Whether George Romero invented the modern horror movie back in 1968 with "Night of the Living Dead" and so unleashed the whole sick parade of Jasons and Freddies and "Halloweens" is a matter of some dispute. But one thing is for certain: He scared the hell out of a lot of people.
The new remake of the film, produced and written by Romero but directed by his ace makeup guy Tom Savini, proves one thing: You can't keep a good story down.
This one lacks two things so important to the first: It lacks the grisly, almost scabby black and white cinematography, which conferred on the events of the original an almost documentary sense of reality. And the second, far more important, is context.
Before "Night of the Living Dead," horror movies were more expressive and suggestive, or at the very least, exotic: They took place in such flossy spots as Transylvania or 19th century London. Romero made them gory as battlegrounds (Savini, his makeup genius, had actually logged some combat time as a medic in Vietnam) and set them in the recognizably real world.
"Night," of course, became a cult classic, earning from Pauline Kael the sobriquet "the best movie ever made in Pittsburgh," a title it still holds, "Flashdance" notwithstanding.
This "Night," however, preserves what was good about the first one, while adding some ingredients. It's an extremely intense film, though the gore level has been reduced considerably from the original, and is even lower still than the second in Romero's trilogy, "Dawn of the Dead," which remains the most gruesome great American movie in history -- "The Wild Bunch" notwithstanding.
Romero and Savini don't waste much time getting started: The original movie's stunning opening is preserved intact. A young woman and her brother are visiting a rural cemetery, where their unloved mother lies a-mouldering. Suddenly a cannibal zombie lurches into the scene and kills the brother.
That's it, that's all there is. Later a meek explanation is offered, but who cares? You're so bludgeoned, you probably won't even notice. Romero before and Savini now glory in the image of a world turned suddenly upside-down, all the rules ruled out, and survival of the mean-est installed as the highest ethic.
The story comes to focus on the woman (Patricia Tallman) and several others under siege in a deserted farmhouse. As grotesque as the situation is, it is rife with ironies. Two men, one a hero, the other a craven coward, argue over tactics; it turns out tragically that the coward was right. In fact, every sensible thing they do turns tragic.
Meanwhile, with a nod to the women's movement, the woman, who spent the first picture in baby-doll shock, transforms, in this edition, to an Amazon warrior, the best and the bravest. She takes over as a star in the New Order, which appears to be a world ruled by gun-crazy rednecks. The last irony is the most terrifying: she likes it.
'Night of the Living Dead'
Starring Tony Todd and Barbara Tallman
Directed by Tom Savani
Released by Columbia