I’m pretty giddy after watching make-up man-turned-director Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968). Perhaps my expectations were vastly exceeded just because the remake has a sense of purpose that goes beyond mere blank pastiche. But to me, that’s a big “just.” This remake, which Romero wrote the screenplay for, is almost certainly the best zombie film he’s made after his carnivalesque Dawn of the Dead (1978) and perhaps his most militant social critique. Where the original Night of the Living poked fun at the illogical power inequality inherent in racist thought by having Ben, its sole black character, die an absurd and unjust death, the 1990 remake champions an ur-female badass protag to show that a society without strong women is already dead, or as Barbara puts it: “They’re us: we’re them and they’re us.”
It’s tempting to initially groan at the remake’s quotation of the original film’s most famous line, but hearing “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” not once, but twice, in the opening sequence is crucial. By stressing that line’s incantatory importance, Romero tells us to follow that final girl, the first good sign for worried fans like myself who feared Romero might be aimlessly rehashing his own material. This Barbara, played by Patricia Tallman, is more complicated than that. Though her outward appearance suggests a butch martinet (thanks to her cropped red hair, which recalls Mia Farrow circa Rosemary’s Baby), she starts out here as a weak-at-the-knees neurotic. She treats her dead mother, whom she is now visiting with a bouquet of flowers in tow, with such reverence that her refusal to tolerate her brother’s teasing borderlines on hysteria. She hates the idea, even though her mother was hardly kind to either of them before passing on. As her brother points out, she can’t bury her existing memories with her body. Her mother’s epitaph, “Our Beloved Mother,” is the ultimate testament to Barbara’s need to deny the reality of the situation, a reality that comes ambling over a nearby hill to prove that she can’t continue to repress her emotions.
Forgive me if I sound like a dime-store psychoanalyst, but Romero’s begging you to put Barbara on the couch. As a woman on the road to self-empowerment, she has to first confront her fears, which makes the zombies that chase her to a nearby farmhouse a Freudian obstacle course. This gauntlet of undead monsters makes her clam up so tight that once she’s reached the film’s main location and sanctuary, she can’t even talk with Ben (Tony Todd, in his meatiest role). She’s so traumatized that she nudges her first kill’s severed hand back to its torso, wraps it up in a rug and buries it outdoors. This isn’t just an ordinary “Year Zero” reaction where her inexperience dealing with these creatures is her primary motivation. Instead, she’s primarily being led by her pathological need to keep her emotions in check, six feet under.
If that metaphor’s too on the nose for your taste, abandon hope all yez who read on. Nothing I can say will convince you, Romero fan or not, that this remake is more than superficially thoughtful. Arguably, that’s always been the level of intelligence Romero’s films have aspired to but, hey, I figured I’d give the skeptical fair warning: skin-deep is as deep as this film gets.
From there, Barbara becomes the ultimate survivor. After she assimilates everything that Ben has to say about the ins-and-outs of their situation, she surpasses even him in her practical but single-mindedly tough answers to the question of “What comes next?” While Ben and his white sparring partner Harry Cooper (Tom Towles) butt heads and eventually shoot each other up, Barbara is toughening to the point where she demonstrates to fellow survivor/gender victim Judy Rose (Katie Finneran) that her neighbor is no longer her neighbor by shooting him up. Barbara doesn’t waste time comforting Judy Rose either. She leaves that little mess for Ben to clean up. Instead, she just looks at Tom (William Butler), Judy Rose’s beau, shotgun in hand, and fumes “How many bullets does this thing hold?” Ripley, look out…there’s a new lady sheriff in town.
Therein lies the most frustrating nudge of Romero’s incensed feminist stance. He doesn’t articulate this preoccupation clearly enough to make it the most pressing conflict of the film, though events often indirectly bring us back to it. This allows Barbara’s quest to outlive everybody else, man, woman or baby, to avoid any in-depth post-feminist subtext apart from the immediately cartoonish. All the remake has to offer in its defense is its unqualifiable anger. After all, the other three women in the film are all punished for their reliance on men: Judy Rose dies a fiery death thanks to Tom’s bull-headedness, and Helen and Sarah Cooper (McKee Anderson and Heather Mazur), Harry’s wife and daughter, both bite the dust after Sarah, decked out in a lacy, piss-yellow dress and a pair of braces, chows down on her mother. Only the single white woman manages to survive, training her pistol wisely at each zombie she sees on her long walk back to civilization, but not shooting unless it’s absolutely necessary. She’s not growing sentimental, she’s just assessing whether or not any given Zed really needs a bullet or not. She’s too calculating to be a woman at this point; she’s fucking Robocop.
So yeah, if you can’t tell already, my giddiness has by this point evaporated, but my staunch belief in this muddled little gem has not yet substantially wavered. A thriving camp of all-male rednecks may be the last vestige of civilization left by The End, making thoughts of Barbara’s rape inevitable, but in Romero-land, that kind of brutal protest is forceful enough to make this remake essential viewing for anyone who considers the man’s films to be relevant works of pop art.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press, and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he’s been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.