When it comes to benchmark films that will forever hold a place in the Horror Hall of Fame, few can rival George Romero’s 1968 game changer, Night of the Living Dead. Not only did Romero essentially create and popularize the cinematic notion of zombies with the film, his smart script and casting choices still resonate with powerful social commentary. Therefore, it’s easy to understand when a remake was announced, it raised more than a few eyebrows. But just like the band Poison taught us, every rose has its thorn, and it’s no secret that Night of the Living Dead has more than a few.
Along with its famous copyright issues and subsequent financial ramifications, Romero admittedly did a real disservice to the film’s leading female protagonist, Barbara. After signing on as the writer for the 1990 Tom Savini directed remake, Romero embraced the opportunity and rewrote Barbara as the strong, intelligent and complex character he always intended her to be.
Originally portrayed by Judith O’Dea, Barbara‘s role in NOTLD is a large one. Through Barbara we become introduced to the zombies, their capabilities and the rest of the film’s characters. Acting as a proxy for the audience, Barbara allows viewers to survey the scene as events begin to unfold. However, O’Dea’s OG version of Barbara perhaps embraces the surrogate concept a bit too much. After witnessing her brother Johnny‘s (Russell Streiner) death at the cemetery and escaping to a nearby farmhouse, O’Dea’s Barbara is in complete and total shock.
Soon, she meets Ben (Duane Jones) who also seeks refuge at the large, secluded farmhouse. Despite the opportunity to assist Ben with securing the home, Barbara fluctuates between silence and hysterics. Quickly becoming more of a burden than an asset to Ben, Barbara‘s emotional state fails to improve even as more and more characters are introduced. Although understandably shook, this exaggerated ‘damsel in distress’ act results in Barbara‘s final moment of strength ultimately falling flat.
Keenly aware of Barbara‘s dated and flawed character traits, both Romero and Savini made purposeful and deliberate changes to her character. One of the largest and boldest of these choices came in the casting of actress and stuntwoman Patricia Tallman. No newbie to the scene, Tallman’s work at that point had included films like Creepshow 2, Shocker, and Road House. She had also previously worked with Savini and Romero on Monkey Shines, a Tales from the Darkside episode and Knightriders. By choosing an actress who also actively performed stunt work, both creatives were making a decisive statement about this new vision of Barbara.
In a 2014 Daily Dead interview, Savini elaborated saying ‘I had seen Sigourney Weaver as this great woman hero in Alien and I wanted Barbara to become a woman action hero, too. The person she becomes in the movie is who she really is. She’s a badass stuntwoman.‘ With Barbara‘s new end goal clearly defined it became extremely important to show exactly how Barbara evolves into her beautifully badass self. With the full weight and legacy of the 1968 NOTLD looming over the film at all times, Barbara couldn’t simply come out of the gate swinging. Like any remake, precedent exists and it was smart of Savini and Romero to not ignore that fact. By introducing small but important changes early in the story, Barbara‘s evolution becomes not only plausible, but a welcome change that leaves viewers rooting for it.
Just like in the ’68 version, the film starts out with Barbara and Johnnie (Bill Moseley) driving to the cemetery. However, this time it is to visit the grave of their recently deceased mother rather than their father. Adding in some fresh dialogue with the familiar it becomes clear that Barbara and Johnnie‘s mom was a controlling force that still retained some measure of hold over Barbara. Reinforced with Barbara‘s glasses, tightly buttoned up blouse, conservative pink sweater and calf length plaid skirt, Johnnie‘s incessant teasing seems to ring with more than just a hint of truth. However, this wall surrounding Barbara quickly begins to fall once the dead begin to make their presence known.
After she witnesses Johnnie‘s unfortunate demise, Barbara‘s escape from the zombies results in a significant wardrobe modification. Unwillingly ditching the glasses, sweater, baby blue tie and her shoes, Barbara is left with a neutral beige top and skirt. Tucking the excess fabric of her skirt into her waistband to aid her ability to run, Barbara enters the rural farmhouse looking much different than when we first met her. Not only does this physical and visual shift mirror her modulating mental state, it exhibits her quick thinking and willingness to fight.
Although unquestionably terrified, the simple act of tucking up her skirt hints at her ability to maintain control and execute smart, logical decisions under pressure. Despite this opening scene paying clear and honest tribute to the original film, these slight alterations establish a strong character foundation for Barbara and pave the way for her eventual transformation.
Following the storyline of the original, Barbara soon encounters Ben. This time portrayed by the iconic Tony Todd (Candyman), Ben‘s character remains a central figure. Delivering a fantastic performance, Todd pays honest tribute to Duane Jones’ famous performance while subtly making this new version of Ben all his own. While the core of Ben‘s character remains the same, Todd’s version inevitably had to shift slightly due to Barbara‘s new direction. Still noticeably shaken by recent events, it is once again Ben who attempts to snap Barbara out of her emotional spiral. However, this time around, it works. Never ignoring or minimizing Barbara‘s feelings, her character is allowed to fully feel her emotions while simultaneously wrangling control over them in a reasonable amount of time.
Once Barbara settles into a calm state we truly begin to see her evolving personality. Quiet, but engaged, Barbara maintains a healthy wariness of Ben while helping improve their situation at the same time. Rather than gluing herself to the couch, Barbara helps remove the giant zombie body in the living room. She actively listens to Ben and keeps her composure. She chimes in where needed and remains observant while the remaining characters are introduced. Once again acting as the audience embodiment within the film, Barbara takes action and assists Judy Rose (Katie Finneran) and Tom (William Butler) board up the windows and observes the absurdity of Harry Cooper‘s (Tom Towles) excessive and needless bid for top dog. Barbara also becomes the first to notice the functionality of the zombies and how easy it would be to simply walk past them—an observation audiences have screamed at zombie films for decades.
Unlike her predecessor, this Barbara manages to strike a fine balance of frustration, understandable shock and definitive, logical action. More accepting of the harsh realities that surround her, this modern Barbara adapts accordingly. Soon ditching the skirt for pants, boots and a gun, Tallman’s Barbara has a renewed sense of agency that is both refreshing and welcome. When the mission for fuel blows up in their face (literally) and Ben becomes critically wounded at the hands of Harry, Barbara sets out for further help on her own.
Striking an undeniable resemblance to The Walking Dead TV series characters yet-to-be, Barbara fires off shots carefully and decisively. Gone are the historic remnants of 1968’s Barbara. Here, Tallman presents a vision of Barbara that is strong, smart and also touchingly relatable. This newly emancipated energy becomes further solidified once Barbara encounters a group of fellow survivors.
Like the original NOTLD, Savini and Romero take advantage of the film’s final moments to make a statement about the world we live in. With more than 30 years between the two films, the new and elongated ending offered the filmmakers a chance at an updated social commentary while solidifying Barbara in the process. Witnessing the odd joy with which this group of survivors are executing zombies with variety of barbaric methods and games, Barbara delivers her most famous line of the film saying, ‘They’re us. We’re them, and they’re us.‘
This heavy and layered observation becomes further reinforced when Barbara returns to the farmhouse looking for Ben (only to find him zombified) and un-surreptitiously shoots Harry in the head. This definitive action executed without hesitation marks Barbara‘s character completing her metamorphosis. Not only did Harry represent toxic masculinity and societal patriarchy (in both versions of the film), he was ultimately a huge asshole. Satisfying on multiple levels, this important moment exhibits Barbara definitively pulling the trigger on both.
“By introducing small but important changes early in the story, Barbara’s evolution becomes not only plausible, but a welcome change that leaves viewers rooting for it.“
It’s truly rare for a filmmaker to be intimately involved with a remake of one of their films, especially one that came out over 30 years prior. An even rarer occurrence is this situation happening to a film as iconic and beloved as Night of the Living Dead. Even though the reasons for a Night of the Living Dead remake were numerous and motivated by a variety of complicated factors, it’s important to recognize that both Savini and Romero did not take the opportunity lightly. Sure, they could have done a shot for shot remake, cashed in and reestablished Romero’s rights to the film…but they didn’t.
Recognizing both the iconic qualities and weak spots of the original with equal measure, Savini and Romero set out to do right by fans while making notable, needed improvements. By lovingly reworking the character, Barbara becomes transformed from a demure, delicate woman dependent on the men around her to a bold and intelligent final girl of strength and agency. In the end, the world within Night of the Living Dead is forever changed— and so is Barbara right along with it.
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