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Why George A. Romero remade his biggest hit, Night of the Living Dead

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Oct 19, 2020, 3:30 PM EDT

When news emerged in 1990 that a more expensive, full-color Night of the Living Dead remake was on the way, it appeared as though Hollywood had once again simply run out of ideas. Released just 22 years earlier, the original was already considered a masterpiece, essentially introducing the concept of the modern-day zombie and inspiring a generation of filmmakers: Wes Craven and John Carpenter were just a few of the future horror maestros who watched in awe.

Yet further inspection revealed that this wasn't a simple case of creative bankruptcy. In fact, far from trying to cash-in on the legacy of George A. Romero's cult classic, Night of the Living Dead 2.0 was a concerted attempt to protect it.

Remarkably, the film only needed protecting in the first place thanks to a routine clerical error. Romero's directorial debut was initially named "Night of the Flesh Eaters." But to avoid confusion with 1964's Flesh Eaters — one of the first examples of the splatterfest — the auteur agreed to adopt its more familiar title. Unfortunately, its lackadaisical distributors forgot to transfer the copyright notice over, and as a result, the rechristened horror became part of the public domain. Cue a lengthy and costly court battle.  

Indeed, Romero, and the Image Ten production company he formed alongside friends Russell Streiner and John Russo, spent decades battling to retain the rights and recoup some of their lost earnings (Night of the Living Dead grossed $30 million on a budget of just $114,000, making it one of the most profitable horrors of all time). Of course, during this period, anyone who'd grown up watching Night of the Living Dead was entirely free to put their own spin on it.  

In fact, Hal Roach Studios had already released a colorized version of the black-and-white original four years before the Image Ten team reunited to deliver the first full remake. Only this time around, their roles were notably different.

Previous co-writer Russo joined Streiner as producer. The latter also switched his on-screen part from the opening scene's ill-fated brother to the finale's sharp-shooting sheriff. Yet the most surprising part of this behind-the-scenes merry-go-round was Romero's move away from the director’s chair.

The man dubbed King of the Zombies took sole responsibility for the screenplay. But already tied up with making The Dark Half, he entrusted Tom Savini, a special effects and cosmetics artist without any experience of helming a feature-length film, to transfer it from the page to the screen.

A bold decision, for sure. But Savini wasn't exactly a stranger to Romero's undead universe. He’d been recognized by the Saturn Awards for his makeup work on both 1978's Dawn of the Dead and 1985's Day of the Dead, also appearing in the former as biker Blades. And he'd cut his directing teeth on three episodes of Romero's '80s horror anthology, Tales from the Darkside.

Unfortunately for Savini, his time on set would soon have him scuttling back to the day job. In a 2003 interview with Film Monthly, he blasted the "two idiot producers" that constantly interfered with his vision, argued that only 40 percent of his ideas made it into the final edit, and described the whole process as "the worst nightmare of my life."

The underwhelming box office receipts (it grossed just a sixth of the original's on a budget 40 times bigger) and mixed reviews ("a crass bit of cinematic grave-robbing," claimed Variety) suggests that the efforts to maintain Night of the Living Dead's reputation had backfired. However, watching it three decades on, you get the feeling that early '90s audiences simply weren't open to the prospect of a Romero film directed by someone other than Romero. 

Savini's direction may be more conventional than the cinema verité style that thrust '60s moviegoers into the thick of the action like no other horror before. Even so, there are still some interesting stylistic choices: the opening scene, for example, shows how the undead can be just as menacing under glorious sunlight. And with $4.5 million to play with, the zombies themselves — all bloated heads and discolored, disfigured limbs — are inevitably far more unnerving than the original's lurching monsters adorned with Bosco chocolate syrup and roast ham.   

The professional cast is also much better equipped to deal with all the chaos than the largely amateur lot that often had to pull double duty on set. Tom Towles (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), William Butler (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III), and Bill Moseley (Silent Night: Deadly Night 3) all had horror form, and Tony Todd would soon cement his status as a genre icon with his terrifying turn in Candyman.

It’s Romero's updated screenplay, however, that truly justifies the remake. Sure, it still hits many of the same beats as its predecessor. But it also subverts several key scenes (Ben is shot by fellow survivor Harry rather than the trigger-happy cops), boasts a darker comic streak (the getaway car keys were in the cellar all along!), and fleshes out characters that were previously entirely one-note.

None more so than Barbara, who spends most of the original rooted to the sofa in shock before meeting a grisly end at the hands of her reanimated brother. Taking over from Judith O’Dea, future Star Trek regular Patricia Tallman, however, was given the chance to morph from a meek and mild victim into a Ripley-esque badass who turns out to be the last one standing. The rise of feminism obviously had an effect on Romero.

Of course, despite his best efforts, the late filmmaker didn't deter others from further reviving Night of the Living Dead. There's since been several other colorized and 3D versions, a collaborative animated take, and too many indie low-budget remakes to mention, none of which have involved Romero. Even his old screenwriting pal Russo couldn't stop himself from getting in on the action, overseeing a 30th-anniversary edition featuring newly-filmed scenes and an alt score. Yet, as you'd expect, only the man himself has managed to both recapture and build on the original's thrilling sense of dread

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