There have been quite a few remakes of Night of the Living Dead, it is in the public domain after all, but the only one of note is Tom Savini’s 1990 interpretation of the film. Once upon a time it was pretty uncommon to get a remake of a classic horror film. Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead kind of changed that. This film not only brought a new and consistent interest in zombie movies but its success alerted studios to the fact that audiences are okay with remakes of classic horror titles. Of course they failed to realize that audiences are only accepting when those remakes happen to be quality films but that’s a rant for another day. The point I want to make here is that Dawn of the Dead, the 2004 remake, was every bit as significant on the landscape of cinema as Romero’s 1979 film – but for different reasons entirely.
This is a name people know now, but long before 300, Watchmen and Man of Steel he was just a guy that directed a Subaru commercial brought on to direct this remake. While 300 would be the one to define Snyder’s style and completely change the look of action movies for years (the same way The Matrix gave us the far-too-imitated “bullet time”) Snyder’s feature debut was the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. If anything, it is refreshing to see him as a first time director, figuring things out. If you watch 300 or Watchmen you see what is characteristically Snyder’s style. With those in mind you can see the proto-type for all of that in Dawn of the Dead. When you listen to the director’s commentary on the DVD, Snyder explains sequences he wanted to do that sound a lot like the style of 300.
The opening of Dawn of the Dead has this character Ana (Sarah Polley) as a nurse returning home to her husband that night. Zack Snyder’s Subaru commercial is on the television but this loving couple misses it as well as the emergency news bulletin about the dead coming back to life. The next morning the little girl from next door is in their house and she’s a zombie – some crazy-ass superpowered zombie who’s zipping around, killing Ana’s husband and chasing Ana outside. Her neighborhood is a shambles with fast zombies running around causing total chaos. Getting away, she smashes her car into a tree and blacks out, leading us right in to the opening credits.
The pacing of the opening action scene is typical of Zack Snyder. Why fast zombies? Because Romero’s slow zombies would not fit with Snyder’s visuals. Slow zombies do not make good action fodder and that’s what this remake of Dawn of the Dead is, an action movie – not a horror film. Also, the opening credits of Dawn of the Dead show news footage of this growing zombie apocalypse set to Johnny Cash’s apocalyptic song “When the Man Comes Around.” Snyder would use a similar method with the opening scene of Watchmen which conveys a story set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changing.”
THE SHOPPING MALL
Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was about a group of people surviving a zombie apocalypse by securing themselves in a shopping mall, creating a unique premise that allowed Romero to make a statement about consumerism. With the remake, it’s ALL about the mall, getting these characters (a much larger cast this time) to the mall is a greater priority, its what the audience wants to see. Romero’s detailed the discovery of the mall, the characters’ realization that this could work and the long steps they take to secure the place. Not as much detail in the remake – they basically just show up at the mall, lock the doors and that’s that. There is no statement about consumerism, in fact there is not really a statement about anything at all –Snyder’s version of Dawn of the Dead is a popcorn-munching action film.
Romero’s film was both inspired by and shot in a mall in Monroeville, PA. They shot at night when the mall was closed and since this was a place normally in operation it felt real, the mall was organic. In fact that mall is still there and die-hard fans sometimes make a sort of pilgrimage to Monroeville to see the Dawn of the Dead mall. Snyder’s film was not inspired by any specific place or thought – it’s inspiration solely comes from Romero’s movie. The mall used in the remake was the defunct Thornhill Square Shopping Center in Thronhill, Ontario. It was able to be completely renovated to suit the needs of the production with fictional stores and additional sets made in the backrooms of the same mall. As such, this mall does not feel as organic or real as the original – it doesn’t even feel like a real mall. With Romero’s film the mall was not just a location, it was the leading character, with its own personality conveyed through ambient music. We got to know Romero’s mall and its layout, we were familiar with what this mall stood for in relation to the theme of the film. The mall in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead is just a set piece. This isn’t quite a complaint though because it serves the purpose of the film – an action movie. The same way James Bond travels the world to exotic locales which serve only to make visually impressive action sequences, the mall in this movie makes for an efficient place for its scenes to play out.