**Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the DVD I reviewed in this Post. The opinions I share are my own.**
Horror changed in 1968 when a small indie picture directed by George A. Romero from a script co-written by John A. Russo released called Night of the Living Dead. Horror films have always possessed a certain element of social commentary, whether targeted to concerns over the Nuclear Age or shifting morals in general society, but Living Dead took the fear of integration, of social change, and wove it into a tale of survival as the dead rose to walk the earth. Some 53 years later, Living Dead has spawned several direct sequels and adaptations and inspired an entire sub-genre of Dead films, the most recent being director Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead (2021). Placing their own spin on Romero and Russo’s story is director Jason Axinn (To Your Last Death) in a totally animated rendition of this fateful classic tale. Strangely, outside of making the film animated to raise the gross factor and using modern actors, there is little desire for this remake to exist, leaving one craving the original with an unsuitable hunger.
In case you’re unware, Night of the Living Dead is about a girl, Barbra (voiced by Katharine Isabelle), who survives a graveside attack by running away and taking shelter in a seemingly abandoned house. Soon after, a man, Ben (voiced by Dulé Hill) arrives to use the house’s gas pump, finds it locked, and comes inside to find the key, discovering Barbra hiding in the process. As he tries to fortify the place, he learns of other survivors taking shelter and attempts to create a plan to get them to safety. But with the mob of undead growing outside, time is not on their side.
What’s odd right from the jump about the remake is that it’s not a shot-for-shot remake of the 1968 film. This is a major plus as it implies that Axinn and company have a specific vision in mind. In this version, for instance, we actually get to see how Ben gets the truck, a sequence that is only heard about in the original. Given the constraints Romero was dealing with, it made sense to keep things as simple as possible and to avoid any unnecessary shots or set relocations. What doesn’t make sense is that the film proper is just over an hour long with the credits making up the last 10ish minutes. The original theatrical release is 96 minutes. Where did the rest of the footage go and why? What purpose does it serve regarding the adaptation in making it its own? The “Making Of” featurette does mention making small changes — like showing Ben’s death in greater detail in an effort to make the impact more meaningful — but nothing else is discussed regarding what was omitted. You get a glimpse of the actors in the vocal booth, some neat comparisons against the original, and even some interesting expressions of views which explain the idea of taking on this recreation, but never a word about why content is absent. In this regard, it’s neither a true shot-for-shot adaptation nor a reimaging, but some kind of Frankenstein creation in the middle, lacking the imagination, pacing, and suspense of the original.
Animation is certainly not always for children (Heavy Metal; South Park) and it affords the director, writer, and entire creative time the ability to do things that can’t be done with physical sets or natural laws. So the idea of taking a film that’s generally beloved and placing it within a different medium is not entirely without merit. Evidentially producer Michael Luisi had been seeking someone to handle this project and, after a tip and audition, Axinn was found to be the perfect choice. (EoM senior contributor Hunter Heilman reviewed Axinn’s To Your Last Death and found it severely wanting.) According to Axinn via the “Making Of” featurette, he wanted to, “…show how powerful the movie is by making it in color and animated.” One of the strange things about cinema is that it’s a time capsule of an era. Elements of it can be timeless in how they’re received, but it’s specific to that time, location, and perspective. That Living Dead was shot in black-and-white, that the “zombies” were just eating roasted ham with chocolate sauce, that the violence was specific to that era, give the film voice. Because Luisi and Axinn see modern audiences as used to a certain level of violence, the mayhem in Animated Dead reflects modern barbarism to an almost exaggerated degree. It’s also suggestive of storytellers who mistake gore for meaning.
Credit where credit is due, this film has a fantastic voice cast. Sadly, none of them are veteran voice actors, but each is skilled beyond the cache of their name. Hill brings a gravitas to Ben that the character deserves, especially given the big shoes any actor would have to fill replacing original actor Duane Jones. Though her character is our introduction, Barbra does little more than be the damsel and Isabelle makes the most of it that she can with her vocal work. Josh Duhamel (Transformers) as Harry Cooper brings the necessary intensity that creates the tension amid the survivors. If Hill offers clarity, Duhamel brings chaos and you can feel their rivalry come off the screen. James Roday Rodriguez (Psych), Jimmi Simpson (Westworld), and Nancy Travis (So I Married an Axe Murderer) are less memorable but still make for engaging characters which move beyond the 2D plane. The worst of it, sadly, comes from poor Katee Sackhoff (The Mandelorian) who makes the best of what she’s given in a nothing performance befitting the nothing character of Judy. Considering what audiences have seen her do in other roles, it’s a tad shattering to see so little of her in the vocal performance.
As Halloween comes around again, it makes sense to either revisit old favorites or to take a swing at making something new to delight those who desire something that goes bump in the night. Frustratingly, Animated Dead will neither scare nor entertain as it lacks something that the original and all the doppelgangers since possess. The “more” of it all doesn’t add anything but violence for the sake of violence, making the entire endeavor about as numb and ineffectual as Ed with a gaming controller, the difference being that Ed makes the audience a tad sorrowful at his circumstance (despite getting his dream lifestyle of inaction and gaming) and Animated Dead just inspires frustration. There’s potential in transposing the classic horror tale to a new medium, but the lack of intent, of vision, of need to do so is apparent from the first scene onward.
Night of the Animated Dead Special Features:
- Making of: Animating the Dead (9:46)
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital October 5th, 2021.
Final Score: 1.5 out of 5.