Movie Battles: Dawn of the Dead - Original vs Remake

1978 vs. 2004. Romero vs. Snyder. Fight!

While the concept of reanimated, cannibalistic humans has been around for a long time, horror director George Romero was the father of the modern “movie monster” version, or “zombie” as they are now called. Nowadays, zombies have over saturated all forms of media—they are in video games, comic books, television shows, and films. Zombies have officially hit the mainstream and like most concepts that do, the original idea has been diluted somewhat. Romero’s first zombie film, Night of the Living Dead, was a political statement as well as a horror film. It touched on themes like racial unrest, small town mob mentality, and fear of change. It seems that how a zombie film is presented is indicative of the social climate it inhabits. This concept is quite apparent if you compare the 1978 version of Dawn of the Dead to Zack Synder’s 2004 remake.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)
"Dig my hairdo?"
Dawn of the Dead was considered to be a continuation in the universe of the first film even though it doesn’t take place in the same area. The zombie invasion has spread and society is breaking down into complete anarchy. Dire circumstances force several people to band together and take shelter in an abandoned shopping mall. Interestingly enough, the shopping mall location actually becomes another character in the story and supplies much of the drama. Ironically, what would seem like a dream come true, unlimited access to everything a person could ever want, still ends up being a terrible situation. A lavishly furnished prison is still a prison.

How people interact with each other during desperate situations is a common thread in all of Romero’s zombie films. The idea that the actual survivors are more of a danger to themselves than the zombies has always intrigued me and that trope has made it into newer zombie films such as 28 Days Later (yes, I know they aren’t “true” zombies, but they are close enough).  All of the self-sabotage and destruction allows Romero to explore the darker side of humanity. The zombies aren’t the real monsters—we are.  No matter what we do, we cannot escape our inevitable death, even when the entire idea of death has been turned on its head.

"I just came here for a hot pretzel
and a slushee. I ended up getting
zombies and bitches trippin'."
The zombies in Dawn of the Dead do look sillier than their modern counterparts as gore master Tom Savini went with a green-faced minimalist approach to their makeup look. To be fair, this film takes place earlier on in the apocalypse so the zombies are relatively “fresh” looking. It does add a creepier tone to the movie because the zombies look more human and less monster-like. A huge difference between the retro and modern zombie is the speed at which they walk. Romero zombies are painfully slow and rely on sheer numbers to overwhelm their victims. You can easily outrun them but eventually you will have nowhere to go and will be trapped into a corner. It’s much scarier and excruciating to see your grisly fate lumbering leisurely towards you, hands outstretched ready to feast on your soft innards.

What gives Romero’s version more appeal is the raw, almost documentary-style way the movie is filmed. There is also some dry humor thrown in for good measure, though some people find it annoying.  Laughing and crying can sometimes be indistinguishable from each other and are connected more than people realize. There is also more social commentary in this film mostly in reference to blind consumerism and our lust for bigger and better things. The scenes of the zombies feeding and fighting over the sloppy glistening viscera is a metaphor for people greedily fighting over money and resources. It’s an image that gets burned into your mind and is not easily forgotten. Dawn of the Dead is the work of a horror master in his prime.


Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Zack Snyder’s reimagining of Dawn of the Dead is sleeker and more polished than the original film, having a much larger budget available for production. It has similar premise-- unfortunate souls trapped in a shopping mall by ravenous zombies--but it takes the story on a more action-packed path. The biggest change to the zombie mythos is how the actual zombies operate. In Synder’s film, zombie infection is transmitted by a bite instead of being a mysterious force that brings back the dead. The zombies are also very fast and vicious, more akin to marathon runners than shambling corpses. It changes the entire pace of the film and makes the zombies more like wild animals. The debate between horror fans about fast versus slow zombies is a heated one, and it does work in this film, though it gives the walking dead a much different dynamic. They lose their “human” quality which takes some of the subversive impact out of the film.

"Cue up the Chariots of Fire theme song.
It's about to get really fast up in here."
This remake is a great looking film, with an overexposed color palette and gritty handheld cam film style. It’s more like an action blockbuster than an indie picture for better or for worse. I don’t think this style necessarily detracts from the film but it does make it less relatable and compelling. It’s just a different animal all together. The zombie makeup is much more realistic and disgusting looking and the action sequences are exciting and filmed well. Overall, the acting is also much more consistent across the board with a great performance by Jake Weber in the lead role.

I can hear you saying now: “Michelle, if it looks better and has better acting why do you prefer the original version?  You some kind of hipster or something?!”  The reason the remake falls short for me, is that even though it’s a great looking film, it’s ultimately shallower theme-wise.  Snyder never really delves into the character’s motivations for their actions and because of how relentless the zombies are, there is very little downtime in the film to reflect on the implications of the predicament. There is also zero humor or wit in the film for contrast with the constant terror like in Romero’s version. This remake isn’t a bad film by any means, but it loses something important in the transition; its heart. The focus is now on the zombies instead of the people—that’s the main distinction between the two films. If this had been a completely original zombie film, I think it would have fared much better, but it just doesn’t hold up to the higher ideals of the original film.


For this zombie fangirl, the 1978 Dawn of the Dead is the clear winner in this movie battle.  While Snyder’s film is very good as far as remakes are concerned, it just doesn’t quite capture the essence of the original and it ends up as a dumbed-down version in the end.  In effect, the “I want it now!” consumerism that is being parodied in the ‘70s version ends up being the downfall of the remake.

-Michelle Kisner

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