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Dawn Of The Dead Is A Remake Done Right

6 min read
The cast of Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (2004)

When most of us think of Zack Snyder, our minds may immediately wander to the world of DC. The acclaimed director, producer, and screenwriter has brought to life caped crusaders for the likes of Justice League, Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman, and Watchmen for the famed comic book franchise. But 20 years ago, when Snyder made his feature film debut after establishing his name in the world of music videos, there were no superheroes in sight as he adapted one of the greatest zombie movies of all time — George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead.

The second instalment in Romero’s groundbreaking trilogy of zombie films, the original Dawn Of The Dead was released in 1978 and mused heaving on society’s obsession with consumerism, the treatment of violence, and rhetoric surrounding race, all wrapped with a blood-soaked, undead bow. It became an instant classic, solidifying a blueprint for zombie films to follow and often gracing lists of the greatest films of all time. It was certainly a huge feat for Snyder to tackle, to say the least.

Most horror remakes receive some sort of backlash from fans, and it’s easy to understand why with it possibly being the most remade genre out there. If you think of a classic horror film, chances are it has been remade, rebooted, and prequelled until genre fans scream for directors to stop, as it’s already dead. But Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead is one example of a remake done right and a fantastic zombie film in its own right.

The most common criticism of film remakes within any genre is that they don’t do the original justice, but where Dawn Of The Dead succeeds is that it did not attempt to improve on Romero’s work, or even replicate it, rather the film took the basic template and created an entirely new movie that could simply exist in the same universe. Apart from including zombies and a mall, Snyder’s remake was a fresh take on the story which played out with entirely new characters and narrative beats. 

The 1978 film’s satirical take on consumerism was front and centre of the narrative, whereas the 2004 adaptation takes a much more subtle approach to this theme while basing its horror solely in its wild set pieces overrun with carnage. In contrast to Romero’s lurching approach to the undead, Snyder’s racing and snarling zombies cut straight to the chase as the audience is plunged into a world of sheer pandemonium and terror within the first few minutes. The film casts a sombre eye on what would happen if society did fall into chaos, and its horrors focus on the evil within man and our moral compasses when faced with the end of the world, something commonplace in zombie media today such as 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, and Resident Evil. The film’s dystopian gaze fits right in in a post 9/11 society that has been faced with some of the greatest horrors that history has ever seen while simply watching the news at tea time – a trope used by Snyder to fill viewers in on the zombie outbreak as newsreaders matter of factly report on the decimation.

The hallmarks of Snyder’s films which he has become known for are all prevalent within the first scenes of Dawn Of The Dead, from his dramatic set pieces to highly choreographed action sequences, muted colour palette, off-kilter humour, and playful approach to dark themes as we are introduced to Ana (Sarah Polley). Her quiet night in with her husband Luis (Louis Ferreira) and friends is cut abruptly short due to an emergency news bulletin, and by the next morning their lives have completely changed course when Luis is killed by a woman from their neighbourhood, but immediately reanimates and attacks Ana. She flees, only to see her ordinarily quaint, suburban neighbourhood overrun by bloodshed as those she loves tear each other to shreds. As Ana tries to flee in her car, we follow the bedlam through a camera on the hood of the car, immersing viewers in her panicked shoes and giving a unique visual of the end of the world. It’s intense, terrifying, and oddly beautiful as the sprawling wide shots capture as much detail as possible to fully immerse the audience into the world onscreen. What’s more, as if it couldn’t get horrible enough, Snyder carefully teased the even more terrible events to come through blink-and-you’ll-miss-it interactions which show his dedication to storytelling.

In his later work, Snyder has proved that he can work with a large cast in a grand narrative, while also ensuring each character’s personal stories are told to the fullest potential. In Dawn Of The Dead, Ana is discovered by a group of survivors including Sergeant Ken (Ving Rhames) who wants to find his brother, petty criminal Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant wife Luda (Inna Korobkina), and eventually newcomers such as Mike (Jake Weber), a salesman who laments his simple life as a doting father, and Nicole (Lindy Booth) who lost her entire family as a result of the outbreak. Through the hopelessness of their situation, Snyder manages to equally balance their humanity and hope within the horror creating an atmosphere laden with tension as the stakes become higher the more you become invested in each character’s plight.

It makes the bloodbath that follows even more visceral, culminating in one of the most shocking scenes in horror’s long and brutal history — that’s right, the zombie baby. After Luda is scratched by a zombified security guard, the audience is left waiting to find out what exactly will happen to her unborn child, as it seems fairly obvious what the mother will transform into. And Snyder certainly doesn’t disappoint in this realm, taking Dawn Of The Dead to a new place of shock and darkness that cements him as a perfect horror director. He’s not scared to go there. The fall of the American family and the hope that it holds falls in one poignant scene as Andre and Luda’s youngster, the baby that represents the future for their family, as Andre is forced to tie his vicious, infected wife down as she labours while dying. After the baby barrels into the world in a gush of blood, for a moment it feels like everything could be okay as Andre cradles the newborn, yet another example of Snyder’s mastery of the fakeout within horror. Of course, it isn’t, and audiences across the globe recoil as the baby’s tiny grey face and yellow eyes are revealed before he and Luda are shot dead. 

As if that wasn’t enough, Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead’s mid-credits sequence turns out to be the biggest twist as the film’s seemingly happy ending, which sees Michael watch the survivors sail away to safety, is quickly dashed with a montage that sees each of them meet their bloody demise as they’re overrun by zombies, all to the somewhat humorous soundtrack of Disturbed’s Down With The Sickness. It’s the perfect final hurrah to Snyder’s fast-based, adrenaline-fuelled, blood-soaked world that is a far cry from Romero’s haunting, shuffling take on the undead. It’s pure entertainment, and it set itself apart from other zombie films at the time by not offering a single glimmer of hope and instead slaughtering the characters it had worked so hard to make us love in the blink of an eye.

Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead successfully updated Romero’s classic tale for the 21st century and helped to revolutionise the zombie genre as a whole. It helped evolve zombies to the fast, ‘running’ undead we see today as opposed to the slow-moving masses, and drew focus to the interpersonal relationships of survivors and the horrors that unfold when society begins to crumble. The film does not try to redo what Romero created step-by-step, rather it pays homage to the near-perfect original film while creating a fresh story fit to terrify and traumatise modern audiences. While the original Dawn Of The Dead may be the most iconic, Snyder’s 2004 remake turned out to be a truly great film in its own right and cemented his status within the horror genre.