Beyond being classified as horror movies, this trio of movies are more akin than any others I’ve rounded up before, two as a matter of fact being cut from the same cloth and all sharing approximate release dates and subject matter. Two of them I know to have fervent cult followings, so I don’t know how much more I can add to them. At the same time I doubt I’ll infuriate anyone, since I actually quite enjoyed them all, finding that each one worked pretty well under its own power. If you’re looking for some more horror you can always request my thoughts on James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I’m undertaking now. The closest I can come to explaining it is this video of an owl scat-singing to a group of children.
Night of the Living Dead (1990) – If I were to say that gore maestro Tom Savini’s directorial debut was not as shockingly grotesque as I expected, my neighbors might avoid me when I’m out mowing the lawn (what do you mean they already do?). But that’s the truth of it, since Savini’s remake of Romero’s original keeps the carnage relatively tame, as if in deference to the more suggestive power of its revered predecessor. That’s only relatively speaking of course; the old school effects still look good, but not to such an extent that they constitute the highest point of what some may consider an unnecessary overhaul. That honor belongs to the new and improved Barbara as played by Patricia Tallman, who emerges from the most ungodly mousy getup ever plastered on a person to become the kind of reluctant sweat-glazed warrior woman that 80s audiences had grown used to. If ever there was a reason to tamper with the original, Judith O’Dea’s catatonic presence was it, her numbness relatable from a real-world perspective but an undeniable bummer for the story onscreen. While Romero may have felt it necessary to his civil rights message to render her a macguffin (“save the Barbra!” if you will) in the feud between hard charging Ben and belligerent Harry, she is refreshingly assertive here and consequently updates the social commentary in the process, for people who are into that kind of thing. The plot, faithful to the original save for a few tweaks, moves at an easy pace without ever feeling slow, a phenomenon that is more and more noticeable in movies made before the current era of quick edits and rapid-fire plot contrivances. It’s the perfect kind of amble for a 3AM movie, with just enough jump scares to jolt oneself awake. It does fill the air with one too many shrill arguments however. Harry’s cockamamie villainy threatens to undo the serious tone, but Tony Todd’s imposing Ben is up to the task of glowering away any hint of curdling cheesiness. In the end it all adds to the casual immediacy that makes the lumbering-zombie genre such a joy, but it’s at the expense of further character development. Savini’s direction is pretty much a holdover from the original, but he finds interesting ways to frame interiors with unnervingly open doorways and windows to notch up the tension. He could never have hoped to make the same kind of impact as Romero did with the original, but standing on its own merits, this is a solid, reverent reproduction. As a final word of advice, don’t let Bill Moseley’s atrociously hammy delivery as Johnnie in the opening scene come off as a sign of things to come. Between his ill-judged goofiness and Barbara’s outfit, the scene is completely incongruous to the rest of the movie, and Johnnie’s demise seems to mark the point at which Savini casts off the staginess of the original and embraces his darker-tinged modern edge.
Day of the Dead (1985) – I avoided this one for a long time due to its wobbly reputation, but upon seeing it I found that there is, like with the remake of Night, nothing inherently wrong with it. And when I said that the gore in 1990’s Night was tame, it’s in comparison to this. Day features the zombie apocalypse at its most Lord of the Flies. The hysteria surrounding the outbreak is over, the human world overrun, and cooped up in a cavernous mine is a dwindling outpost of survivors split between scientists, soldiers, and support personnel. Whether one can get on board with Romero’s blatant political proselytizing or not (militarism!), it can’t be denied that his roving social concerns keep him from repeating himself. The downscaled setting and internal strife mark a slight return to the first movie, but further dimension is added thanks to the fact that, for these characters, the worst of the crisis is over and they’re now trying to figure out how to resume their lives. Right from the get-go it’s clear that reinvention is not in the cards. It boils down to a fairly predictable clash between military bullies and righteous intellectuals with a lot of straight talking and open threats, but thanks to Romero’s political amplification, it becomes even more unsettling to imagine why so little is left of humanity in any doomsday scenario. When society breaks down, just how expendable are we in an age of skill specialization? John, one half of a pair of neutral characters that keep things on an even keel, coolly spells it out for protagonist Sarah, making it clear that, despite her intelligence, in the scale of things she is worthless to the guys with the guns. An obvious conclusion, sure, but it’s a healthy dose of self-reflection in another movie filled with angry outbursts and uncompromising scoundrels. There are few enough slow scenes in what is a surprisingly propulsive narrative, the audience being dropped right into the survivors’ dangerous routine. With the peacekeeping Major Cooper dead, tensions are already rising and there’s no need to suffer any further backstory. The synth score holds up surprisingly well, and memorable characters abound. Besides the scuzzy Captain Rhodes, there are some characters best described as the Hispanic Salacious Crumb, Jolly Walter Sobchak, and Jarlath Conroy as McDermott, the friendliest face in any Pittsburgh bar. Pet zombie Bub may the biggest source of contention for any viewer, depending on one’s willingness to entertain the notion of a thinking zombie, but even that subplot is fully developed and integral to the final outcome. The affection for the material is evident from the strong attention to detail, and it can be said fairly that this an example of a movie that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Re-Animator – The official story is that H.P. Lovecraft churned out Herbert West – Re-Animator for a quick buck and that it stands as his worst published work. Given how tough Lovecraft is to crack visually and thematically, and that most efforts have erred toward the overly serious and suffered for it, it would stand to reason that the most memorable adaptation of his work goes in the opposite direction, playing on the ludicrous premise of an ambivalently written story for laughs. A hallmark of Lovecraft’s brand of horror is the inability of man to conceive of the shapes that true horror takes, and that contact with it is enough to drive a man insane, unsure whether to laugh or cry or shriek in terror. Herbert West – Re-Animator may not get any love because of its structural deficiencies and lack of thematic weight, but it bears the best of his writing along with the worst: gruesome subject matter, florid quaking circumlocution, a narrator afraid of his own thoughts. It’s also his most overtly comic. It may not have been Lovecraft’s intention, but thanks to his ‘eh, what the hell’-like approach to the plot, it’s filled with moments of black comedy gold. This galvanization of high concept body horror and tongue in cheek comedy is what informs Stuart Gordon’s loose campy take on the story in Re-Animator. Working with a budget that was probably given to him by his grandma for graduating high school, Gordon stays true to the demented nature of the original story by bringing all of the thinly written West’s horrible experiments to life while letting Jeffery Coombs go crazy as an over-caffeinated autistic rebel. That this makes for an incredibly slight plot is of little concern. Gordon works within his means, shooting on small sets that make it feel like an early period Peter Jackson has invaded Full House (In fact, I can’t recall any outside scenes aside from establishing shots). He feels no need to raise the stakes beyond a handful of characters, and he wastes little time on the source or rationale behind West’s glowing green serum. It exists for the fun of it. Besides being acted under the drab lighting of a hellishly domestic sitcom, everything else about Re-Animator is about as subtle as West’s serum: the Switzerland prelude, the snazzy opening credits, the Lazarus cat, the smash cut of Barbara Crampton going “no” then going “yes!” Take your pick. The boundless energy defies any reasonable expectations for what could’ve been produced with the minimal resources poured into the movie, showing just how spirited Gordon and company were during its production. Even then Coombs invests West with a grave persistence that keeps things levitating just above the ground. Somehow perversely reverent and irreverent of its source material, Re-Animator exists for the enjoyment of a select number of people, bringing to wild life a once dead and buried story.