Few horror movies have been as influential on pop culture as George Romero’s Dead films. Though he started with the small, but revolutionary 1968 film Night of the Living Dead it was his follow up Dawn of the Dead in 1978 that made a greater impact on the future of zombie entertainment. These movies established the undead flesh eating zombie on film (then mostly referred to as “ghouls” in the culture) and interpersonal conflict between the human characters we follow during the story. It was Dawn however that created the idea of urban/suburban survivors scrounging for supplies and trying to subsist in a zombie-ravaged post-apocalypse. Over the years Romero’s first three zombie films developed a rabid cult following and the first film was the subject of a near perfect remake (directed by special effects guru Tom Savini) in 1990.
In 2004 a remake of Dawn of the Dead was released, directed by former commercial director Zach Snyder in his first feature film. Immediately the cult based around Romero’s original work rebelled, but as audiences, even die hard horror audiences, began to see the film it became clear this wasn’t just a cash-grab remake but, like Savini’s, one very much in the spirit of the original film.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The original Dawn of the Dead took what worked from the tight and focused Night of the Living Dead and expanded it into a broader world. It trades the isolated farm house for a suburban shopping mall, though it maintains the idea of a small group banding together. There is a lot that works and some that doesn’t, but it still makes for an entertaining film.
- Characters: With such a small cast you get to know and care about the main group of characters. Gaylen Ross and David Emge as the news broadcast couple are effective as neophytes who want to survive but don’t start out with everything it takes. Scott Reiniger is great as a SWAT member who actually cares about what he’s doing but realizes the cause is lost, and Ken Foree steals the show as Peter, another SWAT member who ends up as the defacto leader thanks to his cool head, forceful personality, and common sense. Even when annoying you genuinely like them and want them to survive the horror.
- Location: The suburbs shopping mall and how they use it is remarkably effective and part of what ended up being the most influential. It’s the first time we’ve seen regular people scavenging for survival the ruins of the old world.
- Effects: The zombie and gore effects are terrific. Some of the more gruesome zombies look truly gruesome. Given the age of the film, a lot of the practical effect really do hold up and as they are practical effects make a big impact on screen.
- Tangents: The film lacks the focused intensity of Night, which behaved as a short wild ride. It meanders from SWAT raids to redneck hunts. Sometimes the scenes feel unnecessary and given the length of the film you wonder how many of the extraneous scenes and montages need to be in there as they can kind of take you out of it.
- The Stupid: There is a LOT of stupid in this movie. From characters that behave in incredibly dumb ways to enhance artificial tension (by not being able to get their keys or forgetting a bag) to entire sequences that really take away from the mood. While zombie movies tend to agree other people can be more dangerous than zombies…rampaging bikers riding through the mall hitting zombies with pies is a tonal left turn. And to me is a massive black mark on an otherwise great narrative arc.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Surprisingly the remake actually follows the intro of the original Night of the Living Dead more than Dawn. A 10 minute build to set up the world and events is followed by a plot-punch in the face as the zombies take over. It takes what the original film did, stripped some of the goofier stuff, and added a bit of modernization to make a great progenitor for modern zombie horror.
- Characters: AGAIN the characters are the strongest part of the film. The larger cast starts with principle character Ana played by Sara Polley, and later adds Ving Rhames, Mekhi Pfeiffer, Jake Weber, Lindy Booth, and even Matt Frewer in supporting roles. The cast is bigger but each character feels as though they have a purpose and you care about their outcomes, whether you want for them to make it or to be brutally shotgunned. My favorite is Michael Kelly as CJ. You initially hate his character but as the story progresses he ends up being one of the best. A testament to the writing and performance. Ken Foree does a cameo saying his famous quote from the original as does Tom Savini, appearing as a sheriff. And he is one cool mofo.
- Sound Design: There is an old saying that sound design is something that you don’t notice unless it goes wrong. The original made some odd sound and music queues, from western-style bullet ricochets to silly music stings. The remake is spot on in sound design and the ambiance is incredible because of it. The musical design is absolutely terrific, the Johnny Cash intro, the Richard Cheese montage, and the Jim Carroll outro are stand outs. Zombie cries are eerie and combat impact is brutal. Notably the zombie baby is pretty freaky…
- Narrative: Written by James Gunn now of, Guardians of the Galaxy fame, from Romero’s script, the story is, if anything, stronger than the original. We grow with characters and hope for their success. As their various trials and tribulations unfold we invest wholly and are gutted with each death. It’s hard to think of a modern zombie movie with so many effective individual story subplots, arcs, and resolutions. It might be missing some of the anti-consumerism of the original, but Romero’s handling of that subject was a bit ham-fisted to me anyway.
- Modern Zombies: I’m not a fan of modern zombies and this movie is one of the first that made the undead zombie stronger and faster than the living. Biologically alone this makes no sense at all and fast zombies just feel added to create a better sense of danger. I think the sheer number and ferocity of humans who want to eat you is bad enough without making them move like extras in a kung fu film.
- The Downer Ending: One of the best aspects of the original film is it has a positive ending. While things aren’t looking great overall, characters show resolve and conclude this chapter of their narrative with a little positivity. The character we all invested in the most comes through in the end. Modern horror likes to let the bad guys win or end on a note in minor key and Dawn 2004 does this. While the ending is ambiguous you do discover the plan you’ve invested in is in at least some way a failure. It is a decent ending but I’d have liked to see something good for the characters we’ve been built up to love.
Some thought has to be given to the impact of the original but enjoying a movie is a visceral feeling and I actually prefer the remake. While both movies have great benefits I feel Romero’s relatively guerrilla style made for a film that is less well made and the story didn’t quite have the effective edge of the remake. A lot of this hinges on the climax, as we I feel the remake benefited from having the zombies as the primary cause of the climax rather than a bunch of roving Hell’s Angels. As I said in my Nightmare post a remake can work if you give it to a good writer/director. Zach Snyder, unlike a lot of directors who came from TV and music videos (I’m looking at you Samuel Bayer) is very good at telling a story visually (if he can be a bit cliché and overdone) and Gunn delivered an excellent story as he has proved he is capable of doing since. Both make for good viewing, if you want to see where modern zombie horror originated (millennials who think Zombie-Personal Drama started with The Walking Dead are about to learn something) the original Dawn of the Dead will show you that and give you a great story. For an exciting film with a better developed sense of what works and what doesn’t the remake wins for me.