If zombies had their equivalent of sacred texts, then George Romero’s low budget masterpiece Night of the Living Dead would be a key passage in that codex. Think of the better offerings of the Romero cannon as the zombie Pentateuch.
I cannot understate how important this movie was to me. There was a time in high school when I had no interest in movies. Hollywood dreck didn’t speak to me, and it wasn’t until a friend loaned me a battered VHS of Night of the Living Dead – which I promptly bootlegged and treasure to this day – that I ever had a clue that something like independent cinema even existed. Night of the Living Dead, along with Repo Man, turned me on to a world of filmmakers too bizarre to get day jobs in Tinsel Town. Those films, in turn, led me to Pi, Eraserhead and Tetsuo the Ironman when I was in college. An addiction was born.
And my appreciation for it has only increased after subjecting myself to the shitty remakes. Everyone who has taken a crack at the story in the last four decades, including gore maestro Tom Savini who directed a script penned and produced by Romero himself, has completely missed what made the original work: the characters.
I can’t remember where I first read it (it may be a Stephen King quote) but some wise person somewhere once said if you’re going to posit something supernatural in your story, everything else must be firmly grounded. And that’s what made the original Night of the Living Dead a masterpiece: while disbelief must be suspended to accept the reality of a zombie uprising, all of the characters act remarkably natural, reacting as you expect real people would to something that incomprehensible.
And that's exactly what the remakes get wrong.
They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara
Starting with everyone’s favorite hysteric, Barbara's complete collapse in the face of the horrific and impossible is perfectly understandable. Was the original Barbara a sexist stereotype in the face of the hyper-masculine survivors? Absolutely, but there’s still enough essential truth to Barbara’s character that she never stopped being sympathetic. Savini and Romero committed the greatest sin against this essential truth in the 1990 remake, taking the nearly cataleptic Barbara and trying to turn her into an Ellen Ripley whose every shot is a bullet between a zombie's eyes. Savini’s Barbara symbolically sheds her feminine dress and pumps in favor of work boots and men’s pants throughout the film, become more masculine, hefting weapons, barking orders and exacting her own bloody revenge on her fellow survivors at the end. Jeff Broadstreet’s abysmal 2006 3D remake played with the same dynamic, turning Barbara from a shrewish bitch henpecking Johnny to a zombie killing Amazon who stabs the undead in the head and betrays no emotion when her resurrected family is gunned down in front of her a few hours later. Lacking that emotional grounding from the original, both of the remakes squander Barbara’s potential because they haven't earned that emotional gravitas.
Ben, the Two of Us Need Look No More
Ben fares just as poorly. Broadstreet, eliding the subtle racial dynamic that added much needed subtext to Romero’s film, turns Ben into a motorcycle riding white kid who sells weed to pay his college tuition. Though Savini drafts Tony “Candyman” Todd into the role, he apparently told him to act out every blaxploitation stereotype as he gnaws his way through more scenery, dropping more pointless F-bombs than shambling revenants. Romero’s Ben was a man struggling to keep it all together. The antithesis of Barbara’s complete meltdown, Ben was mechanical, robotic, too shellshocked to allow himself to feel much of anything for fear of completely collapsing. Watching him reduced to a poor man’s Shaft or a sarcastic teen is a travesty.
Hangin' With Mr. Cooper
If there was a true villain to the original Night of the Living Dead, it wasn’t the zombies but Henry Cooper, the sweaty, chain smoking father hiding in the basement and opposing common sense at every turn. He’s all bluster and bravado, a caricature of a 1960s man who’s trying to maintain the illusion that he’s sure and firm and standing tall as a bastion of consistency and safety for his family. Reviled though he may be, I can’t help but feel sympathy for the guy. He's probably the most complex character in the film. He’s a stranger, lost in town and trying to keep it together for his wife and sick child, Karen. He’s a doomed man who doesn’t know his daughter is already dead but he’s determined to protect his family, fuck everyone else. The man’s a fount of pathos, but Savini slices away any nuance, metastasizing him into a featureless Jersey guido, shouting and belligerent, an obvious object of scorn and ridicule. Savini and Romero can’t even see fit to give the man an honest emotion when his zombie daughter is killed before his eyes.
Mr. Cooper and his family are an even more risible collection of freaks under Broadstreet’s ministrations. Rather than an out of towner futiley trying to do best by his family amid the horror, Mr. Cooper is a bumpkin local pot farmer whose (inexplicably biracial) daughter fulfills the sitcom role of the sarcastic kid and whose wife and farm hands are pot smoking cretins, little removed from the zombies, themselves, as they vegetate in front of the television. This Cooper is a bumbling failure whose brilliant decision to shoot the zombies through his window (at no point during the film does anybody board up a door or turn off a light) allows the zombies inside to attack the occupants. His daughter’s death and his inevitable suicide pact with his wife elicit no emotion because Broadstreet ignored what made the character work.