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Horror Family Trees #1: Night
of the Living Dead


Please tell me you’re all old enough to remember Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees? No? Tsch! Okay, back in the late 1960s, Pete Frame, a music journo with extraordinarily neat handwriting, came up with the idea of showing how rock bands had evolved from each other and changed their line-ups over time. He created his Rock Family Trees originally for ZigZag magazine and later for Sounds, Melody Maker, the NME etc. If you’re not familiar with the concept, take a trip to Google. Now, although I have neither the patience nor the neat handwriting to create something similar for horror movies, I am nevertheless fascinated by the way that franchises and sagas evolve through sequels, remakes and spin-offs.

      The daddy of all horror franchises – Universal and Hammer notwithstanding – is that spawned by Night of the Living Dead, arguably the most influential horror film of all time. As I observed in Urban Terrors (copies still available!): 'The cinematic zombie as we know it was invented in 1968 by Mr G Romero of Pittsburgh'. Obviously there is an entire mountain of zombie movies from across the globe which are thematically indebted to NotLD, but let’s concentrate on its direct descendants - and indeed, the original film itself. Some dodgy finance deals left the picture in the public domain and it has been released well over a hundred times on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray, including toofer discs, multi-film box sets and newspaper freebies. It’s all over the net too. There is no excuse for not having seen it, and I won’t patronise you by critiquing or describing the film, relating its production, or illuminating the powerful social/racial sub-text. I’ll just observe, because this is something curious and often overlooked, that NotLD was one of the last – quite possibly the actual last – feature film to be shot in black and white for financial, rather than artistic, reasons.

      Because of its PD status, other lesser filmmakers have felt free to muck about with NotLD. There have been at least three colourised versions, a 3D-ised version, an arty ‘remix’ and several versions dubbed with ‘hilarious’ new dialogue which undoubtedly improves the film immeasurably and isn’t just pathetic, juvenile no-talents showing off. Not to mention all the various cuts, edits and re-edits of various lengths and strengths. But they are basically all the same film. Except for one version, which we will come to in due course.

      Ten years on from NotLD, having in the meantime helmed Season of the Witch, The Crazies and Martin, Romero gave the world the brilliant Dawn of the Dead, expanding and exploring the ideas behind the first film, embellishing the bleakness of the scenario with a sharply satirical take on American consumer culture. Day of the Dead followed in 1985 creating that rarest of beasts: a trilogy of classics. However it is at this point, when it has barely got going, that our Family Tree of the Living Dead splits in two. The original film had been co-written with John Russo who came up with his own take on the theme, penning Return of the Living Dead for director Dan O’Bannon. Not strictly a sequel, in that characters actually reference the 1968 film, this was a break-out picture for Linnea Quigley but was less fun for Romero who saw it as direct and deliberate competition to Day. A certain amount of legal unpleasantness followed, over which we shall here scoot, thank you very much.

      Return began its own spin-off sub-franchise. The first sequel (directed in 1988 by Ken Wiederhorn) failed to impress but Brian Yuzna was let loose on Part III five years later and came up with something truly bizarre and different – as exemplified by the iconic image of sexy porcupine Melinda Clarke – thereby demonstrating that a sequel to a zombie film doesn’t have to be just another generic zombie film. By that time however, the unthinkable had happened: someone had remade Night of the Living Dead.

      In the 21st century, we have all become inured to the constant remaking of classic horror films but back in 1990, this was heresy. Except that the film was directed by Tom Savini who had built up an extensive credit of fan goodwill through his superb gore effects on numerous movies, not least Day of the Dead. Russo produced the remake, Romero was credited with the screenplay and as executive producer. It wasn’t terrible. And any doubts about the necessity or advisedness of such an action were swiftly forgotten when fans encountered the reprehensible Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition, which was the original film with about 15 minutes chopped out and about 15 minutes of new footage added.

      By this ruse, John Russo was able to have a version of NotLD which credited him as director. The other major player behind this bastardisation was Bill Hinzman, who had been one of the featured zombies in 1968 and had, 20 years later, directed the sensitive romantic comedy Zombie Nosh. Hinzman was credited as co-executive producer (a meaningless courtesy-title if ever there was one), DP and editor, as well as looming large in the utterly unnecessary new footage. In the 21st, century we have all become inured to people adding new footage into classic films and – hell no, we haven’t. Oi, Lucas! No-one wanted the Special Editions when they were released and no-one wants them now! Anyway…

      Awful though the 30th Anniversary Edition undoubtedly is, there is another film on this Family Tree which is even worse, and in a sense we can be glad that Russo and Hinzman made that tripe because without it we wouldn’t have the infamous Children of the Living Dead. Starring Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero’s uncle and Hinzman’s daughter, this turkey is a direct sequel to the 30th Anniversary Edition (but not the original), apparently intended to spark a new, Russo-controlled franchise. Russo exec-produced, Hinzman DP-ed, and the director’s chair was given to a poor sap named Tor Ramsey. Shortly after the film’s debut (not so much released as escaped, as the saying goes), a fan of the original posted an excoriating, 900-word review on IMDb which began 'You cannot comprehend how bad this film is. There is not a single facet of this film that is good, or even decent.' What no-one expected was that Tor Ramsey himself would respond with a 2,000 word IMDb post, agreeing entirely and explaining in detail precisely why his own film (or rather, the film with his name on) was so shit. 'I am writing to you to offer my sincerest apology for the 90 minutes of your life wasted watching the movie Children of the Living Dead,' wrote Ramsey. 'I read your review on the internet and would like to thank you for understating its worthlessness.' Google that text and you can read the whole thing. It’s worth it.

      And so into a new century of remakes and sequels. Romero’s original trilogy spanned three decades and there had been hope that he would make a fourth film in the 1990s but in fact it was 2005 when Land of the Dead appeared, the first film in the official series to have studio backing. This was followed two years later by Diary of the Dead, a ‘found footage’ take on the idea which came out simultaneously with the British feature The Zombie Diaries, although the similarities were superficial, each film taking a very different narrative direction. Romero’s most recent addition to the saga was 2009’s Survival of the Dead, and fans live in perpetual hope of a seventh film at some point.

      The same year that saw Romero kick-start the core Dead series also saw two new entries in the Return of the Living Dead sequence. Kiwi director Ellory Elkayem, briefly hot after the success of giant spider opus Eight-Legged Freaks, signed up to shoot parts 4 and 5 back-to-back in Romania, as was very much the trend in the mid-noughties (cf. Hellraiser 7 and 8, Pumpkinhead 3 and 4 etc). These DTV sequels appeared as RotLD: Necropolis and RotLD: Rave to the Grave to little popular or critical acclaim. Russo was uncredited and unconnected, the various rights having passed through assorted wheeling-dealing parties over the years.

      Before any of that however, Zack Snyder brought us a big budget remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2004 which, in defiance of expectations, turned out to be very good indeed, an example of how remakes can work if they are made with care, passion, respect for the original and an understanding of how the world has changed over time. The script was by the remarkably versatile James Gunn whose previous gigs were mostly Troma movies and live-action Scooby Doo pictures! Steve (Friday the 13th) Miner remade Day of the Dead five years later, though this was not touted as a sequel to Snyder’s film, just as Snyder’s was not a sequel to Savini’s. Thus we have the unusual situation of the original trilogy having all been remade, but without the remakes being a trilogy.

      In recent years there has been a trend for filmmakers to latch onto the public domain status of the original NotLD and remake or sequelise it with impunity. In 2006, Jeff Broadstreet decided that, post-facto stereoscopisations of the original film notwithstanding, what the world needed was Night of the Living Dead 3D ('Both an homage to and a re-imagining of the original 1968 film' apparently). Fan favourite Sid Haig was front and centre on the DVD sleeve and the film was successful enough for Broadstreet to have another bash six years later with his own prequel NotLD 3D: Re-animation which gathered up a whole bunch of marketable genre names including Andrew Divoff and Jeffrey Combs.

      This second Broadstreet film is not be confused with NotLD: Reanimated which was the brainchild of a fellow named Mike Schneider. He took the soundtrack of the original film, divvied the story up into more than 100 bite-size chunks, and then solicited animators from around the world to help him remake the film. An extraordinary range of animation techniques and styles are on show, from stop-motion to Flash, CGI to cels, even sock puppets. For sheer bravado and originality, it’s hard to beat Schneider’s take on the idea. A second animated feature (which has played festivals but not yet been released) is NotLD: Origins, a 3D CGI picture produced by Simon West, director of the first Tomb Raider and the second Expendables. This has Bill Moseley and Tony Todd providing the voices of the characters they played in Savini’s 1990 remake of the original, which perfectly encapsulates how twisted and gnarled the branches of this family tree have become.

      In 2012 came the first British entry in the free-for-all that is the world of NotLD remakes. Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection from director James Plumb and producer Andrew Jones is part of the recent Welsh boom in low-budget horror and one of three features by the duo claiming at least a titular lineage from old US horror films, the others being Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming and The Amityville Asylum. Meanwhile Night of the Living 3D Dead, a stereoscopic British remake starring Gemma Atkinson which predates Jones and Plumb’s, remains inexplicably unreleased. And it doesn’t stop there: yet another remake of NotLD has been shot by an indie group in Ohio and is currently scheduled to premiere in October, while Matt Cloude has roped in no less than the original Barbara, Judith O’Dea, for his in-production feature NotLD: Genesis, and Jason Morisette has got Michael Berryman and Kane Hodder in his movie NotLD: Contagion.

      Of course, if you really want to make things complex, you could factor in that Dario Argento’s edit of Dawn of the Dead, marketed internationally as Zombi, was significantly different to Romero’s film. That was followed by Zombi 2 which was actually Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters and then Zombi 3 which was Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters 2! God knows how far that sequence went; the Italians will make a fake sequel out of anything. It really seems like everyone wants a bite of Night of the Living Dead, which is at least appropriate…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.