Rigor Mortis is a new project
focusing on all things horror, but especially zombies.
Here is a sample from Issue #2:
Rigor Mortis #2
| ROMERO VS.
One Fanboys Take on Night of the Living Dead
By Dread Sockett
Preface: This article starts from the presumptive basis that the reader is familiar with the 1968 version of Night of the Living Dead.
REALLY, I LOVE THE ORIGINAL AND WANT TO HAVE ITS BABY
I spent quite some time trying to figure out how to approach this article. My ultimate conclusion was to take a running jump off the cliff, because no matter what Im going to piss off a few fans of the original Night Of The Living Dead. In my sacrilegious defense I LOVE the original NOTLD for what it is, tried to do, and stands for. I love it the same way I love and respect the original versions of King Kong (1933), The Thing From Another World (1951), War Of The Worlds (1953) and The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). I consider those films among my favorite fantasy films ever. Ive lost count of the number of the times Ive seen each of these. They are also recognized as culturally important works that represent watersheds of their genres (and it pleases my inner Fanboy to know he is not alone in his crazy love of these films). But even with all this unbridled Lassie, Come Home-type lovin, do I consider them flawless? Not at all. But are their weaknesses forgivable in light of the bigger picture? Absolutely.
That said, here comes the statement that is going to shock some hardcore Romero-ites I also want to make babies with the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. Thats right, a dirty whore remake. You there, in the back, quit rolling your eyes. Fine, then its time for me to get a little Barry White on ya so turn down the lights and let me caress the 1990 version in all the right places, or at least grope it awkwardly. I need to step up and give the remake some much-needed lovin, but (gasp!) I cant do that without also disrobing the original and stripping some of its historical Botox. You ready? Cuz Im bout to talk some shit about your old lady.
WASH THAT REVISIONISM OUTTA YOUR HAIR
NOTLD (1968) is arguably a classic because it is the father of contemporary zombie films, but that does not automatically make it a well-crafted film. It does not earn the free pass it often gets, especially when fans bash the remake. Hell, even the 33 King Kong doesnt get that. Die-hards call it a masterpiece. Is it? The original film was guerrilla (hehe) filmmaking at its best and worst, and it shows. Being first does not mean something cant stand to be improved upon, classic or not.
It was filming by committee. In many cases, ideas were patched in as they came along. There was no contemporary zombie mythos at that point and the creators were just out to make a good horror movie. Romero himself credits the 50s era EC Comics as an influence, which were well-known for their use of shock endings. Bens death doesnt seem so shockingly original after reading a few issues of Tales From The Crypt, Vault Of Horror or Haunt Of Fear. He also lifted some of his zombie shtick from Richard Mathesons I Am Legend and its screen adaptation, Last Man on Earth, staring Vincent Price (1964). Zombie lore became more fine-tuned (note I did not say finalized or perfected) with 1978s Dawn Of The Dead.
The original film was an accident of sorts, a one-shot hodgepodge of ideas that, as Karl Hardman (Cooper) himself said, got lucky. There was no intentional social commentary, as we would see in the much later Dawn film, despite what many fans claim. Thats revisionist history and lots of wishful thinking at work. Go ask Romero himself if you dont believe me. When someone complains that the Remake did away with the social commentary of the original, well, it wasnt there to begin with.
CASE IN POINT: The character Ben was Black because Duane Jones was the best actor for the part. The script called for an asshole truck driver and was not defined by race. The part of Ben was originally supposed to go to a friend of the production team, Rudy Ricci. Duane Jones just happened to be visiting family nearby and a friend introduced him to the filmmakers and he read for the part. Romero states they were satisfied thinking that they were being cool and making a statement already by not changing the role in any way to reflect it being portrayed by a Black actor. This was, according to the DVD commentary, because the team was always a diverse group wasnt some big issue to focus on, at least from their perspective.
It was Jones, a Black man stuck in the middle of the volatile race relations of the late 60s, who had to point out to the filmmakers that there was something deeper at hand, a subtext needing deeper exploration in the film if only to save him from being accosted on the street for being filmed slapping a White woman. Yet the filmmakers still did not capitalize on this unique access to enlighten and inform their film. It was indeed a product of its times and you can read what you want into it, but when you consider what they missed the boat on, it becomes clear that, as a significant social commentary, it was a missed opportunity. One even has to wonder if the political commentary in future films wasnt a direct result of the much lauded, if accidental, sub-text of the first.
WHEN THERES NO COPYRIGHT TO BE HAD, A REMAKE SHALL WALK THE EARTH
I fully appreciate the 1990 remake and what it tried to do to brush up its source, while standing on its own feet (and these were some mighty big shoes to fill). Sadly, this version is criminally underrated. The fan base often derides the remake, despite the fact it was created by some of the same people connected to the original. George Romero, John Russo and Russell Streiner all worked on the remake. In a crazy twist of fate, FX guru Tom Savini helms the directors seat after having missed the chance to work on the originals makeup due to being shipped off to Vietnam. Although Savini isnt the films official special effects creator (John Vulich and his team handled them), it is obvious some of his first-hand death experiences as well as his FX sensibilities helped shape the zombies here.
The remake was partly inspired as a chance for the original team to shore up the copyright and hopefully make some money. This was perfectly reasonable after theyd spent decades watching their work being sold by numerous video companies and shown in theaters, but never getting paid what they shouldve. Also, look at the remake this way, Romero and crew couldve pulled a George Lucas and basically told fans to fuck off as they added all kinds of new junk into the film while screaming that it reflected their real vision and that the original version didnt exist anymore. No, instead, Romero and crew made an entirely new film, still allowing the originals core fans a choice. Despite this, many fans were aghast that Romero dared to try and get something for himself, while at the same time giving something back to the fans.
SPEAK NO EVIL
Fans who like the remake usually only express the love in hushed tones and with apologies. Fact is, it can be seen as an improvement upon the source material in many ways, and it serves to point new fans backward to the original. I saw John Carpenters The Thing in a theatre before I ever saw the original. I had heard about the 51 version growing up, but I never caught it on TV. It was because of the remake that I actively sought out the original version. Now, I count myself as a big fan of both, enjoyed as separate movies that both embrace Joseph Campbells short story. Here, I posit that one can like both NOTLDs and still be a card-carrying zombie fan, Romero or otherwise.
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW, SOMETHING HARROWED, SOMETHING EEEW!
The remake basically recreated the original scene-for-scene with some adjustments, mostly with characterization. There are definite production improvements, but the storyline is virtually identical. By 1990, the zombie genre had had time to mature and define itself. They arguably made a film that fits better in the series when watching them back-to-back at the very least on an aesthetic level. This version looks like it very well couldve kicked off the Dead series as if the first film never existed. Now, I understand this is blasphemous to even suggest, but lets be real at this point the original is a period piece. Hell, Dawn is as well, the clothes and a few other things just date these films. This isnt a problem per se as it is their charm, as much as their downside, depending on how you want to experience your zombie apocalypse on film. Sometimes I dont give a damn, other times it pulls me out of the action when I go from black & white cardigans and hair clip-ons to 70s chic to the new millenniums YouTube look.
Also to its credit, it also plays fairly well with other non-Romero zombie films. Try playing the original NOTLD after watching 28 Days Later or even the Dawn remake. The original plays best with other atmospheric B&W films, like Last Man On Earth, but sucks the air out of the room (more often than not) when played in a more modern marathon of Zombie flicks. The remake retains the flavor and story of the original while staying nearly timeless. And jeez, for you Romero worshippers, at least he was part of making the dang thing!
The Romero Vs. Romero Death Match
90s BEN: Tony Todd just nails this role. Period. He has some moments that threaten to go (really) over the top but he brings it back and flat out owns it. Also, I cant think of ANY actor who couldve pulled off Duane Jones part with class while updating it. Samuel Jackson? Chris Tucker? Ice Cube? Bwahahaha. Not. Hes powerful, poignant, and Hell, Tony Todd is just bitchin. One of a few excellent upgrades.
90s COOPER: Sweet jeezuz, what an asshole. Tom Towles plays creepy assholes almost too perfectly. Although I preferred his performance in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, he does a good job updating the originals crackpot. Cooper aint exactly a likable character, and here Towles out assholes the original asshole.
90s SCRIPT: Worked for me. My only WTF moments with the dialogue were Coopers stupid lame brains and buncha yo-yos ranting George, what were you thinking? Those were painful.
90s BEN ROLE REVERSAL: It was a wise decision to split time with the new, improved Barb. We see both Ben & Barb transform through the film. Here, Ben starts off the leader, but before long his vulnerabilities begin to really show. Theres a raw honesty about it. Duane Jones portrayal is excellent and Todds reworking brings the character even more depth & nuance while honoring the strength of the original.
90s BARBARA RAMBETTE: I love how some fans hate how Barb transitions from meek to ass-kicking, saying its unbelievable. Well, take some psychology classes, read up on PTSD, and get out of the basement more often and you might find women can actually be strong and do things like a man. I have a feeling that some of the haters find it threatening to see a woman grow more balls than them in a situation like this. Patricia Tallman is a welcome and believable update to the originals basketcase (no offense to Judith ODeas performance). Romero says he rewrote this role as an apology for the first Barbara. With the original Barb Well, scuze my French, but I seriously wanted to slap her ass a few times and not in the good way.
CONTINUITY FIXED: Speaking of Barb, in the original when she enters the farmhouse she enters The Twilight Zone, or at least another dimension for a short time. She runs by a window that has light shining through, then as she looks out in the next cut at the zombies, it is nighttime and so on. It was drizzly, but still light out when she ran from the graveyard. And no, this was not a case of the grave and running shots being done as day for night that only happens once, at the end (around the truck/pump). The remake fixes this somewhat distracting goof.
90s GORE: When you see the deleted scenes, you want to throttle the MPAA for forcing cuts. People were understandably surprised to see a relatively tame Romero-Savini pairing compared to other outings (remember the awesome choke on it! scene in Day?). Whats here, though, is a definite technical improvement over the original; not as moody but visually more satisfying. We just need a Directors Cut to reinstate these missing bits.
90s ZOMBIES: Hands down, the remakes Dead are much more effective. Id argue theyre some of the better-looking zombies amongst all the Romero Zs. Marilyn Eastman (Mrs. Cooper) did what she could on the original with limited everything, but by 1990, fans had more defined expectations, resources were vastly improved, besides the fact that there was an actual FX team and Savini lording over the proceedings, so you can do the math on this one.
68s ATMOSPHERE: This is tough but Id have to give this one to the original. It so perfectly captures a surreal and nightmarish quality that even after repeated viewings, it can still get under my skin. The films B&W full frame is an absolute asset that drops all of the visual information down to its baseline, increasing the viewers sense of claustrophobia, tension and their ability to ground it in some semblance of normalcy. It starts off like some fevered dream and remains so throughout. I also find the editing and composition the strongest here, and actually, this section makes some of the sloppier editing and composition later more noticeable.
So in the 1968 NOTLD vs. the 1990 NOTLD death match, it becomes clear that the remake has a lot more going for it than the anti-fans would lead you to believe. If you still have the hate for the remake, well, screw yall and I hope you at least own a Romero-sanctioned edition and not some cheapass public domain copy.