Up until 10 years ago it looked as though zombies were dead and buried. But in 2002, the first Resident Evil movie became a hit and spearheaded a new age of zombie cinema bolstered by the release of 28 Days Later which followed months later in the UK and came to US theaters in 2003. Now, with the fourth Resident Evil sequel arriving in theaters, the acclaimed TV series The Walking Dead beginning its third season, and zombies even appearing in kids films with the ghoulish stop motion pic ParaNorman, its hard to remember a time when zombies were out of fashion. At yet, prior to Resident Evil, zombies had been deep underground for more than a decade.
The film that seemed, from a commercial standpoint, to put a bullet in the head of the zombie genre was 1990s Night of the Living Dead remake. After NOTLD 90, there were still some classic entries in zombie cinema like Peter Jacksons Dead Alive (1992), Michele Soavis Dellamorte, Dellamore (1994), and Brian Yunzas underrated Return of the Living Dead III (1993) but they were all either limited release or direct-to-video, films that found an appreciative cult audience rather than mainstream popularity.
Ironically, the only zombie movie to get a wide release during the 90s was the 1993 Disney comedy My Boyfriends Back (produced by Sean Cunningham and written by Jason Goes to Hell co-writer Dean Lorey) about a teenager who comes back from the dead for a girl he had a crush on but that film (both in its poor quality and dismal box office performance) only confirmed that zombies were deader than theyd ever been. It looked like modern zombie cinema had, perhaps fittingly, gone out the very way it came in with Night of the Living Dead.
It wouldve been impossible to catch lightning in a bottle twice but George Romeros script for the remake was still a squarely told tale. And having cut his directorial teeth on several episodes of Tales from the Darkside, Tom Savini was an ideal candidate to helm the remake as his first venture into feature filmmaking. On the surface, all the elements were in place for a successful retelling of NOTLD but when the film was released in October of 1990, even with Halloween around the corner, audiences didnt turn out for it.
As far as the general public goes, I think the feeling then was that zombies were little more than yesterdays garbage. After all, by then the zombie genre had devolved into limp comedies, like 1988s Joe Piscapo/Treat Williams buddy cop/zombie pairing Dead Heat. And in the eyes of older horror fans, the original Night of the Living Dead was sacred ground, a film not to be remade under any circumstances not even with the original players involved (remember, too, that this was not far from the time of the much-reviled move to colorize classic black and white films including Night of the Living Dead so fans were extra sensitive to the idea of anyone tampering with NOTLD). For a younger generation of horror fans (the first to grow up in the VHS era), weaned from an early age on a diet of splatter heavy zombie films from Romeros Night sequels Dawn and Day, to Fulcis Zombie, to Andrea Bianchis Burial Ground anything less than an unrated zombie pic just wouldnt do. At the time, an R-rated Night remake was too mousy for most fans to bother with especially with Romero and Savini involved. After Dawn and Day had raised the bar for splatter, what hardcore fan wanted an R-rated zombie film from these guys? The remake seemed to be, and was largely received as, a pointless enterprise (even if it had the well-intended purpose of helping the original filmmakers strengthen their copyright claims to the original). But good filmmaking gets noticed eventually and over the years, NOTLD 90 has slowly become appreciated in its own right.
Savinis direction compliments Romeros lean script by not going for any unnecessary ornamentation. He doesnt whip out a lot of stylistic tricks; he just puts the camera where it needs to be to get each scene across. Its an old-fashioned film in that regard as by the late 80s/early 90s it was common to see directors becoming more indulgent with their visuals, trying to accomplish more impressive, innovative shots. Sometimes this would be to brilliant effect, as with Sam Raimi, but Savini practiced a more classical brand of storytelling. More time and money on this production mightve achieved a different result as Savini has said in interviews over the years that many of his storyboarded plans were scuttled due to limitations but such compromises arguably worked to the films favor.
With Savini in the directors seat, the films myriad FX duties were headed up by John Vulich and Everett Burrell of Optic Nerve FX and their crew did a bang-up job, delivering an array of memorable zombies with some of the gags such as Johnnys wince-inducing fatal face dive into a headstone bearing Savinis stage magic-based influence of accomplishing illusions in-camera with simple props and misdirection.
Savini also had an excellent group of actors to work with with a cast including Tony Todd as Ben, Tom Towles as Cooper, William Butler as Tom, Bill Moseley as Johnny, and Patricia Tallman as Barbara. Itd be right to criticize the decision to turn Barbara into an action heroine one of several creative choices that ensure this version doesnt resonate as deeply as the original as it strives to be more rousing and crowd pleasing except for the fact that Tallman does such a great job with the character. Shes so good in the part that she makes it easy to overlook the fact that Barbara loses her glasses early on but yet still proves to be a dead shot with a rifle. Female heroines are commonplace these days but Tallman imbues her Barbara with a sense of resiliency and humanity that remains rare. Tallmans Barbara isnt just about mowing down zombies. She makes smart decisions, argues her points with intelligence, and never seems cartoonishly superhuman as many action heroines (as well as their male counterparts) now do. In fact, the best moments of Tallmans performance show her very human responses to whats going on around her, as when shes confronted with a female zombie clutching a childs doll.