Depending on who you ask, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) will easily come out on top in a list of the greatest horror movies ever made. With a mix of top-notch gore, excellent story supported by strong acting, social commentary, legitimate chills from a world overrun by zombies and an ominous soundtrack, you have a film that stands the only true test of time: a lifetime of viewing that continually produces fresh insights. Romero made the film as a follow-up to his game-changing Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which a group of strangers are brought together and besieged in an abandoned farmhouse. Dawn of the Dead enters the same world sometime later, following a group of survivors who find refuge in a mall, which also happens to be where the mindless undead now flock. If you think this sounds like a great set-up for a gore-filled zombie film with a level of insightful social commentary, you nailed it; like any social text that drifts into superlative territory, the film’s political dimension adds to its lasting appeal, making it a favourite for film and cultural studies classes more than 30 years later. Put bluntly, the original Dawn of the Dead is the Adbusters of zombie cinema.
When I first heard that a remake was in the works, I was skeptical. How could someone have the gall to remake a movie as important and nearly perfect as Romero’s Dawn of the Dead? The idea sounded like blasphemy—and to some it still is.
For me though, Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead achieves what so few remakes actually accomplish: a film that is at once an original, an homage and something that is equally good in its own way. It’s difficult to describe how much I like both of these movies, though I think it’s safe to say that, one day, when I’m close to my final moments on earth, what flashes before my eyes won’t be a montage of my childhood, loved ones and my life; what I’ll likely see is various scenes from both Dawn of the Dead movies, dancing before my eyes in a macabre display of my love for the genre and the accomplishments that are Romero and Snyder’s Dawn films.
Zack Snyder seemed an odd choice for this remake. Prior to directing Dawn of the Dead, he’d only made a handful of music videos; so with a $30 million budget and the pressure of remaking one of the most well known and beloved horror movies of all time, this was a high stakes project.
Remakes aren’t generally easy projects. If a director is a fan of the original, she’ll want to do something that maintains a certain dignity and respect for the source text, even if that means straying from certain elements. At the same time, the studios want something totally different: big box office cash and something that appeals to a broad spectrum of viewers of all ages, all while using conventions that may be dramatically different from those of the source text. More often than not, this results in sub-par remakes.
Snyder’s remake satisfies everyone. Starting with the same concept—a group of people seek asylum in a suburban mall—the film quickly establishes itself as an original. To start with, Snyder’s film has a much faster pace, with more action, adding to the overall sense of dread. Taking a point from 28 Days Later, Snyder’s zombies are updated for the 21st century. No longer the slow lurching, weak zombies that can be comically pushed aside, these zombies are fast, vicious and strong. Romero’s undead were at their most dangerous in a horde; in the new Dawn of the Dead just one child zombie is enough to chase down and tear apart an entire family.
Another important update is the gore and zombie effects in Snyder’s film. The original Dawn of the Dead included groundbreaking make-up effects from FX legend Tom Savini. The film’s gore is truly gruesome, so whenever a zombie takes a bite out of someone, you can almost taste it! The zombies, however, may seem lacking by today’s standards. Zombies in the original are blue-ish grey, which can seem unintentionally cheesy today. Snyder, however, upped the ante with the remake. In the new film, zombies are mangled and deformed. As the story progresses temporally, Snyder’s crew ensured that the undead looked increasingly decayed. The result is that zombies from the film’s early sections are relatively intact; by the end, as weeks and months have passed, these same zombies are noticeably more decayed.
One of the key differences from the original is the social commentary. Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead tones down the criticism of consumer culture—though it is still present to a lesser extent. What we get in its place, is a number of ethical dilemmas not imagined by Romero. One of Snyder’s sickest and most interesting scenes involves a zombie birth, complete with zombie mother and undead newborn baby. In a twist on the standard formula, a father struggles to let go of his undead family.
Besides all the great fast-paced action and gore, Dawn of the Dead (2004) features comic relief from Modern Family’s Ty Burrell and a memorable performance from Canada’s own Sarah Polley.
I won’t bother going through everything that makes this film an instant classic. I leave it up to you to find the time—really, make the important life choice—to watch both Dawn of the Dead movies this Halloween. Add both films to your priority list this week.
Kiel Hume writes for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him on Twitter: @kielculture
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