The horror remake is a notoriously savage beast to tame. For every John Carpenter’s The Thing we get a dozen more ludicrous clones, desperate cash grabs or egotistical attempts to one-up the original in some way. The horror remake done right is a beautiful thing; the horror remake done wrong is a horror for all the wrong reasons. So it is today I’d like to pay homage to Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, as unlikely and unexpected a good horror remake as there’s been since the turn of the 21st century, and now available in a 13th Anniversary special edition Blu-Ray from Scream Factory.
When news of the film first broke, I was among the many, many skeptics. George Romero’s Dawn was, is, and forever shall be an inviolate horror masterpiece. From its brooding tone to its foreboding, earth-toned color scheme to its meditation on consumerism and the end of man, it’s a classic of the genre. Who was this fool Snyder to come forth and try and improve upon it? Why was it even necessary?
The answer to those questions was, he didn’t try to; and it wasn’t, but, it was fun, anyway. The glaring problem with most horror remakes it that, more often than not, they are made by people who are patently not horror fans; and, when they are, those fans are either casual horror fans who don’t grasp what was so great about the original film in the first place, or are megalomaniacs with Icarian levels of hubris who think they can somehow improve on something that left no room for improvement. While his subsequent efforts at tweaking established formulas may have left a lot to be desired (I’m looking at you, Watchmen), Dawn was an argument for Snyder’s ability to express his love for a property by paying homage to it, not attempting to redo or one up it. This is less a remake than it is an homage to the original, with Snyder and writer James Gunn putting their own spin on the premise but not the plot. Like the original, the survivors of a zombie plague seek refuge in a shopping mall. Beyond that, this is Snyder and Gunn’s show, with them concocting their own scenarios, characters, and aesthetic. While many remakes attempt and fail to be “more relevant” (a term often meaning “a younger, more topless cast”), or “more visceral” (ie, tons of blood in a script that never called for it), or “less cheesy” (translation: shit-awful CGI infinitely more “cheesy” than any old practical effect), Dawn succeeds in each of those departments.
The Dawn of the 1970s reflects that decade’s societal malaise and cultural nihilism; Snyder’s has a slightly more optimistic tone, while at the same time casting a more pessimistic eye on the world in which it takes place. If the world of Romero’s Dawn was doomed because it was blatantly corrupt, the world of Snyder’s is damned because it is so superficially prosperous yet so soul-dead. The end of the world in the 1970s seemed almost inevitable, and Romero’s film reflects this via the in media res intro, in which Fran awakens in a Hellish TV studio to discover that the hordes of the undead have been—and continue—to rampage. Conversely, doomsday takes place in the background of Snyder’s tale: Sarah Polley’s nurse Ana chit-chats at work and zones out on vapid reality TV with her husband while flipping past news reports and ignoring zombifying patients. This was the world that gave birth to Kardashian culture—a world that took the celebrity superficiality of the 90s and amped it up so far past 11 that 11 got whiplash. Snyder’s film reflects this beautifully, not just in Ana’s initial obliviousness but in the aesthetics of the film. It’s flashy and loud and sparkly and oh-so in-your-face and in the background the wonton dead are knocking at the door. While Snyder’s later films would find him guilty of indulging in style at the expense of substance, here, that overindulgence in style is part of the substance itself—a superficial world for a superficial time. It’s not until it’s too late that the characters realize the severity of their situation, at which point we get the film’s bombastic opening credits, a sequence that immediately went down as one of the all-time great openings in horror. Johnny Cash’s ancient voice ominously chants apocalyptic imagery, The Man Comes Around lilting across the soundtrack to its folksy guitar picking as both stock and fake news footage depict an all-too realistic end of days. Taken altogether, it’s a mordant recreation of the events leading up to 9/11 and the resultant wars it generated, each of which was in full swing when Dawn hit theaters: a time of apparent peace and civility suddenly snatched away through terrible violence, followed by an all-out, 24/7 news binge.
Similarly, Snyder and company admirably updated the zombies of the original not just in aesthetics but in concept. If there is a single weakness in the original film, it is in the zombie design—a variety of factors coalesced to create a living dead who looked less like rotting corpses than escapees from an old EC Comic. Yeah, I’ve seen bodies that looked varying shades of blue or green, but not Technicolor blue or green. Improved special effects and a bigger budget meant that Snyder’s zombies look unsettlingly real. This was one of the first modern zombie films to give us monsters that really looked like they were the reanimated bodies of dead people, and while that may be passe to modern audiences raised on endless zombie flicks and The Walking Dead, in 2004, it was revelatory. (In a nice touch, many of the undead are played by amputees. Not only did it give individuals who’d normally be turned away by a production an opportunity to be featured onscreen, it only makes the effects more realistic. In a fun side-note, part of the prosthetics team was Heather Langenkamp of A Nightmare on Elm Street fame, here credited under her married name of Heather Langenkamp Anderson).
Too, this being a post-28 Days Later zombie film, the dead here are fast, vicious, and animalistic. While this was one of the movies that helped fuel the “Romero zombie vs. infected” debate that raged through the early 2000s, the change here makes sense. Not only were audiences who’d been wowed by Danny Boyle’s film expecting their dead to be more threatening than shambling masses, it serves a thematic purpose as well. The world seemed to be ending slowly in the 70s—the country was eating itself alive day-by-day. After 9/11, the threat was quicker, more violent, and more imminent. These are fast, savage zombies for a fast, savage world.
The result of all this is a fun, savage, roller coaster of a movie that remains just as enjoyable today as when it came out, and looking back on it from 2017 it’s amazing to see just how much this film helped to create the zombie craze of the early 2000s. It’s only fitting that Scream factory—on this most auspicious of anniversaries, Lucky 13—has chosen to give it so loving a reissue. Both versions of the film are included—the theatrical version has received a new HD master from the 2K digital intermediate, while the unrated version has gotten an HD master of its own with HD inserts. The special features from previous editions have been carried over, including deleted scenes, audio commentaries, short films that expand the film’s universe, and making-of featurettes. New to this edition, however, are a series of retrospective interviews with Gunn, actors Jake Weber and Ty Burrell, Langenkamp Anderson, and her husband, fellow makeup artist David Anderson (whose never-before-seen behind the scenes footage makes up the other new addition).
Taken altogether it’s a fitting legacy for a film that helped shape the modern horror world while casting a subtly critical eye on the real one. Not a bad feat for a remake.