Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Night of the Animated Dead’ on VOD, an Almost-Shot-for-Shot Remake of ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ But in Cartoon Form
This week in Adventures in the Public Domain is Night of the Animated Dead, now on VOD. This cartoon reiteration of George Romero’s classic horror film continues the ongoing saga of the exploitation of one of the most influential films ever made. Funny, how Night of the Living Dead was never subject to copyright status — apparently, the movie’s original distributor changed its title from Night of the Flesh Eaters, and failed to add the necessary legal notice to the new prints. D’oh. And therefore, the movie’s fair game for the type of reinvention we see in Night of the Animated Dead; now let’s see if it gives us some fresh meat for the old grill, so to speak.
The Gist: It’s just another average day in late-1960s middle America: a group of people can’t agree on what to do about the zombies amassing outside. But I’m getting ahead of myself: First we meet Barbra (voice of Katherine Isabelle) and Johnny (Jimmi Simpson), siblings visiting their mother’s grave. She kneels at the site and he mocks her, but rotten Johnny gets attacked and bitten and killed by an undead shambler. Barbra R-U-N-N-O-F-Ts out of there, right out of her shoes and to the road and down to an apparently empty house. Front door, locked. Back door, open. She enters, locks it behind her. A zomb or two follow, groaning and gnashing outside. She finds three things: a butcher knife just in case, the telephone (it doesn’t work of course) and a gnarly corpse at the top of the steps with its face possibly partially eaten off, shredded like a tender, slow-cooked pork shoulder.
A truck pulls up and out hops Ben (Dule Hill). He has a tire iron, and a lot of sense. Barbra settles into a nigh-wordless state of shock as he figures out that a blow to the head will kill a zomb — cue a shot of him jamming the tire iron through a zomb skull — and they don’t particularly care for fire. He comes to the conclusion that they’d best board up the doors and windows to keep the creeps out. He turns on the radio and they listen to reports of the zombpocalypse that’s occurring nationwide. Everybody’s figuring this shit out on the fly.
Then, a thump. There were people down in the basement. And is it me, or is this almost EXACTLY the same as the original movie, but in cartoon form? “Almost,” because movies made in the ’60s didn’t depict eaten-off faces and tire irons through skulls so graphically, if at all, even subversive countercultural no-budget flicks like Night of the Living Dead. Anyway, a few people emerge from downstairs and some are on the same page with Sam and some aren’t, and some are voiced by Josh Duhamel and Katee Sackhoff, although one wonders if any of it will matter, since this might all end badly regardless. No spoilers of course, although what’s the rule for discussing the endings of movies that are new but basically carbon copies of movies that are already 53 years old?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Night of the Living Dead (1968) comes to mind for some reason — I can’t quite put my finger on it, although maybe it’s because it’s sometimes shot-for-shot, line-for-line very much almost the same. Remember Gus van Sant’s Psycho? And come to think of it, Return of the Living Dead is basically a cartoon anyway.
Performance Worth Watching: The animator behind Tom and Judy’s newly very splattery deaths deserves a nod of recognition.
Memorable Dialogue: “Go be boss down there. I’m boss up here.” — Sam makes a statement that could be interpreted as being politically charged — or one that’s a very sexy double-entendre. Take your pick!
Sex and Skin: Was there any in Night of the Living Dead (1968)? No? Then there isn’t any here either.
Our Take: As far as replicas of animated versions of indefatigable cinema classics go, Night of the Animated Dead is fine, I guess, although I may not have the mental contortionist skills necessary to substantiate a justification for its existence. As I mentioned, it’s more violenter, with liberal applications of gloop and splick and other types of gore, which actively works against the spirit of Romero’s vision — a vision that might’ve been a necessity of budget or standards of good taste at the time, but for whatever reason, out-of-frame brutality is often more effective for its suggestive qualities. And that’s a core part of Night of the Living Dead’s success as a horror film.
Granted, Animated Dead alters the final shots somewhat, amplifying the tragedy of the film’s irony-drenched emotional climax. But again, Romero’s use of still photography to illustrate the coda is ultimately more haunting. The animation is similar to the “digital puppet” style of Archer, but more fluid; it looks good, if not exceptional. It also intensifies the pace, trimming the narrative to just over an hour. Animated Dead is a classic curiosity piece for a handful of zombie/Romero completists; for the rest of us, it mostly serves to reignite interest in the original film. So watch that instead — but beware, its public-domain status means there are a bunch of poor-quality versions of it on streaming services, including crappy colorized versions. Look for the Criterion Collection restoration on HBO Max or Kanopy.
Our Call: SKIP IT. If you want to split hairs, Night of the Animated Dead is less a forgery, more of a Photostat. Consider it damned with faint praise, then.