Dawn of the Dead (1978 & 2004) - A Special Original vs. Remake Article

George A. Romero [1978]
Zack Snyder [2004]

David Emge - Stephen
Ken Foree - Peter
Scott Reiniger - Roger
Gaylen Ross - Francine
David Crawford - Dr. Foster
Tom Savini - Motorcycle Raider

Sarah Polley - Ana
Ving Rhames - Kenneth
Jake Weber - Michael
Mekhi Phifer - Andre
Ty Burrell - Steve
Kevin Zegers - Terry
Lindy Booth - Nicole

Genre - Horror/Action/Zombies

Running Time - 127 Minutes [1978]/ 110 Minutes [2004]

**This is something I wrote for one of my college classes in December of 2009, comparing the narratives of both versions of DAWN OF THE DEAD. I did watch the films again a few days ago and the scores at the end reflect my feelings on both films. Let's just say that I feel both movies are worthy of a watch if you have not yet seen them - and if you haven't, shame on you.**

In 1968, a low-budget horror film about cannibalistic zombies took audiences by storm. It was called Night of the Living Dead and it was directed by George A. Romero, a man who not only wanted to scare his audience, but educate them as well with social commentary. 1968's Night of the Living Dead used its "survivors" and zombies to relay thoughts on racial strife, the Vietnam War, and the general disillusionment of the government and general authority types. Costing a little over $20,000 to make, the film was a huge success and is considered one of the most historical and influential films of all time.

In 1974, Romero visited a mall in Monroeville, Pennsylvania with a friend whose company ran the mall. While visiting, Romero spotted parts of the mall that weren't accessible to the shoppers inside. He believed that these hidden spots would be quite useful in case something really horrible would happen in the mall or in the general location period. This idea led to the writing and directing of his next zombie feature, 1978's Dawn of the Dead. Taking place at the Monroeville Mall, with make-up effects done by FX master Tom Savini, and creating satire by using the zombies as social commentary for the mall culture and the idea of corporations and consumerism, Dawn of the Dead was both a critical and commercial success. In fact, the success of Dawn of the Dead would inspire other zombie classics such as Zombie and The Return of the Living Dead.

In 2004, director Zack Snyder directed a remake, or "re-imagining", for Dawn of the Dead. While the film still took place inside a mall and had similar themes, the remake couldn't be more different than its predecessor. So why and how are the two versions of the same movie so different from each other?

One of the major differences between the two versions of Dawn of the Dead is the use of social commentary behind the plot of the film. In Romero's Dawn of the Dead, the commentary on mall culture and consumerism is not hard to find. According to Mike Molesworth in his article, he considers the "punch line" of the film is that "the zombies are consumers". Stephen Harper, in his article, compares the roles of the survivors and the zombies to that of Marxist beliefs. He feels that the zombies act as "lumpenproletariat", or "walking symbols of any oppressed social group" that are "synonymous with oppression and slavery". According to Harper, the "human survivors" in the film are "literally and etymologically 'living over' the zombies".

This idea is best shown in a number of scenes in Dawn of the Dead. The whole idea that the zombies are actually playing the part of brainwashed consumers during a time where mall culture was very prevalent in American society is best shown during the scene where Peter tell Stephen and Fran the reason why the zombies are even at the mall. Stephen believes that it's because the dead is after them, but Stephen disagrees, believing that the zombies are actually after the place. Stephen claims that the dead remember how much the mall means to them in their past lives and they just want to be there, leading to the classic quote, "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth." In fact, in a similar scene prior to this one where Fran and Stephen are on the mall's roof looking down at the zombies trying to get into the mall, Fran wonders why the zombies are so attracted to the mall. Stephen claims it's "instinct".

This leads to Harper's idea that the zombies are an oppressed and slaves to consumerism. If one is to think about this idea, Harper is pretty much correct on his assessment. Americans are born into a culture where we're told to buy things, whether we need them or not. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, consumerism was at an all-time high because new products were constantly being produced and advertised on television, almost brainwashing people into believing they needed the latest fashion, cookware, and recreational equipment. Big corporations use subliminal messages to lure unsuspecting Americans into buying what they're selling. The fact that many Americans, and other nationalities in general, need these things to survive and/or to feel better about themselves as individuals shows that we're slaves to product placement without even realizing it. The zombies represent that the role of the consumer is a very important part of our behavior as human beings. It's instinct. It's one of the few things all of us really know how to do because it has been embedded in all of us, even if we don't want to succumb to it. Harper believes that the mall represents "the epitome of corporate capitalism", and at the same time, the "potential site of resistance to the forces that regulate consumerism."

In fact, the zombies aren't the only characters in the film that reflect this idea. The human survivors also cave in to this consumer slavery throughout the movie. Once they trap themselves inside the mall, the characters create a parody of how people shop. They take money from the bank. They entertain themselves with video games, playing with weapons as they stock up to protect themselves, and even put on make-up as if there wasn't a zombie invasion happening around them. They grab food, clothing, and even unnecessary things like fur coats and jewelry. Besides food and weapons, the other items are completely unnecessary. Yet, these characters have this instinctual need to own these materials, as if they wouldn't be able to live without them in their possession. Even as Romero directs these scenes, they're played as almost a utopian paradise of materialism, upbeat musical soundtrack and all.

For example, there's a scene where Fran sees zombies roaming about aimlessly. Instead of grabbing a gun and shooting them, she just raises the collar of her fur coat as a way to protect herself. This passive aggressiveness shows what Fran really values. It isn't her physical well being. It's her emotional and social well being that takes precedence.

But eventually, the characters, even with all the goodies at their disposal that many of us would dream to own ourselves, grow distant and become displeased with their utopia. These products that supposedly keep them safe lose their sheen as they realize that the one thing they all want can't be bought at any mall: freedom. And it's here that what Romero is trying to say is evident: consumerism takes away our freedom and individuality. We have this need to shop because it makes us feel better about ourselves. It reveals our social status, feeding into our self-esteem and self-worth. Feeding into greed and gluttony keeps some people grounded emotionally and mentally. The humans hide inside the mall for the same reason the zombies want to get in: it's our "fool's paradise" revealing our "visceral indulgence" for things we probably don't need in order to survive. The survivors are just as oppressed and dead (although not physically) as the zombies who are threats to their very lives. Like Peter points out in the film when they discuss the zombies: "They're us." Both sides of the coin could be considered "cultural dupes". This mentality leads to the downfall of the survivors, especially when the motorcycle gang arrives to take over the malls themselves. Stephen, or "Flyboy" as he's called throughout the film by Roger and Peter, tells the bikers that the mall belongs to them - that he and his friends took it for themselves. This leads to chaos, as Stephen and several of the bikers get bitten by zombies the biker gang accidentally let in. This forces Peter and Fran to escape on a helicopter with pretty much no fuel. While downbeat, the fact that they might not survive the escape doesn't bother the characters one bit. As a matter of fact, their deaths represent the freedom they didn't enjoy inside the mall. The idea of envy and want is in all of us. We all want something. We all want to have it and get jealous when someone else does. The act of wanting could possibly turn malicious because of envy. This is what is believed to be the result of consumerism.

While the mall is still the setting in the 2004 remake, the commentary on consumerism is completely lost. This is mainly due to the fact that in modern society, malls aren't seen as the hotspot for our consumer needs. With the invention of online shopping, especially Amazon and eBay, going to a mall to buy isn't as prevalent as it was 30 to 40 years ago. In his article "I Shopped With A Zombie", Phillip Matthews felt that Snyder "had nothing to add to Romero's view of that culture," and that the remake felt "less like a critique than a demo reel." While I agree that Snyder doesn't create the commentary as Romero did in the original, there are still scenes in the remake that reflect consumerism - especially in the form of product placement. There is a shot of a Cosmopolitan magazine and bottles of Aquafina are splattered throughout the film. So while the remake doesn't comment on consumerism, the remake is sure a product of it.

The real commentary in the 2004 version is obviously the post-9/11 threat of terrorism. The opening sequence of the film is very bleak and dreary, showing footage briefly of praying Muslims. This correlates with the scene during the end credits where the zombies attack the survivors as they make it to an island. Snyder wants to express that all hope after 9/11 for a brighter future is gone and lost. There's no hope anymore. Just chaos. Just death. The zombies in the 2004 version represent the terrorists that still haunt many people. The world doesn't make sense anymore. How does one stop this outbreak of zombies? Why is this even happening to begin with and why won't anyone explain? What you once thought safe is now dangerous and full of uncertain.

Even the zombies in each film reflect the change with the times. The original's zombies are slow, mute, clumsy, and not much of a threat unless one lets them get close. The fact that you could have pie fights with them and they don't really counterattack unless the advantage is there proves that fact. The remake, however, has zombies inspired by the viral infected humans in 28 Days Later. These zombies are quick, brutal, violent, feral, and hungry for flesh. These zombies are more aggressive and more of an in-your-face threat. One can run away from a Romero zombie. But it's a lot harder with a Snyder zombie, making the possibility of surviving slimmer. The faster, meaner zombies reflect today's society in a post-9/11 world. Terrorists attack innocent people with planes, gas, and bombs. There's no escaping it and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. As much as we try and understand, as much as we try to run away from the problem, it always bites back when it catches up with us. We live in darker times and the remake uses the zombie characters to reflect that. Unlike the original Dawn of the Dead, the remake plays on fears that we can truly understand from a visual experience, not a philosophical one.

Besides the commentaries, there is also a big difference between the characters in each respective film. This is no more evident than in the female leads of both Dawn of the Dead's, as they couldn't be further different from each other. In the original Dawn of the Dead, Fran tries to be the epitome of a feminist woman, trying to show her independence and usefulness in a small group of men. But the character is weak from beginning to end on these merits. As I was doing research, I found two different thoughts of Fran by two different authors. Stephen Harper considers Fran to be the "moral insight" of the film and the one expressing Romero's point of view on the consumer issue. Harper feels that Fran, while not as aggressive as her male counterparts, does aid them in protecting the mall and wanting to learn how to fly a helicopter and use a gun in case something bad happens. And the fact that she refuses to domesticate herself at the beginning of the film gives Harper the belief that Fran has feministic qualities.

Shane Borrowman, however, pretty much considers Fran to be of "limited value in her tiny, well-stocked world". I agree with Borrowman here. Fran doesn't do much of note in the film. Whenever she has a gun, she hands it to one of the men rather than taking shots herself (which she does on rare occasion). While not wanting to play the role of a housewife and mother, that's exactly what she becomes. She nurses people, especially a bitten Roger, for much of the film. Refusing to cook in the beginning, she ends up doing so later, almost becoming a domesticated wife and mother. When it comes to decision making, she stands or sits off to the side smoking while the men take care of creating plans for their survival. And in one of the scenes, she dolls herself up in makeup and lavish clothes and jewelry to feel more feminine in a way. These aren't feminist qualities. Fran never stands up for herself. She's caught in the ideal roles of women. She's a lover. She's a mom. She's a sister. She's a fantasy. But she's never just Fran. Her passivity makes her more of a decoration than an actual member of the group. For a professional woman, she rarely displays any sorts of leadership skills in the film.

The same can't be said for Ana, the protagonist of the Dawn of the Dead remake. Ana is a highly skilled nurse who doesn't let the men around her put her in the background. She's smart, strong enough to take care of herself, and takes charge of situations when no one else will. This is evident in the opening of the film, where Ana has to save herself both from her zombified husband and her equally zombified young neighbor. While emotionally devastated at the loss of her husband, Ana still manages to be brave and clever enough to prevent him from biting her and killing her, escaping out of a bathroom window and running away from her house without looking back. When inside the mall with others, she asks questions, rallies the troops, and takes initiative without asking permission first. Despite one scene where Ana does go to Michael, her love interest, for help in escaping the mall, Ana is more independent, and in a sense, more of a feminist than Fran before her. It's similar to the first two versions of Night of the Living Dead (1968 and 1990) where the Barbara character in each one are completely different (the remake's Barbara is more of an action heroine than the fragile, catatonic original Barbara). The world is more accepting of strong female characters in entertainment now than they probably were 30 years ago, making the audience relate more to Ana's "fight or flight" behavior than Fran's passive aggressive nature.

Another difference between the original and the remake is the idea of family. In the original Dawn of the Dead, the family dynamic between the four main characters isn't exactly tight-knit. The best relationship between the four is with Roger and Peter, who goof around shooting zombies and looting the mall. They trust each other, communicate all the time, and are the leaders of the small group. Even when Roger tells Peter to kill him after he's been bitten, we can see and feel Peter's hard time dealing with the fact that he has to kill his best friend, his brother, in order to keep himself, Stephen, and Fran alive. They're the only two in the film that seem to have a relationship built on something real.

The other couple in the film, Stephen and Fran, don't seem to fare well with each other like Roger and Peter do. They disagree on a lot of things. Especially when it comes to Fran being left out of discussions with the other members of the group, and her pregnancy. Stephen, just as weak as Fran when it comes to being active, seems very indifferent about her pregnancy. The topic of abortion comes up once, which Stephen mostly dictates until Fran asks whether he wants her to get rid of the baby. Instead, Stephen gives her what Borrowman calls a "vague and halfhearted negative". Even when it comes to her own unborn child, Fran doesn't seem to have much say. Peter says that they'll deal with "it" away from Fran's presence and she's the mother! All Fran does is smoke and brood, snapping at Stephen over her ejection about the subject and his unwillingness to stand up for her and himself. There's a lack of communication and understand between Stephen and Fran that's not there with Roger and Peter. Same goes with Fran and everyone else. That makes Dawn of the Dead more bleak. The zombies aren't the monsters. The survivors, constantly bickering with each other and excluding each other out of difficult and important situations, are the real monsters.

In the remake, there's more of a family feel between the survivors. They communicate with each other normally. They eat together. They sleep together. Most of them are willing to protect the others over themselves. There's a sense of camaraderie between the survivors, each other accepting their roles, and working together to survive as long as possible.

But the family issue also becomes a bad thing. This is true in the case of Andre, who hides his pregnant wife Luda, who has already been bitten, in a room and lies to the others about her condition. His love for Luda blinds him to the fact that saving his wife is a hopeless cause and that the baby will die because of it. When it's revealed that Luda has transformed into a zombie and gave birth to an actual zombie baby, Andre shoots down a fellow member of the group who attempts to kill the baby before killing himself. With no one in the way, the rest of the group destroy the zombie baby, realizing that innocence no longer plays a role in this post-apocalyptic world. Borrowman calls this subplot "the ultimate inversion of family values".

Also dealing with the family issue is the character of Nicole, who loses her father who's been quarantined in a room inside the mall after he's been bitten. She attaches herself to a young guard named Tucker and a dog she finds, using both as surrogates to fill the void left by the loss of her father. However, Nicole's loyalty to the dog gives the group problems as the dog runs away every now and then, forcing Nicole to go after it, putting herself and the others in danger. Her sense of loyalty and family to this dog brings more tension and grief to the other survivors. So while the family aspect is stronger in the remake, it also creates just as much tension, if not more, than in the original.

Even though the remake of Dawn of the Dead is so different visually and philosophically than the original Romero version, I still find the remake to be a refreshing take on the zombie genre and a great film in its own right. I feel it's impossible and a waste of time to achieve the same level of commentary Romero put in his version, as the issue of consumerism is not as important today as the issue of terrorism, although it is up there with the recent downturn in the economy. I admire that Snyder went into a different direction, even with using the same plot. I think both films have a place in the horror genre and can be enjoyed for different reasons, even though both outcomes are

4 Howls Outta 4

3.5 Howls Outta 4

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) Trailer

DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) Trailer


Related Posts with Thumbnails