHS companies, if you buy a compilation set of DVDs with older movies on them, this one is more than likely on there. Of course it didn’t just stop with them selling the movie, but a lot of production companies went back and colorized the film, trying to make it more appealing to the new generation.
So how many remakes, and reimaginations are there of this one movie? Which ones live up to the name Night of the Living Dead, and which ones should have been shelved before they were ever released? Well, I’m going to go through all the ones I could get my hands on, and try to sort out these questions. I’ll let you know how these movies all differ from one another and which of those are worth giving a watch.
First let’s go over the plot to the original, if you haven’t seen this movie, then stop reading this and go watch it. If you have seen it then you already know the plot, the infamous lines, and how this movie has, in my opinion, the best ending of any horror movie ever made.
But I digress, the film starts with a brother and sister, Johnny and Barbra, going to place a wreath on their father’s grave. Johnny, getting antsy, tries to spook his sister, who seems uncomfortable in the ominous graveyard. Johnny notices a man off in the distance and uses it to his advantage, by saying one of the most recognizable lines in horror history, “They’re coming to get you Barbra”. Johnny starts to dash towards the car, as Barbra slowly walks after him apologizing to the man. The man grabs hold of her and we get to see our first ghoul. Johnny comes back to help out, but in his struggle, ends up getting his head smashed on a gravestone.
Barbra runs to the car and locks herself inside as the ghoul ambles over to her. He smashes a rock though the window and Barbra releases the parking break, sending the car rolling down a hill, and eventually crashing into a tree. She gets out and runs into a seemingly abandoned farm house. Still disoriented form everything that has happened, she wonders around the house until a truck pulls up in the dark. Enter our hero Ben, who pulled over at the farm house after noticing the gas pump, the truck he has is virtually empty. He quickly takes out the two ghouls that had made their way to the house, and tries to question Barbra, hoping to find out any information that he can. Ben decides that it would be best to board up the house, while a near catatonic Barbra wonders around.
They finish reinforcing one of the rooms, and stop to take a break. Ben starts telling his story about how he had ended up at the house from Beekman’s Diner, and his previous interactions with the ghouls. Barbra finally starts to pull herself together and tells him her story, but starts to lose it at the end, yelling about going out to find her brother. Ben tries to calm her down and tells her the truth about the possibility that her brother is dead. She starts to attack him, and in a scene that took some guts not to cut out, Ben punches Barbra, knocking her out.
From here we get to meet the rest of the cast, married couple Harry and Helen Cooper, along with their sick daughter Karen, and also a young couple Tom and Judy, who have all been hiding in the basement. Right away Ben and Harry don’t seem to like each other, Ben catches Harry in a lie about him not being able to hear them when they first made it to the house. The confrontation between these two characters is great; this starts to make the movie less about surviving from the ghouls, and more about trying to survive with each other. People often say that this movie has underling tones of racism between the two characters, but it’s hard to say since the part of Ben in the original script wasn’t specifically written for a black actor.
Since I don’t want to give away too much of the movie, I’ll give a broad overview of the rest of the movie. They board up the house, and then try to get gas for the truck. It doesn’t end up going so well, this helps build pressure in the house between Ben and Harry, leading to a final conflict between the two. The sheriff’s posse comes sweeping through the area, trying to end the epidemic, leading to one hell of a great ending.
So let’s take a look at some of the movies that carry the title Night of the Living Dead. First up we have 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake. This remake was written by George Romero and directed by Tom Savini. It is also mostly hated by diehard fans of the original. This movie was made largely in part to try and retain the copyright of the name, but once again failed to capture any money from the 1968 original.
The plot mostly follows the same direction as the original movie, with little tidbits changed here or there, but there are a couple of large changes that didn’t have to be made. The biggest one is Barbra’s character, instead of being the weak hysterical woman character, that now being Judy’s part, she becomes more of a super character, hinging on the edge of being psychotic. The second biggest change is the entire ending, the final fight between Ben and Harry is completely changed, and not for the better. Also they make the zombies seem too slow in this movie, making it way too easy for Barbra to leave the house in the end. It comes off feeling like the zombies are no threat at all, taking away most of the suspense.
In the original, they try and blame the dead rising on radiation from a satellite returning from Venus, but in this movie they give every explanation from Voodoo, to alien organisms, to judgment day. Even with some of these small changes, all the major lines are there, but none of them have the same feeling as they did in the original. Even with the same confrontations between Ben and Harry, it just doesn’t seem to have the same intensity, but you do feel more hatred between the two.
This is not to say that all the changes were bad, the new detailed look to the dead is great. They also did a good job giving more back story to the characters. For example instead of all the characters just happening onto the farm house, it now becomes Tom’s uncles’ house, where Tom and Judy ran to wait out the epidemic. They also show the now dead uncle and cousin of Tom when Barbra and Ben first make it to the house. Another thing they did a great job with, is the casting; a young Tony Todd did a great job stepping into the role of Ben, and Tom Towles did a great job as the heated Harry Cooper both bring a lot of passion to their parts.
I feel this movie gets a bad rap, more so because remaking movies was not a real common practice in 1990. Don’t get me wrong this movie is not better than the original, but it does have its own special charm about it. It might have been that I saw this remake before seeing the original, and also that I saw it a younger age, leaving a lasting impression with me. This movie isn’t near as horrible as people say it is, and it’s differently worth at least one watch.
Next on our list we have Night of the Living Dead 30th Anniversary Edition, and I want to be straight forward and say this movie IS as bad as everyone says it is. If you’ve never heard of this movie before, be thankful, its existence is unnecessary and a black spot in horror history, zombie cinema history and especially Night of the Living Dead history. The story behind this movie is that after Romero had made his remake, trying to copyright the name NOTLD, and having failed to do so, that John Russo would try to add a few scenes to the original movie and also try to copyright the original movie, once again failing at doing so. But all this led to was a movie that was a complete eyesore, with some even worse sound quality.
I really feel like this movie had more to do with John Russo being tired of not getting the credit he should have gotten with his huge part in the making of the original film. Even though he did go on to write scripts for a few other hit horror movies, most noticeably Return of the Living Dead, Romero ended up with the more successful career, and this could be a way to help get his name back out there.
They filmed a few new scenes to add to the movie, and also adding new music, trying to update a movie that never needed it. The scenes are just awful, irrelevant and very obliviously out of place. They tried to add a back-story to the cemetery zombie, getting a much older and larger Bill Heinzman to reprise the role, a couple of scenes of zombies that were supposed to be from the dinner, and a very annoying preacher foretelling the end of days. The scenes with the preacher are almost unwatchable, just spouting off religious jargon and just coming off too over the top. All these new scenes were shot in black and white to try and blend it in with the rest of the movie, but the film quality is better and makes them easily stand out.
I do want to say that not all of the added music is done poorly, some of it does feel like it flows with the movie, but for every one of those there is four more that are just bad. I don’t know how they ended up screwing up the sound in the original movie, but now some of the scenes seem to echo and crack, making it very hard to hear what is being said.
I can’t believe that after John Russo saw this finished product, that he still thought it was a good idea to release it to the public. This is one that should have just stayed buried in a closet somewhere. This movie is only for the hardcore fan that wants to see every cut of this movie, I urge you to stay away otherwise.
With the 30th anniversary edition coming out in 1998, we would have to wait another eight years for someone not related to the 1968 original to take a stab at it, with Night of the Living Dead 3D, and yes it is in 3D. This movie feels more like just an updated version of the original, with some major changes to the characters and plot. Mostly this film updates the technological items used, bringing it into the new millennium, with the use of cell phones and vehicles more suited for the current year.
The movie still incorporates all the major scenes, the cemetery and the farmhouse, but mixes in a crazy mortician, played by the very popular Sid Haig, and his mortuary. It’s a decent attempt to bring the movie into the 2000’s, bringing more common topics like drugs and casual sex to the forefront of the plot. They did change the characters a lot, instead of Ben and Henry making most of the internal danger for the group, they old friends. Also they changes the dynamic of Johnny, instead of being the hero in the beginning and saving Barbra from the zombies, he runs to the car and drives off, leaving Barbra to fend for herself. Another big difference in this movie is that the dead can still talk right after death, before all their memories die off. All of this makes this movie feel more distant from the others, only loosely following the plot and adding new characters, making it more of its own movie.
There are some down sides to this movie, it’s definitely not as suspenseful as the original, and the character interaction isn’t as good. Another thing that doesn’t make sense is the explanation of why the zombies are coming back to life, and yes this is the first NOTLD to use the word zombie. The mortician tells everyone that he brought them back to life by having a medical leakage into his embalming tools, which isn’t the worst explanation ever, but when a random person dies from just an ordinary injury they also come back, so it would have to have been some sort of airborne virus. The worst thing is adding the 3D gimmick, all the 3D special effects feel like they are just thrown in to have them, you could have eliminated all of them and you wouldn’t have noticed a difference.
The movie isn’t that bad, and if the name would have been different the movie would be just average, but one thing pushed it over the edge, that on the DVD they never put a 2D version. I can’t see why they couldn’t have kept the original cut before they put in the 3D effects, and it’s not like the new technology with the nice glasses you get in the theatre, it’s the old 80’s style red and blue cardboard glasses that fall apart as soon as you touch them. And watching the movie without them isn’t impossible, but very annoying. If you like 3D movies then this one is an average movie to watch, but gives me a headache.
So we had a complete remake by George Romero, a partial remake by John Russo, and a new envisioning by a third party, what could possibly be next? How about a film made by the fans. Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated does just that, it takes everything from still drawings, to claymation, to even legos, all done by fans of the movie and put to the original audio. As cool as it is to see all the hard work that all those fans did as tributes to the classic movie, it’s sad that some of the scenes that were put in are just the movie scenes with a different filter, or highlighted outlines of the characters. This was a great idea but makes it seem like the creators got a little lazy. With all the other material they found they could have easily not shown a single second of the original footage and made it completely fan based.
This is what being a horror fan is all about, the dream of being able to contribute one way or another to one of your favorite films. It’s great to see that someone had the ambition to go ahead and collect all this fan art and took their time to complete this project. I do want to say that this movie is for someone that has seen the original before and wants to see it in a different light; this might not be for the casual fan.
The next entry is the first from our friends from across the pond; yes the United Kingdom is even getting in on the remakes. They released Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection in 2012, and it’s the first entry that doesn’t start the famous cemetery scene, it starts us out at a gas station, with a group of hoodlums harassing anybody walking by. They bully some guy into buying them beer, but get what’s coming to them when they are attacked by the dead. That’s when Ben comes by, looking for some gas, but drives off.
Seeing this perked my interests. I thought maybe this entire movie would be told from Ben’s viewpoint, and as he rolled up to the farmhouse, now out of gas, I got a big surprise. He runs up to the house and looks through the mail slot, and bang, there goes his head. We are only twenty minutes into the movie, and they kill off the only character that connects this movie to the original. But there was still hope that the family inside could be the Coopers, or maybe even Tom and Judy, but nope we get some new family that has nothing to do with the original movie.
I’m just going to be blunt and say that the movie really goes downhill from this point; the family has to deal with the dead outside and inside of the house, while trying not to turn on each other and fight off the survivors that want to kill them for no real reason. That’s the basic plot for the rest of the movie; it’s nothing special and after the Ben scenes, has more in common with Dawn of the Dead then Night.
It tries to deal more with the breakdown of society and focuses more on the family’s problems than it does with the dead. It does have some glimpses of the original, but not enough for them to try and play off the name. They did try and make it look older by making the film look grainy, and that was a nice little touch, but not enough to save this film.
If they would have either reshot the beginning scenes, or even changed the name of the Ben character, they could have just used a generic title like Zombie Farmhouse, and it could have stood on its own as a below average zombie movie. They tried to play off the title, getting fans of the original to be tricked into watching something that they might have otherwise stayed away from. That is also my advice to you, just stay away.
The last entry to our list is somewhat of a shocking idea, Night of the Living Dead 3D: Re-Animation isn’t a remake of the 2006 version, but plays out as a prequel to the other movie. Yes, a prequel to a remake of the classic movie. Although this movie plays more of a tribute to the creators of the original, it as a whole is a little lacking.
The movie followers Gerald Tovar Jr., the mortician from the first one, minus Sid Haig in the role, as he tries to run his mortuary filled with the living dead. Instead we have another well know face to the horror community, Andrew Divoff from the Wishmaster series, but he is also joined by long time horror icon, Jeffrey Combs, as Gerald’s brother Harold. Most of the movie is based on the interactions of the two brothers, Gerald tells Harold that he was found away to bring the dead back to life. Harold doesn’t believe him so the go to the mortuary so Gerald can prove it to him. Everything goes horrible wrong, and the dead start breaking out of the cremation room where they are locked up into the mortuary, and Gerald has to try and get everything back under control.
One of the best parts of the movie is when Gerald and Harold are first talking about the zombies, and Harold asks what kind they are, “Romero Zombies?” That’s how they chose describe them, then Harold tells him that there have been real zombie outbreaks before, Pittsburgh in 68, 78, 90 and then in Louisville in 1985. These are of course the years that the original Night, Dawn, and the remake of Night came out, and he last being Russo’s follow up with Return of the Living Dead. This was a fun little surprise to hear and glade to see that they are not forgetting were the zombie genre has come from.
I had a hard time making up my mind on how to rate this movie, it’s definitely worth a watch, but afterward will probably sit on your shelf, best advice rent it if you can. The dynamic between the brothers is great and is the biggest reason to watch, that and the practical effects look great, the CGI not so much. The one big upgrade to this movie over the other 3D is that it comes with a 2D version, the version that I would suggest you watch, since they really don’t do much with the 3D effects, again.
I know what you might be thinking, that’s not all the Night of the Living Dead movies out there. And this is true, but if I would keep going I would be writing this forever. Even as I write this there are at least two more movies in production; Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D, and Night of the Living Dead: Genesis, both rumored to come out in 2014. Origins looks to be the bigger production bringing in actors such as; Danielle Harris, Tom Sizemore, and welcomes back Tony Todd as Ben and Bill Moseley as Johnny. They even have Day of the Dead actor Joe Pilato on its roster, giving this film some star power. But Genesis is bringing back Judith O’Dea to play an older version of her Barbra character, which must be a real pleasure for her. Will either of these two movies be able to bring back the terror and horror we felt for the characters trapped in an old farm house in the country? Probably not, but hopefully they are fun to watch and bring some new lore to the movie.
This just shows you that after almost 50 years this little independent movie is still inspiring film makers of all ages to try and recreate the formula that made it such a hit. If you only see one movie on this list make it the original, you might be surprised at how well it’s held up over the years.