Dixie Square Mall - photo by John Revelle
Spoilers for both the 1978 and 2004 version of DAWN OF THE DEAD follow.
I know it's super-fashionable to dunk on Zack Snyder now. I mean, he ruined the DC cinematic universe, right? (He didn't, though I'm certainly not down with his view of it.) The fact is he's a solid filmmaker who knows the shots he wants and can tell a story with them. And I'm a big fan of his remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD, particularly on the strength of James Gunn's script.
And I say this as a guy who puts the original DAWN OF THE DEAD in his top 10 film list of any film from any time.
It's true. You can love the original and the remake, if it's done well. Let's be honest, though. Most remakes don't understand why the first one worked and think just by copying plot beats, they can make something worth watching. I mean, that's the measure, right? Whether a film is worth watching once, much less revisiting or lasting for any kind of duration in this world that has an endless stream of bright, shiny objects shooting at you forever and ever.
That said. The first one is a movie about the enclosed treadmill of consumer life in 1978 with zombies thrown in. The remake is definitely a movie about a zombie apocalypse with human characters at the center of it. Those are two different things, though they sound like they might be the same. And yeah, gross plot pointwise, they're the same. Mysterious outbreak of a phenomena that makes the dead rise up and attack the living, society breaks down and a group of survivors hole up in a mall to ride things out, finding that life in a consumerist prison isn't much of a life at all.
The first one stays focused on four characters, with only a handful of human others (and the clamoring zombie horde outside.) It ends with two of them making it out alive, and even that's a blessing, as one of them was a step away from succumbing to despair and taking his own life. The remake expands the cast, perhaps by necessity. It certainly stepped up the pace from the original. But then movies in general have (and have done so even since 2004). We could talk about the dovetailing of the FPS game/action film aesthetic. And, to be fair, the 2004 DAWN certainly feels like a good crossover point, particularly because home videogame systems were able to replicate the cinematic feel of these experiences, or were closer than they had been in 1978. You could even argue that the flattened yet saturated palette in DAWN 2004's shots were a major aesthetic influence on a whole raft of zombie games to follow (particularly LEFT 4 DEAD).
And given fast zombies being prevalent in 2004 DAWN, as opposed to the shambolic horde of the 1978 version, and that fast zombies make for more exciting video game experiences, that certainly stuck (even if THE WALKING DEAD hews close to Romero's original slow walking corpses.) And yes, I know that 28 DAYS LATER is regarded as the modern origin of hyperkinetic zombies (wait, not so fast, 'cause RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and RE-ANIMATOR did that back in '85). So yeah, that changes the tempo of the film considerably.
Also, I'm not here to argue that one type of zombie is better than the other or is the "pure" zombie. That's horseshit. It's all about what the story demands. Zombie purism is as unappealing as any other genre purist behavior. Knock it off. As is saying that one film is better than the other. You may like one better than the other (1978 owns my heart, to be sure, this is as much an aesthetic choice as everything else -- it has absurdist humor that the 2004 version skips completely.)
I'll argue that the script to 2004's version (by James Gunn and Michael Tolkin) is sharper, more polished than the original. At least in terms of sparkling dialogue and character-driven bites at one another. (And seeing Phil Dunphy, goofball dad of MODERN FAMILY as an utterly feckless and sarcastic dickweed is delight after delight.) It feels more like a play on the late 90s than the post-9/11 world that it came out in, as well. Lotta deliberate numbing, lotta heads in the sand until it's too late.
In 1978, malls were still a somewhat novel setting for things. Sure, we'd been living with them for what, twenty years at that point? But popcult still pretended that it was either OZZIE AND HARRIET or DIRTY HARRY or somewhere in-between. DAWN OF THE DEAD being set in a mall and making that completely essential to the story, not just the plot, that was a new thing. 2004's came out maybe not at the end of the mall life cycle, but certainly close to it. In 2018, dead/dying malls are not only a familiar, but expected part of the landscape in whatever it is we are in now. 2004's was shot in a dead mall, restocked partially for filming, but they never quite scrubbed the dead mall smell out of it. It feels sorta inhabited, but not really. Which is fitting, as society is in the process of being overrun by flesh-eating cannibal zombies.
The original was shot at night in the (now-famous, though partially destroyed) Monroeville Mall outside Pittsburgh, PA. It was still a living, working place. Also, there's worlds of difference in the mishmash of sixties/seventies design to the forced wackiness of clashing corporate identities all jammed together in modern malls. Time wears a lot of those edges down, making the seventies designs blend together into a more coherent whole. The nineties/naughties stuff? They all feel like brands jockeying for position in a dying ecosystem, because that's precisely what they were.
Ultimately, the remake is a smart and bloody action flick that has solid characters at its center. And this is not to denigrate that. We need more of these. (I'll be honest. Most zombie-related media out there is awful, some of it shockingly so, but often just blandly so. And I say this as a dude who will watch just about any zombie-related thing, though I've punched out on anything WALKING DEAD, but that's a subject for another time.)
We need more of these, but we don't get them. Instead we get nihilist gorefests. Don't get me wrong. Both things can be compelling when done well. Gore is often just there for its own sake, and, well, eh. Nihilism, too. Hell, pulling off a meaningful nihilist document on film is the hardest thing in the world to land right. Lots of artist try to do it and it almost always comes off as "why did I spend two hours watching any of this?". Believe me, that is not the reaction you're shooting for as a creator.
For the record, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (the original '68 version, though the remake is not bad at all) has one of the only workable full-out nihilist endings that succeeds. But only because it ended up being an exact reflection of events of the time. Well, not only that, but it's certainly a large part of its success.
DAWN 1978 does not go for the full metal downer ending. Which is one of the reasons why it remains memorable. In fact, Peter's clawing back from despair is at the very heart of the film. Just as is Stephen's clutching attempt to control not only the mall but the people around him. Just as is Frannie's determination to come back from numbness and insanity. Just as Roger's recklessness nearly dooms them all. But there is a chance for things to continue.
DAWN 2004's big flaw for me is the ending. Rather, it's the tacked on, mixed-with-the-credits sequence. See, the script? It ends where it should. The group of survivors going through hell, losing half their number, but getting to an opportunity for things to continue. That's earned. The unearned moments of the survivors wandering into an Italo cannibal movie on the middle of an island in the Great Lakes for a thrill of OH EVERYONE IS FUCKED FOREVER ENJOY?
Yeah, not so much. And it's not in the original script. Which means the writers knew what they were doing.
See, horror isn't about being doomed. That's not it at all. Hell, you want that? Look outside. You can find an endless parade of horrors. You too can be one of the walking dead. You can tongue-kiss hopelessness until you pass out, if you want. It's all there.
Horror is a goddamn escape from that. You have to be able to get away.