Anyone can go out and lavish praise on George Romero's classic 1968 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It arguably did more for horror than any other film before or after. The story of how it came into being is legendary, as is the fact that it brought almost no money to its creators. That fact played a large part in Romero and producer John A Russo in bringing it back to the screen in this 1990 re-make helmed by make-up and effects wizard Tom Savini, hand-picked by Romero to direct based on his updated script.
For anyone who has been living in a box for the past 38 years, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is pretty much explained by its title. For some reason never really explained, the dead are coming back to life and feasting on the living. The first movie (and this re-make) starts early on in the resurrection and concerns a small group of people holed up overnight in a farmhouse as the zombies begin to shamble their way over, with nothing but a taste for brains. Brains...
Savini, who started as a combat photographer in Vietnam and was responsible for the make-up and effects in both DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD (reviewed here) pays a great deal of respect to Romero's original vision and new script. Although the sense of dread may be lacking from the original, this isn't a splatter-and-gore fest like you would believe. Savini pays a lot of attention to character, and wisely tailors the effects and gore to serve the story instead of overshadow it.
Of special note in the remake are the new roles taken by Babara and Ben, wonderfully played by the super-sexy Patricia Tallman (who I had a crush on when I first saw this films years ago) and Tony "Candyman" Todd, who I think gives his best performance in this film. Both characters start out in pretty much the same roles they played in the original, but slowly morph into something different. Barbara especially takes a more active, heroine role here (this was a few years after ALIENS, so Ripley is a big influence), and has the best line of the movie (and the worst, but more on that later) when say says, "They're so slow. We can just run right past them..." Ben's character, while retaining much of the heroism displayed in the original, here has an added rage that has less to do with the zombies and more to do with Harry Cooper, played deliciously (hoo-wah!) by Tom Towles. He's just as much of a dick as he is in the original, and much of the mood and atmosphere comes not from the undead, but from the fear and prejudice of the main characters.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD doesn't 100% adhere to the original, and both Romero and Savini count audience members being familiar enough with the original so that the surprises come when they're least suspected. In the first 5 minutes we see what we expect to be our first encounter with the undead menace, only to have Savini pull the wool over our eyes and have the threat come from a different direction.
The ending, so classic in the original, also plays on this convention. Each Romero film played on the fears of society at the time of its creation - social injustice in the 60's, consumerism in the 70's, and militant conservatism in the 80's (my own interpretation BTW). NIGHT '90 uses its ending to point out its own theme - that in the face of death we become our own monsters. As Barbara walks around the make-shift base of her "rescuers,"she is confronted by a sickening reversal of roles - we have become the monsters, while the zombies are hered and exploited like so much sheep.
It may not improve upon the original, but I don't think Romero or Savini cared to even try. The best you can do with any remake is to respect the source and pay homage to the spark that fanned the flame to begin with. And on that level the 1990 remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD succeeds admirably.