‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1990) at 30: Remaking Romero’s Masterpiece – Retro Review

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is one of the most revered horror films of all time. It spawned no less than 5 sequels and influenced multiple generations of filmmakers and their films. It is adored by critics and audiences alike. The Library of Congress added the film to its National Film Archive in 1999 alongside other classic films deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Let’s face it: it’s kind of a big deal.

Why, then, would Romero choose to remake a film most view as his masterpiece? The horror community, after all, hates remakes. Loathes them, in fact.

It’s a fascinating story. A story that starts back on opening night in 1968 and culminates with the release of Night of the Living Dead in 1990. Tom Savini’s modern, Technicolor remake turns 30 years old in October, 2020. Did Savini recapture the magic of the original? Would the remake resonate with a new audience? Did it find box office success?

Look back with us, now, on three decades of zombie mayhem. “There IS a fate worse than death.”

Night of the Living Dead (1990) Synopsis

A group of strangers barricades themselves inside a rural farmhouse when the unburied dead return to life to seek human victims.

Horror icon George A. Romero wrote the screenplay based on the original script he co-wrote with John Russo. Romero hand picked makeup FX whiz Tom Savini to direct the film. It would be Savini’s directorial debut.

Night of the Living Dead (1990) stars Tony Todd (Candyman) as Ben. A relative unknown at the time, Todd beat out a number of veteran actors for the role, including Laurence Fishburne, Ving Rhames and Eriq La Salle. Statuesque actress and stuntwoman Patricia Tallman, who had worked with Romero and Savini before on Knightriders (1981) and Tales From The Darkside, joined the cast as Barbara. Tom Towles (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) delivers a memorable performance as Cooper. The versatile William Butler (Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, Ghoulies 2, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) also stars as Tom. Keep your eyes open for horror icon Bill “Chop Top” Moseley in a wonderful turn as Barbara’s annoying, prankster brother Johnny.

Here’s a look at the official poster art!

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Release and Reception

Night of the Living Dead (1990) opened in 1544 U.S. theaters the weekend of October 19, 1990. Despite the massive theater count, the film managed just a 6th place opening, behind holdovers Marked For Death, Memphis Belle, Ghost, and Fantasia (re-issue), as well as fellow newcomer Quigley Down Under. After a disappointing $2.88 million opening weekend, the film dropped to 14th place the following weekend before dropping off the chart entirely. The film managed a meager $5.8 million lifetime gross against a $4.2 million budget.

Reviews were mostly negative. Roger Ebert gave it one star and said there was no reason to see it if you had seen the original. He even went so far to put it on his “Most Hated” list for that same reason. Entertainment Weekly rated it a D- and said as ideas go, it was right up there with “New Coke.” Savage. Variety called the new ending pretentious and chastised Romero for remaking his own film. Modern reviews have been far more forgiving, but critics in 1990 simply weren’t having it.

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Why Remake A Classic?

George A. Romero’s original title for his 1968 film was Night of the Flesh Eaters. Just before the world premiere, however, Romero got a cease and desist and was prohibited from using the title. The crew decided to change the film’s name to Night of the Living Dead. Unfortunately for Romero and company, the distributor forgot to include copyright notices on the prints when they did the title change, so the film found itself unexpectedly in the public domain.

For the filmmakers, this was a tremendous blow, both creatively and financially. Companies were taking the film and re-releasing it in a variety of formats without paying royalties. There were a number of VHS releases, colorized versions, and more than 100 DVD releases. Have you ever wondered why when two people are watching a horror film inside of another horror film, more often than not the movie they’re watching is the original Night of the Living Dead? It’s because it’s in the public domain.

The filmmakers and their lawyers fought against this rights travesty for years. One of the appeals of remaking the film was the hope a Romero-sanctioned, modernized version, would legitimize their copyright claims and perhaps help the original filmmakers recoup some of their losses. Thus, the remake moved forward.

Patricia Tallman as "Barbara"

What’s To Like?

The original Night of the Living Dead is an all time classic story. At its core, the remake retells that same, wonderful tale, but with a few great twists and turns thrown in. The fact Romero penned the remake means the film maintains the classic feel of the original. It’s a solid formula. As far as those twists and turns go, I think the ending is an improvement over the original.

Tony Todd and Patricia Tallman are fantastic in the lead roles. It’s easy to see why this performance put Tony Todd firmly on the horror map. His commanding presence and impressive acting range propel the story and the conflict forward. It’s one of my all time favorite Tony Todd roles.

Equally impressive is Patricia Tallman, whose Barbara evolves into a far greater, more interesting character than Judith O’Dea’s Barbara from the 1968 original. Tallman’s Barbara is a fighter who overcomes both grief and shock to become a wholesale ass kicker. This performance makes her, in my opinion, one of the all time underrated “final girls” in horror cinema. She’s that good.

The MPAA had a field day cutting the gore from the film to avoid an NC-17 rating, but the zombie makeup and the practical FX remain top notch. It’s Tom Savini, after all! Less is more in this case. Some of the violence is implied, but it’s filmed in such a way the mind fills in the gory details nicely. It’s not super bloody, but honestly, you won’t miss it.

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

What’s Not To Like?

There isn’t a whole lot I don’t like about Night of the Living Dead (1990). You have some stupid character decisions, but really, you have that in pretty much every horror movie. What’s that line from Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs? “Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.” Witness!

The FX, as I mentioned, are top notch.  Well, for the most part. The “Barbara hits poor, dead Uncle Reg with a fireplace poker” effect is a little wonky and fake looking. It could be simply because I’ve seen the movie so many times, but now when I watch it it sticks out like a sore thumb. I’ll cut Savini some slack, though. He is one of the all time greats, after all.

Speaking of the FX, remember when I said earlier you won’t miss the gore? That’s not ENTIRELY true. When you see the deleted scene of Tom blowing a zombie’s head clean off with a shotgun blast, you’ll wish that head explosion made the final cut. Damn, it’s a work of art!

The trailer gives too much away. Yes, it’s a remake, but two or three of the legit twists and shocks from the remake are given away in the trailer. For shame!

The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead (1990)

History has been pretty kind to Night of the Living Dead. The reviews were middling in 1990, but modern reviewers and audiences have developed a genuine appreciation. The film carries a fresh rating of 66% according to Rotten Tomatoes, and is rated 6.9 out of 10 on IMDB on average. When discussions about “What’s the best horror remake?” come up, 1990’s Night of the Living Dead is inevitably at or near the top of the list.

Tony Todd went on to do Candyman and scores of other fright films, becoming a genuine horror icon along the way. Patricia Tallman had a long, successful run as an actress and stuntwoman, including a 5 year stint on Television’s Babylon 5. Savini’s directorial career never really took off, but he did recently direct an episode of Shudder’s Creepshow, and he remains a prolific horror actor and FX guru. We’re very much looking forward to his next project: Nightmare City. Sadly, we lost George A. Romero in 2017, but his legend lives on through his films, including this one.

Night of the Living Dead (1990) was, in many ways, the end of an era for zombie films. It was the capstone of a frenetic, 80s zombie film bonanza, just before the genre slid back into the grave for more than a decade. The zombie heyday that started with George A. Romero in 1968, ended with Geroge A. Romero in 1990. At least until the Dawn of the Dead remake and Shaun of the Dead came along in 2004 and Romero’s Land of the Dead followed in 2005.

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Night of the Living Dead (1990) – Final Thoughts

Night of the Living Dead (1990) is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon. Neither edition is very impressive, unfortunately. I’m hopeful Scream Factory or Arrow Video will release a special edition at some point. I’d be particularly interested in hearing a commentary track from Tony Todd and/or Patricia Tallman. The existing Savini commentary is quite good. We’ll all have to make due with that for now.

Are you listening, Scream Factory? Make it happen!

So what else can I say? I love this movie, completely and unapologetically. I think it’s a great remake and a great standalone zombie film in its own right. If you’re a fan of the original, I see no reason you wouldn’t enjoy the remake. If you just like zombie films in general, add this one to your watch list. You won’t be disappointed.

If you enjoyed this look back on Tom Savini and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1990), be sure to check out our retro reviews for Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005), as well as the NOTLD 50th Anniversary Artists’ Tribute! Also, for a nice, behind the scenes look at the Night remake, check out “The Dead Walk” documentary below. Enjoy!

What are your thoughts on Night of the Living Dead (1990)? Tell us in the comments!

About Kenn Hoekstra

PopHorror Writer. Associate Editor. @PopHorrorNews Tweeter. Also... Screenwriter. Blogger. Horror Movie Aficionado. Wisconsin Sports Fan. IT Guy. Father. Smartass. People's Champion. TIME Person of the Year - 2006.

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