Oct 4, 2021


There’s never been a more abused horror title than George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (1968), as its strange and immediate classification as a public domain title allowed decades of ensuing filmmakers to pick its bones in all kinds of ways without legal ramifications, from creating unauthorized remakes to remixing the movie with new edits and presentations to straight up showing scenes from the movie in their own low budget endeavors. At this point, I’ve seen more characters in horror films settle down in front of their TVs on Halloween night and begin watching Night of the Living Dead then I’ve seen them wandering around dark houses or backyards while asking, “Is anyone there?” (I can speak with authority on this because even I’ve been personally involved with two crappy projects that desperately clung to the OG movie’s coattails. Any moron can do it.)

To date, only one project, officially sanctioned by Romero, has brought any class to the Night of the Living Dead name and that’s been the 1990 remake by longtime Romero collaborator and special effects maestro Tom Savini, which starred Candyman himself, Tony Todd, as the ill-fated Ben. Since then, we’ve had 1998’s 30th anniversary edition of Night of the Living Dead, which went back to the original movie and added newly filmed scenes to fill in some of the “gaps,” and which included returning actors who were very clearly thirty years older, as well as 2001’s Children Of The Living Dead, starring a now-regretful Savini, which was designed to be a direct sequel to that specific version of the movie and has since been disowned by nearly everyone involved in its making. Then came Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006) with Sid Haig, in which zombie Johnny TEXTS his beleaguered sister with “COMING 4 U BARB,” and its prequel Night of the Living Dead 3D: Re-Animation (2012) with Jeffrey Combs. Mimesis: Night of the Living Dead (2011) vied for a meta-approach by taking its own universe and meshing it with that of the classic undead zombie shocker. 2015’s Night of the Living Dead: Darkest Dawn was the first attempt to present an all-animated take on the zombie classic and was produced by, of all people, Con Air’s Simon West, and featured voicework by Danielle Harris and a returning Tony Todd. Honestly, this list could keep going but it’s already becoming tedious, so the last one I’ll mention is the recently filmed, odd-but-curious sounding project Night of the Living Dead II, which seems to be more of a straight-up sequel to Day of the Dead (1985), as it brings back the main trio of Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, and Jarlath Conroy. As you can see, nothing about Romero’s original is safe – not the concept, not the title, and not the actual film, which is a trend that refuses to stay buried, as we now have Night of the Animated Dead, courtesy of Warner Bros., who hasn’t touched hands with anything remotely tied to this universe since 1988’s lousy but harmless Return of the Living Dead II.

With voicework by people you’ve actually heard of, like The West Wing’s Dulé Hill, the Transformers series’ Josh Duhamel, and It’s Always Sunny’s Jimmi Simpson, as well as the animation’s mostly loyal depictions of the characters/actors from the original film, it’s tempting to think this return trip to the well has finally figured out how to rebirth Romero’s film in a way that’s honorable, entertaining, and even substantive. Known actors, familiar characters, a major studio – clearly, they’ve nailed it this time, right? But if you think Night of the Animated Dead is going to be the title that finally gets it right, then buddy, you’re chewing a mouthful of Greek salad.

Die-hard fans of Night of the Living Dead will notice as soon as it starts that Night of the Animated Dead is using the original screenplay nearly word for word, which immediately robs the movie of any suspense. Instead of pondering what will happen and the new directions the movie will explore, your anticipation will be reduced to a basic curiosity for how the animators will present some of the original’s more notable sequences. This kind of approach to a movie, especially one you know so well, frankly isn’t enough to keep interest sustained, so once the novelty of the animation wears off, and once the first few words of each voice performer are spoken and you get the sense of how that performer meshes with his or her character, Night of the Animated Dead has trouble keeping viewers invested. One would also assume, being what it is, that the animation on display would be impressive, what with it being the selling point of the movie, but it’s not. It’s haphazardly done and very cheap looking, with herky-jerky movements that, at times, can actually be nausea-inducing. It’s that kind of Hanna-Barbera animation where if none of the characters are speaking to each other, everyone’s at a dead still like a photograph, and this happens so many times that you begin to wonder if your Blu-ray player is on the fritz.

The voicework ranges from perfectly fine to downright confounding, and it’s difficult to ascertain if certain choices were purposely made or accidental byproducts of the actors’ voice performances. Hill’s take on Ben is much gruffer than Duane Jones’, while Duhamel’s take on Harry is more subdued than Karl Hardman’s, whose Harry Cooper is still one of the all-time great dicks in cinema—and this while recognizing that Hardman wasn’t a professional actor. This might not feel like a big deal, but the dynamic shared between Jones and Hardman in the original movie put them on equal footing: they were both comparably bossy, domineering, and alpha male. Meanwhile, Hill comes off as the aggressor while Duhamel makes Harry Cooper seem more desperate and afraid, and whose dickishness seems to spur from fear instead of dominance and egotism. For reasons that should be obvious, and considering the decades of film theory that have examined the racial themes in the original movie, that’s…not a good thing to present for 2021. Really, the only voice actor who seems entirely comfortable with her work is Nancy Travis, who voices Helen Cooper. Confident with the medium and with a firm grasp on her character, hers is the only performance that blends well into the presentation; meanwhile, the other actors’ voice performances consistently blast you back out again. (Katee Sackhoff as Judy is bewilderingly bad.)

The only new thing Night of the Animated Dead brings to the table is its graphic depiction of violence, which was left unexplored in the original movie (at least by comparison). Instead of Johnny bumping his head on a tombstone, now his skull cracks open, brains leak out, and blood pours from every hole in his face. Instead of Tom and Judy blowing up unseen in a pickup truck, the engine block explodes through their windshield and takes out whole chunks of his face and her neck. It’s gratuitous, for sure, but it also comes across as disrespectful, though I can’t say why, considering how hyperviolent Romero himself would make his later sequels. And maybe that’s because the filmmakers felt constrained by sticking with the original screenplay and even the physical appearances of the original actors, so this was their way of putting their stamp on the movie…but then again, who asked them to stay so loyal in the first place?

Really, Night of the Animated Dead never feels respectful to its parentage, even if it does reuse the same words Romero wrote and the physical embodiments of the actors Romero cast. Even certain scenes’ choreography and staging are re-used, as if the filmmakers were looking at the original movie’s storyboards when creating their animations. But one thing stuck out more than anything else: in spite of Night of the Animated Dead borrowing the script, the actors, and the shot setups from the original movie, one scene in particular was pared down from its original incarnation, which Romero and co. had filmed guerilla style in Washington, DC, and depicted several governmental figures being grilled by the media while walking down the busy city street on the way to their car. Instead of re-using this walk-and-talk sequence, those same three government figures are placed in front of a static shot of the Capitol Dome while fielding questions from off-screen reporters—which, in essence, completely removes Romero’s in-film cameo as a reporter from this new iteration. I have to wonder if the filmmakers of this new version even knew he was in that scene to begin with. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t, because if they did, why cut the director out of his own movie? Why not take that moment to tip their hat to the man whose seminal film they’re making a buck off? That, right there, seems to sum up Night of the Animated Dead: it’s the same screenplay, the same “actors,” and mostly the same shot compositions, and yet, somehow, there’s a complete lack of George A. Romero. And that’s the worst thing this newest take on the title could’ve done.

I wish I could delude myself and believe that, at the very least, Night of the Animated Dead might help to introduce the original film to newer audiences, but I doubt that’ll be the case. If you’re born with horror in your blood, that path was always going to lead you to the godfather of the zombie sub-genre anyway; for the newest generation, however, there are an army of imitators to wade through before arriving at the main event. One thing’s for sure: it’s more than worth the journey.

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