Generally speaking, I’m not a movie purist when it comes to remakes – to my mind, there’s no reason why a good director can’t pull something fresh and interesting out of a familiar story. Even though the original is still held in high esteem, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, in which four survivors attempt to ride out a plague of zombies in a deserted shopping mall, is particularly ripe for retelling. When the original first opened in 1978, shopping malls were a relatively new proposition – hulking, vacuum-formed consumer paradises that seemed to embody the the retail culture of the future. Fast forward to 2004 and the situation’s just as Romero predicted, only much much larger – there’s a mall in every city, and a generation of babies who can recognise the McDonalds logo before they can say “mummy”. You’d think there’s a fascinating survival story to be told there, and there probably is, but director Zack Snyder’s none too interested in telling it; his Dawn of the Dead pays lip service to the original (title, mall, original cast cameos) but is essentially a slick but soulless major-studio action movie of the kind that Hollywood knocks out by the bucketload. It ticks all the requisite boxes for a summer blockbuster, but ultimately fails to live up to its potential.
Those who enjoyed this movie (and surprisingly, there seem to be quite a few) will all say that it needs to be judged on its own terms rather than in comparison to the classic original. Whilst this is true to an extent, it lets Snyder off the hook simply by saying that he had a thankless task in trying to better the original. This isn’t really the case; although the original Dawn is undeniably a masterpiece, it is flawed in places. Sometimes the limitations of its budget show on screen (particularly the blue-skinned extras), and the satire on consumerism is painted in very broad strokes – it’s never as subtle, clever or revelatory as some horror enthusiasts would have you believe. Where the original does succeed – and succeeds beautifully – is showing the human story, the changing dynamic between four characters who are about to spend the rest of their lives in a building that is simultaneously paradise and hell. As one of the generation that grew in the consumer culture that Romero was writing about when it was still in its infancy, Snyder is well placed to add some much more targeted and focused satirical bite. Instead, he uses the mall simply as window dressing; it might as well be a railway station or a biosphere for all he mines its potential. When Sarah Polley meets a group of survivors while on the run from zombies, they casually announce that they’re going to head for the mall; you almost expect Avril Lavigne to pop up, skateboard in hand, shouting “Dude, let’s crash the mall.” It’s a perfect example of how Snyder’s able to sap the drama from a dream scenario that’s presented to him on a plate.
As for the human drama, it’s rather limited by the unwieldly cast. Because we can’t get to know everyone, we only really get inside the heads of Kenneth (Ving Rhames) and Ana (Sarah Polley), which makes the dynamic much more of a straight-forward “his ‘n’ hers”. All four characters in the original complemented and hindered each other equally, but here we don’t really get to know anyone else well enough to care. It doesn’t really help that a lot of the dialogue and acting clunks along forgettably; I’m not asking for Shakespeare, but it seems in the bid to grab the MTV audience someone forgot to write anything with any heart or soul. The most poetic line is delivered by Ken Foree (Peter from the 1978 version) and it’s taken from the original movie, which really shows the level we’re working at here. In fact, cameos from Foree, Scott Reiniger and make-up guru Tom Savini are actually more irritating than pleasing, a patronising salute to Romero’s movie and its fans which fails to atone for the hatchet job done elsewhere.
Dawn of the Dead 2004 is disappointing when compared to the original, but the biggest disappointments are squarely on the film’s own terms. There are flashes of inspiration, but Snyder seems unable to carry them through – or at the very least to give us more of them. The scene in which a traumatised boyfriend keeps his zombie-d girlfriend ‘alive’ so that she might still give birth to their baby (who arrives a zombie as well) is fantastic, and really gets to the heart of the philosophical implications of the dead returning to life. But it’s a set-piece, and when it’s over, it’s gone and we’re back to the rather mundane story. Unforgivably, there’s a dog in peril scene, which suggests Snyder was either taking the piss or that he doesn’t watch many movies. But most crushingly of all, the ending – first person camcorder footage of the characters fleeing from zombies on an island – is great, and in a flash shows you the way Snyder should have made his movie. Had he stuck with this device throughout – and used Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters as a starting point rather than Dawn of the Dead – he might have had a modern classic on his hands. Instead, it’s just a poor movie, both as a remake and on its own terms. Not so much a case of dumbing down as just not bothering to think in the first place, Dawn of the Dead 2004 is an identikit shoot ‘em up that rides on the kudos of the original without ever showing an understanding of why Romero’s original idea was so good.