06th Sep2019

Which is Better? #1 – Dawn of the Dead

by Chris Cummings

Which is Better is a new column here on Nerdly where we’ll pick two related movies and discuss each of them, and then conclude which we think is the best one. It might be about sequels in comparison to the first film, or the original film and its eventual remake, we might even do it for full film franchises. For this first premiere column though, I’m going to focus on an original and a remake.

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DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978 / 2004)

So, I’ll begin by saying how much of a fan of George A. Romero’s zombie titles I am. Night, Dawn, Day, Land, Diary and Survival. I mean… obviously the first three are the golden era of Romero, and three of the very best and most influential horror films of all time, so it’s no surprise that eventually, back in 1990, somebody decided to remake one of them. Night of the Living Dead was remade, and we’ll discuss that at a later date on here, but then, over a decade later in 2004, Zack Snyder, who would go on to make 300, Watchmen and Man of Steel, decided to kick off his feature-film directing career with Dawn of the Dead… THE REMAKE.

To say I was resistant to it at the time would be something of an understatement. I mean, I didn’t know who Snyder was. He was an untested director who nobody really knew from Adam. Dawn of the Dead was one of the very first horror films I loved, and so that made me skeptical. There was also the feeling that suddenly this beautiful classic would be taken, played with, messed with and altered, so it had the same name but didn’t resemble the original at all. I mean, there will always be reluctance and negativity when a remake of a beloved film is announced. It’s unavoidable. In 2004 there weren’t as many going on, so it was a little more unusual and I hadn’t quite got used to taking a remake as a completely unique entity that is merely based on the original film. Perhaps the negativity surrounding remakes, something that exists to this day and will continue on, comes from the hit-and-miss manner in which they’re made. Some are excellent (The Thing) and some are… well, terrible (Psycho, anyone). I just didn’t want to see Dawn of the Dead uttered in the same sentence as remakes like the aforementioned Vince Vaughn headed stinker, and so I watched through cracked fingers and held my breath when I saw it on its release.

Going back to the original Dawn of the Dead. The 1978 film became a prototype for zombie cinema and changed it completely. It brought a claustrophobic fear and blood-soaked style to the screen that went on to influence generations of filmmakers, not only in the horror genre but beyond. As a film, to this day, I love it. The sneaking dread of these slow-walking corpses is still effectively terrifying, the music is perfect, the special effects from Tom Savini, the gorefather of horror, holds up some 41 years on, and the story, a survival tale of human beings seeking refuge in a shopping mall and trying to fight off the hordes of the undead, is as entertaining and politically charged as it ever was. The social and economic metaphors used by Romero still stand true. It’s a classic for good reason, and whether you take it on the base level or delve deeper into its meanings beneath its dripping red surface, it’s a goddamn blast.

The remake is something very different. I went back to revisit the 2004 remake, and the 1978 original, in order to write this article with a fresh mind. The remake, which takes place in a shopping mall like the OG did, offers very dissimilar characters, a story with plenty of elements that set it apart, and zombies that simply don’t act the same as Romero’s shuffling groaners did in the 70s. Snyder’s zombie throng move faster and with more ease and resemble monsters more-so than their older counterparts did. I, for one, have to admit to preferring the slower-moving zombies. There are two-sides to this argument, and I can see both sides of it too. Some people find more terror and horror in the faster moving dead folks, and find that they offer a scarier version of the zombie. Some, like myself, prefer their zombies to move in a way that feels like they just climbed out of the ground and used to be humans. Their bodies contorted and stiffened by death. Their brains no longer in use. Their feet as brittle as candy.

The gore and effects in Snyder’s version have a more realistic style to them, and the gore is plentiful, making the remake a more blood-soaked film that the original was. There are certainly elements that work really well in the remake, with the focus on action above horror bringing a number of heart-pounding sequences as our survivors try to keep from becoming one of the living dead themselves. The characters, however, aren’t as strong in my view. We have more survivors in the 2004 film than we had in ’78, and I don’t feel like it works as well. We also find ourselves, regardless of the selfishness and flaws of the 1978 group, rooting for the survivors back then, hoping they find a way to stay alive and perhaps even escape to somewhere safer. In the 2004 film I did find myself caring much less about the folks in the mall, which presented a bit of a problem when it came to the scenes in which they’re being chased by zombies. The social commentary of Romero’s film is also missing from this remake. The discussion of consumerism is non-existent, and instead we tend to see fairly one-dimensional characters in a basic plot to avoid a grisly demise. Still, the action scenes are a blast and the comment the film makes on the fickle nature of human beings and the willingness to do whatever it takes to evade death is done well.

In Romero’s film we are given a complex concept inside a fairly simplistic situation, and I felt that without the meaningful nudges Romero gave us, the 2004 remake suffers. I also felt like the horror of the original film was lost to the intention to deliver something more action packed, perhaps because of how much audiences had changed between the end of the 1970s and the early 00s. Still, it effected my enjoyment of the remake, and when I revisited it in order to write this column I found that I struggled to enjoy it even more than I had last time I watched it. Now, I’m not saying it’s unwatchable or bad, because it really isn’t, but I do feel like it’s an action film with blood and guts that is thoroughly entertaining, but nothing more. The original film, with its satirical nature and the way it explores humanity, is easily, in my view, the better film. I mean, it isn’t perfect to many people, with it’s sometimes over-the-top acting and the dated use of makeup effects (which were groundbreaking at the time, so its hard to comment negatively on that element) but as someone who can’t NOT overlook those things because of just how incredible the film is, I would count the original Dawn of the Dead as one of the very best horror movies in the history of motion pictures. I mean, is there really an argument about that?

WHICH IS BETTER?

George Romero’s original Dawn Of The Dead (1978)

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One Response to “Which is Better? #1 – Dawn of the Dead”

  • Hey Chris! A really interesting piece and close to my heart. I was always a fan of the remake.. After that and Cabin Fever I thought we were seeing a very exciting new director find his feet.