Original VS Remake Pt. 1 – ‘Dawn of the Dead’
Hollywood doesn’t have any original ideas left. Well, that’s not entirely true…remakes and adaptations have long been part of studio output. But that’s not going to stop us comparing remakes to the originals.
So starting today we’re going to start doing just. This new feature was inspired by The Dom’s video series ‘Lost in Adaptation‘ and with his permission we’ve highjacked his format. We’ve also elected to go with something that debatably got improved with the remake.
Directed by indie horror legend George A. Romero as a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, the 1978 original is regarded as one of the definitive entries into the zombie genre. The zombie outbreak of the original has spread across the country and while rural areas are holding out the cities are chaotic. We begin the story at a television studio trying to stay on top of the story three weeks into the outbreak. Two staff members – Stephen (David Emge) and Francine (Gaylen Ross) nick the traffic chopper to make their own escape. They are joined by SWAT team members Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), and the group attempt to escape the city. After multiple close calls they wind up taking sanctuary in a shopping mall.
Once at the mall they begin fortifying themselves in using trucks to block the doors and building a wall to seperate out their living quarters from the zombies occupying the mall. Francine reveals she is pregnant, but rejects Peter’s offer to abort the child. Roger is bitten whilst extending their wall and succumbs to the virus, eventually being shot by Peter. In the months that follow the survivors life make themselves comfortable using the goods left in the stores. Their life indulging in the mall’s goods lets them feel safe enough that Stephen proposes to Francine, but she turns him down and these creates tension between them. After months of creating a new, contained world for themselves the emergency broadcasts go silent.
New threats come from the outside world in the form of a roving motorcycle gang. They break through the barricades with the intention of looting the mall but let the hordes of zombies through with them. In the ensuring battle Stephen is shot and attacked by the zombies, and many of the bikers are killed by the horde they brought in with them whilst the last alive flee. Zombie Stephen retains enough consciousness to break through the wall into the sanctuary. Peter shoots him, allowing Francine the chance to reach the roof. He locks himself in a room and considers suicide, but instead fights his way through the zombies where he and Francine escapes in the helicopter, now low in fuel, to an uncertain future.
Dawn of the Dead was praised for it’s allegorical and satirical nature. Early scenes featured shell shocked police officers clearing out tenant buildings who have been trying to keep their dead relatives followed directly by a scene of happy-go-lucky rednecks making a day of zombie hunting. Shots of survivors excited to have free reign of the mall is interspersed with the mindless zombies interspersed with lifeless mannikins. A goofy music selection over scenes of the survivors setting up a cosy little home for themselves heightens this impression. Although the zombies are ever present the real threat comes from internal hostilities and external human threats in the form of rampaging cops and biker gangs, making human nature the real enemy. It’s these reasons that resulted in Dawn of the Dead being considered a classic.
What the Remake Kept the Same
When Zack Snyder (of Batman V Superman infamy) helmed the remake written by James Gunn (of Guardians of the Galaxy fame…wait a minute…) in 2004 they had a pretty clear sense of what make the original stand out in a field of sequels, knock-offs, parodies and tributes. The new film is a stand alone title (none of the follow-up remakes of the original sequels were associated with it). The story begins with a global outbreak of zombies, with the dead immediately re-animating to eat the living. We follow a group of survivors who hole up in an overrun shopping mall. The people barricade themselves in and enjoy the life the mall provides for several months. Like in the original, one of the survivors is pregnant when they arrive and there is a police officer among their number. Eventually the remaining survivors make a break for a safer location and their future is left uncertain.
They also borrow a couple of actors from the original for cameo duty. Ken Foree plays and evangelist preacher on TV, Tom Savini is the sherif who delivers the classic “shot ’em in the head” line and Scott Reininger plays an army general. There’s also a couple of musical stings from the original peppered through the first act.
What They Changed
First up, this isn’t a sequel so the zombie outbreak has to be set up in the first act. As a result we spend a brief amount of time with one of the main characters, nurse Ana (Sarah Polley), prior to the husband/boyfriend and cute neighbour kid getting hungry for her brains. While the original film was already three weeks into a slow spreading outbreak, the remake shows the whole wide world facing massive societal and government break down overnight. The benefit is that the opening act has a greater since of urgency and some seriously intense action, and a ripper of an opening credits roll that firmly sets the scene and the tone.
We wind up with a much larger and more diverse group of survivors including police officer Kenneth (Ving Rhames), sleazebag Steve (Ty Burrell – yes, from Modern Family), father-to-be Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and all-roung good guy Michael (Jake Weber). All up we get more than a dozen characters, some of whom function as Red Shirts. With less time for individual fleshing out of characters everyone falls into a basic stereotype, and internal disagreements cause more conflict than before. The social commentary gets only a brief mention with the occasional comment about people returning to the mall or whatnot, with survival being the primary theme.
There aren’t any roaming gangs of bikers this time around, but the zombie threat is escalated. There’s a music festival sized horde outside of the mall making any excursion outside impossible and the threat of the zombies breaking through higher. Whilst the original cast left the mall to bring in trucks and practise flying the helicopter these folks are well and truly trapped. There is a gun shop owner trapped in his store across the road, and getting food to him becomes a challenge later down the track. The 2004 zombies are generally more resilient to damage, and have not lost their capacity for going into a full sprint when they see a snack.
In the final act of the movie the attempts to reach the gun store owner lead to a massive invasion of zombies into the mall. The survivors put into action their plan to escape to the marina in fortified and armed busses. A small number of the group make it and flee on a boat, but their future is left equally bleak.
Some themes are dialled in for Snyder’s version of the story. Discussion of consumer culture is almost non-existent. Romero showed survivor life in the mall and the indulgence in what the stores offered to be equivalent to the meagre existence of the zombies stumbling over escalators. Snyder shows life trapped in the mall as being kinda awesome, with more upbeat and fun music compared to the original’s deliberately campy soundtrack. Consumer culture is almost treated as a farce in the 1978 version. Religion gets more dialogue and discussion in the original, with the Hare Krishna and Nun zombies highlighting the absurdity of the situation. In the Snyder version Kenneth suggests that Andre “wipe his ass, say a Hail Mary and call it even”.
A recurring idea presented in Romero’s films concerns zombie regaining some vestige of memory. This is explored mostly in Day of the Dead, but Dawn of the Dead does feature Stephen returning to their hide-out after becoming a zombie.
The plot thread about a pregnant survivor remains, but plays out in a much more…stupid fashion. Andre keeps his pregnant wife hidden from view from the others as she was scratched by the zombies and become infected. This winds up with the survivors finding a poorly realised newly born zombie baby scene that the movie would have been much better leaving it out.
Which One Should You Watch?
On reflection this may have been a poor choice to start off the series because I’m going to do something I genuinely want to avoid – I’m going to recommend that you watch both. They’re both worth checking out but for different reasons, which is why it’s hard to pick one over the other. The 1978 version has a lot more to say about society and consumerism with the survivors eventually putting themselves at risk to protect their material goods. The 2004 remake isn’t as smart on a thematic level but it is more entertaining in terms of straight up action and suspense. More characters to put at risk, a higher budget and an impressive horde of zombies for an awesome finale. Tom Savini’s practical effects work in 1978 is still horrifying to watch, but the zombie make-up looks pretty poor by modern standards. The carnage isn’t as creative in the remake but looks more polished.
If you’re a purist and don’t want to touch the remake, at least watch the intro credits. More effective at conveying a global zombie outbreak than the entirety of World War Z. Fun fact! They used stop motion blood to create the text! Ew.
Got a remake and original I should cover next? Suggestions in the comments welcome. Also, which version of Dawn of the Dead do you prefer?