"Night of the Living Dead" would like to be deja boo. Unfortunately, it only earns a boo.
In 1967, George Romero wrote and directed the original fright "Night" in a Pittsburgh suburb. He had a tiny budget ($100,000), a cast of unknowns (most of them deservedly so) and grainy black-and-white film stock. Scary as Hell itself, "Night of the Living Dead" achieved deserved cult status and kicked off a flood of "Dead Shall Walk the Earth" films, many of which can be found on the horror shelf at your neighborhood video store (including Romero's own sequels, "Dawn of ..." and "Day of ...").
Like the film itself, Romero is back -- as writer and co-producer of a $4.2 million remake, in color, of course. Romero and his original partners apparently made no money from the original, and Romero admitted to the Wall Street Journal that the reasons for remaking the film were "purely financial." It shows. In the director's chair for the first time: Tom Savini, the king of splatter whose gory, deathlike special effects redefined celluloid horror in the '70s and '80s.
The plot is essentially the same, with a few twists and stomach-turns (the least clever of which is the ending, which is still unhappy, but bumbled). For some reason, the recently dead start coming back to life and stalking the soon-to-be-dead, a most disturbing development for the seven people who find themselves stranded at an isolated farmhouse. The three live crew who dominate the defensive team are Ben (Tony Todd), Barbara (Patricia Tallman) and Harry (Tom Towles).
One of the striking things about the original was Romero's use of a black actor (the late Duane Jones) in the hero's role, more specifically his use of a black actor without any reference to color. Ben, then and now, is simply smart, resourceful and confident, a leader who manages to stay cool even when those around him are falling apart. This time around, the role of Barbara is slightly upgraded (as is her armament, perhaps a reflection of the feminist revolution between films). The trouble with Harry remains the same: He's a pompous jerk whose survival instinct overrides any sense of community. What little depth the film has revolves around the relationship among these three, but much of the action involves all of the living screaming at and fighting with each other while the hungry dead silently stumble toward dinner.
The dead are as slow, stupid, weak and clumsy as ever, though quite intent on getting into that old farmhouse: They have all the worst qualities of unwanted relatives and traveling salesmen. Of course, home is where the heart is, not to mention livers, kidneys and intestines. Somehow, though, they are less unnerving in dead color than they were in black-and-white. Savini and his effects men have opted for a previously lived-in look that's only a bit more scary than the dance troupe in Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and in 23 years every possible zombie cliche has apparently been explored. Even the famous cannibal scene is more shocking in the original film, which had a look halfway between documentary and hallucination.
This "Night of the Living Dead" is resurrected, but it's never brought to life.
Night of the Living Dead, at area theaters, is rated R and contains profanity and scenes of graphic violence.