By David Weiner
Filmmaker Tom Savini gets candid about the sacrifices, successes, mania and magic surrounding his Romero remake.
Horror remakes are a dime a dozen these days, but the story behind Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of George A. Romero’s seminal zombie classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is definitely an interesting one — and certainly justified. Spawned from the low-budget, black-and-white 1968 box-office hit that became a midnight movie classic, the 1990 version of NIGHT was put into motion primarily due to a copyright oversight on the original film’s print that unintentionally put the title into the public domain. Vulnerable to any and many producers and distributors helping themselves to — and tarnishing — his vision and making money off of it for two decades, Romero moved forward with producing a remake with the intent to reclaim some financial compensation.
The original team was all there: Romero was joined by co-writer John A. Russo and producer Russell Streiner. But rather than direct the remake himself, Romero chose to tap makeup effects maestro and longtime friend Savini, whom he worked with on DAWN OF THE DEAD, DAY OF THE DEAD, CREEPSHOW, MONKEY SHINES and MARTY. Savini was originally supposed to work on the 1968 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD too, but had to bow out when he was called to serve in Vietnam. Now coming full circle, Savini was more seasoned as a director, having helmed stage productions of DRACULA alongside numerous film makeup effects sequences that he was contracted to be in charge of.
“I didn’t want to make a frame-by-frame remake,” says the filmmaker about taking on the mantle. “I drew up 800 storyboards and put them on the wall in my office. I was able to show what I intended to do on the wall; every scene, every effect, every visually exciting, suspense-building moment. So I showed all this to George and he said, ‘This is great. Very imaginative. But you’ve got a six-week movie up here on the wall, and you only have four weeks to shoot it.’ So they started cutting things before we even started shooting.”
SAVINI BEGINS TO LOSE HIS MIND
Much to Savini’s chagrin, Romero had to head out of town to Florida as filming was set to begin in order to write the big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s THE DARK HALF on deadline. Subsequent content fights that came up with the producers were often lost, and Savini felt like he had lost an immediately available creative ally. He specifically recalls that the other two producers “in charge” while Romero was gone kept cutting even more of the bigger action set pieces to make way for dialogue: “I’m like, ‘Well, great. You’re not here to watch people talk, you’re here to see things happen. It’s a movie. MOVE-ie.’ So I lost battles like that.”
Once the production was set in motion in Pennsylvania, a series of more disappointments, obstacles and straight-out rejections turned a dream opportunity into a sort of living hell for Savini, who also found himself in the middle of a divorce during the four-week shoot. “It was torture. Absolute torture. Worst experience of my life — not artistically, but personally,” he says. “You need every ounce of concentration as a director; every second was choreographed by me, but two weeks into it my wife was asking for a divorce. I thought I was going to lose my daughter, and I lost my mind. So what got up there [onscreen], thank God, was by rote, you know what I mean?”
But personal and production difficulties aside, Savini prevailed with a multitude of solid creative and analytical decisions that did end up onscreen, from contemporary storyline improvements to casting kismet. “I did cast all the actors, except for Barbara, to look like the original cast members [of the ’68 version],” reveals Savini. “I didn’t want it to be too jolting, but I said to George, ‘Why can’t we bring Barbara back and have her kick some ass?’ Because ALIENS had just come out and Sigourney Weaver was this wonderful female hero. … In the original movie, she’s a brain-dead twit for most of it, and I wanted a hero, and that’s why I cast Patty Tallman. I went to college with her, we were in fight class together, and she’s a stuntwoman. I started her off as a mealy mouse, glass-wearing librarian kind of person, and I knew the character arc was going to take her to Sigourney Weaver, you know?”
As for finding the right actor to portray Ben, the take-charge character of conscience who helps Barbara regain her wits and defend a farmhouse stronghold against a horde of zombies, the producers went to L.A., New York, and back to Pittsburgh to hold auditions, which saw the likes of Laurence Fishburne and ER’s Eriq La Salle reading for the part. Then came Tony Todd, prior to his CANDYMAN fame. “Tony walks in, I handed him a script, he goes outside for like five minutes, he comes back in without the script, knew all the lines — and produced tears,” remembers Savini. “I closed the book and said, ‘That’s it. We’re not looking any further. This is Ben.’ He obviously was the best.”
WALK LIKE A ZOMBIE
Notable for its deft handling of pacing, built-up of tension and well-earned jolts, Savini’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD also nicely plays with the seasoned audience’s expectations. “I could use fans’ knowledge of the [original] movie against them,” grins Savini. “That’s why, when they’re in the cemetery at the beginning, the first person you see looks like a zombie, but he’s not. And then you’re taken off-guard, and that let me scare you with the real zombie. I did manipulations like that to satisfy and scare the audience; it’s not too much of a diversion from the original. After that point you don’t know who to trust. And that made them interested.”
Like a kid in a candy store, Savini got to sit down and fabricate a whole new army of zombies for the film, and he used issues of Famous Monsters as a creative guide for some of his favorites. “I went through Famous Monsters and said, ‘Okay, this Dorian Gray, this makeup, I want that on a zombie.’ Or I’d see another character, demon, or horror actor, and I’d say, ‘Okay, this is a zombie.’ And so, in a way, I had my hero zombies that I picked. And just like George let me do on DAWN and DAY OF THE DEAD, I let [my makeup effects team] improvise. That’s the most fun, when they can create something they came up with. So that kept them happy. But I wanted to make sure I had my specific zombies.”
Looking at how many zombies ultimately ramble across the screen, it’s impressive to know that a team of only six people, give or take, accomplished all that you see and more in the film: “Everett Burrell and John Vulich were my main guys, because they had worked with me on other films, and they brought in friends of theirs and local guys like Jerry Gergely, who’s the head instructor at my school [Tom Savini’s Special Make-Up Effects Program at Douglas Education Center in Monessen, PA],” says the director.
CONTROL SLIPS AWAY, BUT TIME ADDS PERSPECTIVE
After filming wrapped, the project’s post-production moved to Los Angeles, and Savini also saw his remainders of creative control slip away as he stayed in Pittsburgh to take care of business and personal matters. When it was time to watch the final cut, Savini was less than pleased. “Oh, I hated it,” he says. “Because I felt that only 30 percent of what I intended was up there on the screen. … [The producers] had to sacrifice so much for the MPAA. If I were there, I would have fought harder. Here you had my name and George Romero’s on a movie — you’d expect a bloodbath, but it’s kind of sterile.”
1990’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD ultimately failed to take much of a bite out of the box office, recouping only $5.8 million on an approximate $4 million production budget. But the years have been kind to the film, especially amid the extensive graveyard of a thousand failed movie remakes, and now horror fans and many contemporary critics agree that Savini’s version is truly one of the best film remakes out there.
And the filmmaker is not so hard on himself any more. “Years later I was at a midnight showing and did a Q&A before the movie, and I wasn’t going to sit down and watch it, but I did,” recalls Savini. “And it was the first time that I saw it objectively, and it’s good. The actors are great, the suspense is there. I mean, it’s good! But it took a while to feel that way, because of just my feeling that not everything I wanted to do was in it.” He adds that he gets lots of compliments about the movie on social media, “which makes me feel great,” with it often singled out as one of those supremely watchable films that compels you to stay glued to the TV ’til the very end.
(This article first appeared in Famous Monsters of Filmland issue #282 for the 25th anniversary of 1990’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD)
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