War of the Remake: Dawn(s) of the Dead


Eons ago, in the distant and unremembered past of 2004, I actually had a genuine respect for Zack Snyder as a filmmaker, following the strength of his remake of George A. Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead.

I’ve mentioned it several times before, but I love the remake, and actually think it’s a strong film, and possibly even stronger than the original. Possibly. So, witness the deliberation as I decide between the two.

THE (OVERALL) STORY

Both films centre on a small group of survivors holing up in a shopping mall to avoid the zombie pandemic that’s wreaking havoc in the immediate outside world.

The original uses the shopping mall centre as the target of its rather relentless satire and social commentary; it’s firmly established that the zombies have been reduced down to their basic instincts, and apparently the way society’s gone, one of those instincts is to consume. It’s a pretty blunt statement that most people these days (even now, 35 years later) are slaves to consumerism, and that we get some bizarre comfort out of the regularity and routine of spending.

The remake streamlines the story a lot, and the shopping mall in Snyder’s version serves primarily as the smartest place to hole up – it has food, shelter, some modicum of liveability and has enough space to still provide a thematic threat that the zombies can’t get in. The remake has very little in the way of social commentary (except perhaps some redneck leanings, which I’ll mention later) and so the mall is merely a setting for the story.

Both stories also feature a triangle of conflict, as the mall is occupied by two different groups as well as the zombies (Humans 1 vs Humans 2 vs Zombies). In my opinion, this works a lot better in the remake, as the conflicts boil down to what has to be done to ensure survival, as opposed to the original wherein a gang of bikies infiltrate the shopping mall to bring about the ending of the film.

The story of the remake is a much more straightforward beginning-middle-end plot structure, with twists and violence along the way, whereas the original feels much more a slice-of-life film about what it’s like to live during a zombie outbreak.

Both are effective storylines, and I side with the remake only because I feel the original has some serious stretches where the story lags. That said, there’s a much higher sense of threat and despair in the original, which the remake could have used a dash of. I have a preference, but I hold that as my opinion – it’s not to say that one is necessarily better than the other, just what I prefer.

THE OUTBREAK OF CHAOS

This is a tricky one to determine, because both films take a different approach. The storyline of either film centres on one simple fact – zombies are running rampant across the world. As such, the audience needs to be clued in pretty early that there’s something strange in the neighbourhood.

The original opts for an immediate introduction, dropping us into the middle of a newsroom in chaos as the producers of the news show run around in disarray due to the mayhem outside. The panellists of the actual show are squabbling about the “facts” of the situation, while the executives are squabbling over what to actually present on screen, and everyone else is running around like a newsroom full of scared, panicked people. It creates an immediate and palpable sense of tension and chaos, and you truly get that right outside the studio walls, the world has gone to hell. This is followed up on with a scene of a swat team busting into a ghetto apartment block to exterminate zombies where they find them – again, this scene is chaotic and bloody, and it does well to show you the immediate violence, and then make you realise how widespread it is.

The remake on the other hand, opens with the beginnings of the chaos – a few unusual admissions into the ER of a hospital, and a beleaguered nurse (Ana, protagonist) who’s been working all day due to the increase of admissions. We then see her as she heads home, even greeting her neighbour Vivian, a young girl, on the street before she heads inside to her husband. All these scenes have something off-kilter about them, which does well to create the sense of dread necessary. This dread is capitalised on in the morning, when Ana is greeted by Vivian at her bedroom door – only now Vivian’s had her lower jaw ripped off, and soon attacks Ana’s husband viciously. Ana escapes the house, but then sees the world around her falling apart in a spectacular sequence that shows utter pandemonium reigning supreme.

If I have to choose one, I’d go with the original, if only because I like that it wastes no time letting you know how pear-shaped the world has become, and I like that it assumes the audience is smart enough to pick up on the cues of tension rather than being shown it. That said, the remake’s opening sequence is truly spectacular – and in terms of “time wasted” that the original doesn’t have, we have maybe 5 minutes that’s still working to build up tension. Put it this way, the opening sequence of the remake is so solid that they advertised the film on its initial release by showing the first 10 minutes free online – and it’s a damn good way of showing the movie off. I like both – certainly choosing the original is not to suggest that the remake loses out in any way.

THE ZOMBIES

Remake wins.

And before you balk, I’ll say that I’m well aware of my milieu in writing this, that I’m used to the films that have derived the influence of the original, rather than ever being able to see the original as a new entity, but this is an opinionated piece and that’s helped form my opinion.

I’m aware that the zombies in the original are used as much as part of the satire and social commentary as they are as an effective horror device – in fact, a large point of the original film is that the zombies are not much of a threat compared with the ways the humans interact with each other unless they (the zombies) are present in great numbers.

I’m also aware that the sensibilities of horror have changed between the two films – for the original, the sight of a horde of zombies feasting on the entrails of a character was viscerally horrific, but these days it’s relatively standard fare. As the film stands today, the original’s zombies serve the social commentary of the film, not the horror. Call me a philistine, but I’d prefer a horror movie to be horrific first, and a social commentary second.

In addition to all that, I prefer the remake’s zombies for two reasons. Firstly, they actually look dead. The original was much lower-budget fare, but the zombies still come across as extras-in-blue-bodypaint. The remakes’ zombies look like actual reanimated bodies, and it’s all the better for it.

Then there’s the obvious defining factor that the remake’s zombies are fast. Now, this was nothing new in the wake of 28 Days Later (don’t even try the argument that they’re not actually zombies in that film – there may have been a different reasoning behind it, but they still function as zombies) but in the remake, the ferocity with which they move makes them a lot more threatening, and a lot scarier.

That makes them scarier on their own, because they’re harder to deal with, but there’s also a hell of a lot more to worry about in terms of safety. In the original, if a zombie got in, it was a matter of time before the entry was sealed, and they could take their time picking the offending undead off. In the remake, the mere option for one to get in meant that with in minutes they could be overrun entirely, and it’s that risk that means the faster zombies are a better option.

That said, the remake never gave us a zombie Hare-Krishna Moby.

THE CHARACTERS

Here, it’s not too much a case of acting, because the remake has much more naturalised performances than the original as the styles of the time dictate. The remake has better acting as we would define it, but given the difference of styles it’s a bit of a moot point to argue.

The original gives us four primary characters – Francine, Roger, Peter and Stephen. Francine is a tough woman (Actress Gaylen Ross actually demanded that she not just be “another screaming woman”) who does much more than her earlier incarnation in Night of the Living Dead’s Barbra. Roger is the slightly-unstable gung-ho SWAT officer, while Peter serves as his much calmer and nobler counterpart, and Stephen is a relatively bland character, whose main point of interest is being a helicopter pilot, which becomes largely useless once they arrive at the mall.

Now, the original spends a lot of time with these characters, without ever really developing them. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I do find that the original has large stretches where I lose interest because the characters themselves are not that interesting, save for Francine who’s sidelined a lot of the time to let the men go out and shoot zombies.


The remake has significantly more characters, to the point where some aren’t even named on screen. Our primary characters are Ana, Kenneth, Michael, Andre and Luca. Ana’s our protagonist, a nurse who tries to be as helpful as can be. Kenneth’s the tough cop who’s looking for his brother. Michael’s the sensitive nice-guy who seems to have finally found a purpose in life, ironically when the world’s gone to hell. Andre and Luda are the twofer-token-minority couple (black and European) who are expecting a baby any day now.

While at the mall, they come across three security guards, CJ, Bart and Terry, who are less than thrilled with the arrival of new survivors. CJ’s the “bad guy” for a while, with Bart as his scared-but-sycophantic sidekick, and Terry’s the ingénue, who seems a lot nicer than his buddies and is therefore more sympathetic.

In addition to that, we also have Frank, Nicole, Steve, Monica, Norma, Tucker and Glen who arrive in a truck that crashes into the mall and kicks off the second act. Steve is the sarcastic arsehole, Monica is the slutty one who doesn’t get named on screen (not me being dickish – that’s largely her character motivation), Norma and Tucker are the salt-of-the-earth oldies, Glen is the creepily-gay one (again, sole character development), and Frank and Nicole are father-and-daughter, and Frank’s just been infected.

That seems like overload on characters, and it would ordinarily be the point where the film forgets building character and enlists them as zombie-fodder, but the remake does surprisingly well at giving you a real sense of who these people are, beyond Monica and Glen. They’re characters you get to know a little bit about, and you don’t want them to die – that’s the very basic level of building a character in a horror film. Even Steve, the sarcastic pain-in-the-arse bastard that he is, makes you enjoy his presence on screen (Ty Burell’s performance may have something to do with that – he’s certainly the best part of Modern Family too, and it took me ages to adjust to Phil after Steve.

The only real problem that I have with the remake’s characters is that they try to shoehorn in a romance between Ana and Michael – which just seems unlikely given that Ana’s husband recently died. It comes off as contrived. But other than that, the remake has a lot of nice work with its characters. I particularly liked that Nicole is seriously affected by the loss of her father, or that Ana gets a moment to actually grieve the loss of her husband – it’s these little moments that make them work as characters.

So, once again, the remake wins.

THE POSTER

This may be a flippant point to argue, but I feel like giving the original some credit, and it must be said that its poster is one of the iconic horror movie posters. It’s just so sinister and creepy, and entirely evocative of that late-night-keep-the-TV-turned-down-because-everyone’s-asleep timeslot that cult films like the original Dawn of the Dead get aired in.

The remake has two main posters (if you ignore the Asian marketing of the film which mainly focused on the zombified Vivian) and while the second is cool in an otherworldly sort of way, the first just lacks any real creativity. We know there’s zombies in the movie – you don’t need to show one and pretend that serves as a decent poster. The otherworldly poster is cool and creative, but it’s not a patch on the original’s.

THE BAD

With the original, the only major complaint I have is that there are long periods of the film where not much seems to really happen – but again, that’s half the point, because it’s meant to show how isolated they are in the mall and how imprisoned they are. Everything I’ve listed above where I commend the remake is not a sign that the original is inferior per se, just that I prefer the remake.

But the remake has one troubling thing about it, and that is a largely redneck undertone which sits uncomfortably with me. Now, zombie movies are quick to load their characters up with guns, but there’s a certain glorification of weaponry in this film that’s unusual. It may be something I’m reading too much into, because friends of mine have told me I’m picking up on something that’s not there, but each time I see it, I’m surprised by how much “guns are the answer” at all times.

To be fair, this is present in the original to an extent, too

I also find it uncomfortable that Monica, the “hot blonde one” is on screen without a name and is given the sole characterisation as a slut – and that’s not just because she has sex on screen (Ana does too with her husband at the start) but she’s shown to be the bitchy, slutty one who doesn’t even get the pleasure of a name before being literally sawn in half. Glen is also problematic, as he’s the only openly gay character, and it’s shown to be creepy and predatory – he inflicts his reminiscences of sexual awakening on the security guards as they’re locked up behind bars. It’s not really played for awkward humour, just to showcase that he’s gay and that he’s creepy – but without any knowledge of him outside of that, it’s a problematic characterisation.

But the biggest indicator for me is in the opening credits, which cleverly stitch together scenes of zombie violence created for the movie with news shots of political unrest and violence. It creates a uniquely intriguing and simultaneously unsettling atmosphere for the film, and it would be entirely commendable if it weren’t for the shot that opens it, of a mosque full of Muslim men bowing down in prayer.

There are no other shots of religious worship in the sequence, and it really smacks of anti-Muslim sentiment in a place where it shouldn’t even be considered, let alone highlighted. If the film had had larger statements to make about religion as a whole, it might have been acceptable, but as it stands, it’s one shot of a specific religion being targeted, and it makes the implications very unfortunate.

OVERALL

I’ll try to reiterate one last time that I don’t think either film is inferior to the other – they’re both great movies for different reasons. The original has a certain class and legacy that the remake hasn’t impacted on cinema, but at the same time, the remake is a more accessible film in a modern climate of horror films that works better as a horror movie on purely horrific terms.

My personal preference is for the remake – if I’m going to choose one version to watch when I get home from work for the day, the remake is an easier film to watch and I personally find it more enjoyable. It also holds a certain nostalgia for being a film that made me think Zack Snyder had promise as a director – it’s certainly the best film he’s made so far, and as a remake goes, it gets the idea right. It pays homage to the original, whilst being its own film at the same time – it’s not merely re-treading the same tracks as the original, but neither is it a completely different entity that simply shares a name with a movie that came out years before it.

If you’ve never seen the original, go and see it – it deserves all the praise it gets, and it’s certainly one of those films that has a real sense of history about it while you’re watching it. It’s easy to see why it’s the film that so many people hold in such high regard, and if you’re a horror movie buff at all then you need to see it as part of the canon.

And if you’ve only seen the original, then check the remake out too – it’s one of the best remakes out there, and in my personal opinion, actually outdoes the original. I’m aware a lot of people will disagree with me there, but I truly think it’s worth every bit of praise as the original.

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