Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we look at Patricia Tallman’s Barbara in the remake of Night of the Living Dead.
I totally understand why someone would write off the Tom Savini-helmed remake of Night of the Living Dead. How do you replicate the genre-defining influence of George Romero’s seminal film, or begin to convey the same social commentary it had in 1968? Regardless of what Romero said he intended, he made a statement by casting Duane Jones, a Black actor, as the co-lead in a movie released at the end of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a poignancy that’s sewn into the fabric of the original film, and part of what turns it into a work of art.
So why the hell remake a work of art? Because even masterpieces have imperfections that can be improved upon, and the one in Night of the Living Dead is far from minor. Romero and co-writer John A. Russo created a complex ensemble of characters, but they didn’t give emotional depth to one of the most important roles in the movie: the audience surrogate, Barbara (Judith O’Dea). The fear we experience in the opening scenes, as well as the relief when we meet Ben (Jones), are told purely through Barbara’s perspective. Yet once she arrives at the farmhouse, rather than staying with Barbara and exploring her post-traumatic stress, Romero and Russo disconnect the character from the action, fading her into the background through a tangled mess of weepy clichés.
If Romero didn’t intend to break racial stereotypes with Ben, he likely also didn’t intend to reinforce gender stereotypes with Barbara. Any agency the character had in the film’s opening moments are ripped away as Romero and Russo force Barbara to rely on the male survivors to make life-and-death decisions for her. When Romero revisited his original screenplay in 1990, and Patricia Tallman took over the role from O’Dea in Savini’s remake, Barbara was finally allowed to realistically process her trauma and channel her emotions into a resiliency to survive that’s as engaging as it is thrilling to watch.
These two different Barbara’s begin their waking nightmare in the same way: by watching their older brother get bludgeoned to death by a zombie. The trauma from this shocking moment becomes the character’s bedrock. Whoever Barbara was before, no matter how demure she may have been, clutching to her brother for emotional support, in this moment she instantly changes. It’s a trial by fire that forces her into action by pulling the emergency brake on her car and narrowly escaping a graveyard filling up with ghouls.
What happens next is where the two different characters diverge. Both are shocked into silence, but for O’Dea’s version, that’s conveyed by Barbara reverting to a childlike fugue state as a coping mechanism. Romero and Russo aren’t interested in investigating the character’s trauma below surface level, so they just let her inaction be nothing more than a frustrating impediment for other characters, including Ben, who are allowed to process the gravity of their situation. Barbara spends the rest of the film disengaged from the story as an obtuse wilting flower, glued to a couch, unwilling to lend a hand.
When Barbara finally does snap out of her reverie in the end, her action is used as an ironic plot device rather than a moment of her overcoming her fears. She sees her zombified brother for the first time, and Romero and Russo drop any agency Barbara just had as they let her easily succumb to her brother and the throng of walking dead. They didn’t want to offer Barbara any kind of character arc; they just needed a cynical setup for her inevitable demise.
Romero gave more color to his female characters through the ’70s and ‘80s — especially in his occult ode to female empowerment, Season of the Witch –but none are more refined than Tallman’s take on Barbara in 1990. The performance turned Barbara into an Ellen Ripley-esque heroine, full of bravura and bravery, a complete subversion of Romero and Russo’s original creation. Her swing from weeping willow to action star was an idea Savini offered. “I had seen Sigourney Weaver as this great woman hero, in Alien,” he said, “and I wanted Barbara to become [one], too.”
Tallman had actually worked with the creative team previously on Romero’s 1981 cult classic Knightriders, as well as a Savini-helmed episode of the Romero-produced Tales from the Darkside television show, before going on to perform stunts in Romero’s 1988 killer chimp flick, Monkey Shines. Needless to say, they knew she had chops, but it’s a statement in and of itself about this version of Barbara that Romero and Savini cast an actress who was a prominent stunt woman. It categorically tells the audience: this isn’t the same character we met twenty-two years before; this is a woman of action, quite literally.
Romero’s updated script still uses a tight word economy to represent Barbara’s shock after watching her brother die, but Tallman doesn’t make the character weak because she isn’t given much to initially say. Where O’Dea’s Barbara is vacuous and detached, physically shrinking away from conflict, Tallman’s Barbara grows more confident and self-assured, pulling herself together after a pep-talk from Ben (played by Tony Todd in the remake), and finding inner-strength, something the original film never cared about doing. Tallman masterfully shows this mix of shock and fortitude through a haunted, piercing stare that keeps her connected to the action, giving Ben someone to talk with rather than talk at. This isn’t the catatonic character from the original; Barbara gets to actually share in Ben and the other survivor’s unrelenting desire to live through the night.
Her drive to action isn’t just a mechanism for the story either, but part of the arc that sees Tallman’s Barbara become the most intelligent character in the film. In the third act, as she becomes exasperated by the male survivors squabbling over who gets a gun and who gets to barricade themselves in the basement, she points out something the audience has been yelling at the screen about the entire movie: why don’t they just walk around these slow-ass zombies? If they’re careful, they can very easily flee to safety. When she shares this master plan, we’re left gobsmacked; Tallman’s Barbara has outsmarted us. We never expect a horror character to make such an obviously sensible decision, but because she does, we root for her even more. It’s a singular moment that exemplifies Tallman and Romero’s thoughtful reimagining of this major character.
The emotional intelligence Tallman and Romero give Barbara is the perfect recompense for how woefully underdeveloped she was in the original, but this isn’t a perfect remake in its own right. A vastly superior budget provided by B-movie impresario Menahem Golan robs the remake of a powerful sense of verité realism that the original embodies. In giving Barbara her overdue agency, Ben’s own is scaled back, which douses water on the fire Duane Jones originally gave the character. It’s a shame that Tony Todd’s Ben was diminished as Tallman’s Barbara was revitalized, as both could have coexisted and made the film even stronger.
Regardless of how you feel about remakes, the characterizations given to Barbara in the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead rectify the weakest link of the original masterpiece. Tallman’s stoic portrayal of a woman fighting through shock, trauma, and hordes of the undead to find her own resilience is a total about-face to the shrinking violet that Romero and Russo had originally conceived. If you must remake a movie, do it for a good reason. And I can’t think of a better one than giving this character the depth she always deserved.