Terror Tuesday: Nights Of The Living Dead

Thanks to a copyright mistake, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a public domain movie. Brian recently watched just about every version, variation and remake of the film, and now he looks back.

So it’s a great movie that literally anyone can remake.  Hardly anyone’s smart enough to remake a public domain movie that sucked in the first place and try to make something worthwhile out of it, but Night has the name value AND the affordable cost, making it an attractive property for today’s remake-crazy movie business.  In fact, it’s probably only out of respect that there haven’t been MORE “re-imaginings” over the

years, because to my understanding, you don’t need anyone’s permission to make one.  You and I could grab a camera and shoot a word for word remake and release it without having to worry about any legal repercussions, because the film belongs to everyone and no one.  Indeed, the folks behind the 1990 remake directed by Tom Savini (written by Romero himself) freely admit that the only reason they made the movie was to finally make some money off the property, since everyone BUT them had been profiting on it for the past 20 years.

On the plus side, this allows for true fans to do unique things with the property that they’d be unable to do with other beloved films.  Night Of The Living Dead: Re-Animated, for example, is an “art gallery on film” (their words) or “100 minutes of art and animation tossed together with no rhyme or reason, set to the original film’s untouched soundtrack” (my words).  However you feel about the finished result, you can’t deny that it’s a very intriguing concept - 100+ artists employing pretty much every style of animation (cel-based, Flash-based, CGI, stop motion, puppets, traditional artwork, even Barbie dolls) to re-create the film shot for shot.  You can’t do that with Psycho or Halloween without someone sending at least a cease and desist letter.

Or you can make a documentary and not have to worry about using film clips.  Autopsy Of The Dead is clearly a labor of love from fans who did not have a huge budget (if the rather unprofessional interview clips are any indication), but they still were able to use numerous clips from the film without having to jump through hoops.  Even major productions such as His Name Was Jason (a recent documentary about the Friday the 13th series) had to avoid using any clips from the New Line entries of the series due to clearance issues - they had the directors and major cast members from each film but couldn’t show any of their finished work!  Not a problem with Night; just run to your grocery store, grab a copy for 99 cents, and you can do whatever you want with it.

It’s just a shame more of these things weren’t actually GOOD. Autopsy suffered from dry interview subjects (one guy started off by pointing out that he only worked on the film for ten minutes - what can he possibly offer?) and a piss-poor presentation that could have benefited from a more discerning editor; Night Of The Living DE3D had a widely uneven tone and a terrible actor in the Ben role; Re-Animated was just too erratic to watch as an actual film (would make for a good “background movie” at a Halloween party, however), and the less said about Russo’s “30th Anniversary Edition”, the better.  Only Savini’s remake lived up to the original’s class, due to Tony Todd’s terrific performance as Ben and what is, in my opinion, a better ending to the story.

Oh, and there are more on the way.  Todd has lent his voice to reprise his role as Ben for an all-CGI version called Night Of The Living Dead: Origins, which also features Danielle Harris as the voice of Barbara and Joe Pilato (!) as Cooper.  There’s also a sequel to Night 3D called Resurrection that was recently announced, with Andrew Divoff taking over from Sid Haig.  Plus an independent video game seems to be in the works - there’s footage in Re-Animated that resembles a late 90s Resident Evil-style game (there’s even a little text pop-up when Ben picks up a gun); seems like a lot of work to just use briefly in a weird art movie (one of the main problems I had with Re-Animated was how difficult they made it to know who was responsible for which piece(s) in the film and if it was just a small part of a larger production).  It’s also been colorized, and itself retrofitted into 3D (the Night 3D remake was a legitimate 3D production, not a post convert).

And yet, despite this gross over-saturation of the title and story, the original film has lost none of its power.  Even though I have seen it probably twenty times, I still enjoyed watching it again this week more than any of the other movies that I was seeing for the first time.  It still creeps me out in the early scenes - it’s remarkable how quickly it gets going (and the pace rarely lags to boot)

compared to most horror fare of the day.  I still tense up when everything goes to hell at the end when those boarded up windows finally prove no match for the countless ghouls banging away at them, and I don’t care how many times I watch it, I will ALWAYS hope that Tom gets poor Judy’s jacket unstuck in time.

My only regret is not holding on to my original VHS copy that I bought in 1995.  It was a budget release, of course (Elite put out a nice remastered “two-tape” edition in 1997, I believe?), but I have nostalgia-based longing to see it that way again.  Unlike fans that are older than me, I didn’t get to see it at the drive-in or even on a late night UHF broadcast; however I DID watch it for the first time late at night (well, late for a 15 year old, maybe like 10:30 pm), on a murky VHS tape on a tiny 13 inch TV that you had to manually tune with these little temperamental dials.  Sure, I love the effort that has been put into restoring the movie over the years (the Dimension release from 2008 is extraordinary), but there’s something appealing about watching it all grainy and blurry too; nowadays there’s plenty of restored versions and thus no “excuse” to watch it that way.  Yet, somehow watching Night of the Living Dead in upscaled 1080p on a 42 inch plasma set doesn’t seem right to me.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I have a crappy transfer on one of my budget packs - I think next time I want to watch it I’ll pull that up instead.

So basically, if you haven’t seen the film, there’s no shortage of ways to do so.  But you gotta make sure you’re getting the original, with its library music and black & white photography.  Colorizing or turning the film into 3D (or shooting 15 minutes worth of new footage while excising as much original footage haphazardly, and recording a terrible new score composed by some douchebag… seriously, fuck you, John Russo) just distracts away from what is a very great film.  As I said in one of my reviews, there may be horror films that I prefer (I actually like Dawn of the Dead more), but - and maybe the copyright problem can be thanked for this - twenty, fifty, even a hundred years from now, Night Of The Living Dead will still be being watched by fans and discovered by new audiences, long after its imitators and wannabes (and remakes) have been forgotten.

Brian Collins watches a horror movie every single day of the week, and he writes about each and every one of them at Horror Movie A Day.