When I decided on watching George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead for my Blindspot Challenge, I did so knowing a few things. I will have to make that confession that due to a prior class several years ago, I already knew about the ending and the significance of the fact that it was Ben alone who made it to the end. I also knew that it had some issues with regards to how it treated Barbara, who at the time I was led to believe was the only female character (which is not in fact the case). Say what you will about the original 1968 film, but it did have its problems. While it was remarkable on some fronts, the story had its flaws with the extremely contrived situations and underdeveloped supporting characters.
Naturally, when I finally had to watch Night of the Living Dead in its entirety for another class (forcing me to change up the order of my list), I found myself curious about the 1990 remake. I had been told that it addresses a lot of the problems of the original 1968 film. Remakes in general have a reputation for being inferior to the original, especially in horror. In some cases that is indeed the case, such as with Jan De Bont's remake of The Haunting, or at the very most, the remake is entertaining but not as good as the original. However, once in a while you get a remake that actually matches or on a rare occasion even surpasses the quality of its predecessor such as David Cronenberg's The Fly, Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, or John Carpenter's The Thing. Tom Savini's remake of Night of the Living Dead is one of those rare accomplishments.
Plot-wise, the movie is more or less the same, at least in terms of its setup. Barbara (Patricia Tallman) and her brother Johnnie (Bill Moseley) are have just arrived a cemetery to place new flowers on their mother's grave when suddenly zombies show up. Johnnie gets killed and Barbara just barely escapes. She arrives at a seemingly abandoned farmhouse where she eventually encounters Ben (Tony Todd), and the two of them try to work together to survive against the zombies. Later on a few other people turn out to be hiding in the basement, which includes Harry "I Want to Lock Myself in the Cellar" Cooper (Tom Towles) who refuses to cooperate and causes a lot of trouble. However, there are a few new twists and turns to be found this time round, ranging from minor details (making Harry's infected daughter a teenager instead of a little girl) to drastic changes in character.
The most notable change is the revision of Barbara's character. In the original George A. Romero film, Barbara spends the majority of its running time sitting on a couch in a traumatized and semi-delirious state of mind only to end up getting killed when she tries to do something useful. At first it looks like her counterpart in the remake is going through something similar, except she actually manages to pull her weight despite the obvious trauma she has been through. She does cry and scream several times in the early scenes, but she goes on to begin learning to protect herself and, along with Ben, taking on a leadership role. This is precisely how the relationship between them should have played out in the original film.
There are some changes in the rest of the cast as well. They actually have personalities now which is a nice change. Harry, or Crazy Cellar Guy as I like to call him, is far worse than his 1968 counterpart. In the older film, he was just annoyingly stubborn and had difficulty listening to people. Here he really is a horrible person who treats everyone like crap, including his own wife who he even hits at one point. Said wife (McKee Anderson) actually gets a personality this time, and while her 1968 counterpart did speak out against her husband's actions, this time she actually gets to stand up to him. Judy is a bit more panicked than in Romero's film, but she does manage to be useful and gets an actual motive for joining Tom in trying to get Ben's truck refueled instead of charging into a hoard of zombies for no other reason than because of her love.
As far as the characters are concerned, it is definitely an improvement over the original. Ben is still a strong character who remains true to what made him such a crucial part of the original while also addressing its questionable treatment of women. The rest of the film also flows a lot better. For example in the original, Tom and Judy's deaths seemed very contrived and the circumstances leading to the gasoline disaster that kills them are not very well explained (for some reason they try to pour the gasoline before putting the nozzle into the truck's tank) and Judy dies because her jacket gets caught. In the remake, there is actually a far more straight forward explanation for how the fire starts and there's no more of that "my jacket's stuck" nonsense.
While George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead holds a cultural significance as the movie that popularized the modern image of zombies, Tom Savini's remake is a far better film on every possible level. All of the problems with Romero's film are addressed and fixed here, which allows for a few new changes that help to improve the narrative such as Barbara's far more interesting characterization and even a very different ending (which I won't give away). It is a great film and definitely worth checking out, perhaps far more so than the original. This time around, the remake is definitely an improvement.