In the year 1978, George A. Romero released a film unto the world that has set many standards in terms of how horror films and films with social commentary should be made. That film was called Dawn Of The Dead, and is estimated to have grossed around fifty-five million dollars on the worldwide market, against an estimated budget of six hundred and fifty thousand.
Much like the first film in what is now called the Dead series, Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead is a comment about certain normalities in the society that existed around its makers at the time. But also like Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead treats the titular dead people as a metaphor for, amongst other things, the number one problem facing this world today: overpopulation. For those who are not already aware, overpopulation in science terms means that there are too many of one kind of animal in a given area for the area’s natural resources to be able to sustain. Where Humans are concerned, this problem is now in effect around the entire world, with production of basic food stocks such as fish, grain, and meat remaining stuck at 1970s or 1980s levels whilst the population has doubled or nearly doubled since then, depending on which decade you use as a guideline. (Tales from the fishing industry of fish catches hitting a ceiling began earlier than the other two basic stocks mentioned (in the 1970s as opposed to the 1980s).)
This is one of the reasons why the real Dead films depict the zombies as shambling, sluggish, rotting things. You see, in a society where there is less to go around for everyone, inexorable pressure is felt by every member of that society to lower their expected standards in everything. Hence, save for an elite few, in a society where there are so many people that most have to make do with inadequate resources, people will be acting like shambling nothings rather than aspirant individuals who wish to see a better world. If you think this is not a before-its-time metaphor for the real world, then I invite you to come to shopping centres in places like Northern Brisbane, take a good look at the people therein, and have a bit of a rethink. The capture and biting of the living by zombies is merely a good metaphor for how those who know no better than the lowest common denominator seek, whether they are aware of it or not, to drag everyone else down to their level.
Every film, from Plan 9 From Outer Space to The Godfather, has to use certain shorthand tricks of storytelling to bring the audience up to speed on what the storytellers are trying to communicate. Dawn Of The Dead is no exception, and right from the opening frame, it offers a doozy of a storytelling trick. As the film’s opening credits begin, we get a fairly close shot of the heroine we shall be following throughout the film, one Francine (Gaylen Ross). As she wakes from a nightmare, she is told by a coworker that the proverbial shit is really hitting the fan. When she gets up and starts doing what she is supposed to be doing, we find that said coworker is, if anything, understating matters. Have you ever been to a television studio whilst anything is being recorded or broadcast “live”? I have on a couple of occasions. These places are dead quiet, controlled, and generally so ordered that it might make the like of Melvin Udall weep with joy. Not so in Dawn Of The Dead. As two people in front of the camera are attempting to share information with what little audience is left about a phenomenon in which the dead rise from the grave, the people in the crew, and eventually the hosts themselves, show such a loss of cool that it beggars belief. When a host in front of the camera turns in the camera’s general direction and yells to “get that fukking idiot off the air”, you know the society that they are broadcasting to has lost control of itself.
Actually, let me describe this moment in a little more detail. In front of the camera, one Dr. Foster (David Crawford) is trying to explain to a host by the name of Berman (David Early) about the spreading plague of undead. Foster tells Berman things like “you are not running a talk show here, Mr. Berman” and “you can forget pitching your audience the moral bullshit they want to hear”. But by far my favourite moment in this scene is when David Crawford dramatically, and turning to face the crew in the studio, says things like “Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills. The people it kills get up and kill!“. You see, this is a perfect expression of one of the most fundamental truths concerning the overpopulation problem: resources grow arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, and so on); populations grow geometrically (2, 4, 16, 256, 65,536, 4,294,967,296, and on and on it goes…).
The remake approaches the setup very differently, starting with a nurse knocking off from an overextended shift at the hospital. Hints are given throughout about there being a phenomenon in which the dead are rising from the grave, but it is not until one of the neighbourhood children turns up in the heroine’s house and bites her husband to death that we really have any indication that something is wrong. Unfortunately, because the scenario requires a certain amount of exposition in order to really be effective, this immediately sets the film off on a course of stop-start pacing that ends up toppling the film.
In the 1970s, and especially with independent films, one had the luxury of being able to build the drama and tension slowly. Although the introductions of the four central characters are punctuated with some excitement (two of them are SWAT team members), the film spends a good amount of time explaining who each character is and what makes them different from the pack we have seen around them. These individual attributes, oddly enough, also reflect social mores as they change and evolve in response to a situation of ever-worsening overpopulation. Francine, for example, desires independence and the capability of self-assertion along with self-determination. But having been brought up in a patriarchal, male-dominated society where this was not a priority survival trait for women has left her without these qualities, and she spends much of the film soliciting the aid of the three men around her in learning these qualities. That is kind of why I mentioned her first, because how the men in the film interact with her drives the plot to a great extent.
Stephen (David Emge) is the one Francine is most familiar with at the start of the film. As in, she knows him at all. In some ways, he is a middle of the road between the other two men, but I will get to that in a moment. What is important now is that Stephen is very much a privileged white man in what used to be a privileged white man’s world. Although he is enlightened enough to not treat Francine like property, he also does not adjust well to the fact that the creature comforts that allowed him to maintain the whole me Tarzan, you Jane thing in his head are gone, possibly forever, and Francine wants to change her way of getting on in the world to reflect that. This possessive quality comes back to bite him later. Roger (Scott Reiniger) is the more reckless and little boy of the two men Stephen knows who happen to be SWAT team members. He has better survival skills than Stephen, and he does not exhibit any of the desire to keep the whole Tarzan-Jane aspect of the society that is disintegrating around him, but his disregard for his own safety also will come back to haunt him in one of the film’s best parts. Finally, we have Peter (Ken Foree), a tall, no-nonsense, realist man’s man who, aside from being very black like the hero in Night Of The Living Dead, also shares a common trait with the hero of that film, as played by Duane Jones, in that he displays zero interest in taking shit from anyone. Of the group, he is also the best-equipped for survival in this new, lawless world.
This is a contrast to the pretend Dawn Of The Dead, in which a couple of stock characters who get some minor development end up amidst a bunch of stereotypes and cardboard cut-outs. The heroine, as played by one Sarah Polley, is meant to be the central focus of the film. But other than the fact that she is an overworked nurse and thus has some medical skills that will come in handy, we learn next to nothing about her throughout the film. And we learn those little bits of character information very early on. The other character worth following is a policeman of unspecified designation who, judging from the tattoo seen on his arm at one point, used to be in the Marines. This officer (Ving Rhames) gets far better development in the sense that he at least asserts some credible motives for wanting to survive, participate in the group, or at one point leave it. For one, he has a brother who, when the situation began, went to one of the “rescue stations” that were hastily organised in both films in order to give citizens a place to go for some semblance of safety and survival. For another, when he realises that the world around the shopping mall has effectively fallen to chaos, he reminds his fellows in the group (and effectively the audience) that waiting around to die is worse than dying. That is about as subtle as it gets in the remake, sadly.
The two scripts also deal with how the group comes to be in the mall very differently. The 1978 real version has Francine and company flying around looking for any place to stay that might promote their survival. Debates are had about where to land and get fuel. One sequence in which the characters stop at a fuel station clearly shows Stephen’s biggest problem in this new world. Namely, he overestimates his abilities. In one sequence, Peter finds himself stuck in a supply office with several zombies. None of them bite him, but he has some difficulties with dispatching them at first. I forget exactly which of them he shoots, but you can imagine his surprise when he looks out of the open door and sees Stephen aiming a rifle in his direction, intending to shoot zombies that approach him. This would be all well and fine if not for one problem: Stephen is a weather helicopter pilot, not a sharpshooter. Consequently, several stray shots barely miss Peter before Roger stops Stephen in a subtly emasculating manner and does what Stephen clearly still has a problem recognising he cannot: shoot down the zombies that are closing in on Peter. This is followed by two shots in which Peter expresses his anger and frustration at Stephen’s overestimation of his shooting abilities. Again, a sequence midway through the film has the group dealing with the consequences of Stephen failing to understand his own limits. After this sequence, the group lands atop the mall, breaks into the top floor, and discovers that they have found a sealed-off area in which a good amount of survival supplies are stocked. I will return to this point in a moment.
In the remake, after Sarah Polley crashes her car and is carefully made certain to not be a zombie by Ving Rhames, they, along with a group they come across along the way, simply make their way to the local shopping mall and find a way in. This is probably the only area where the remake improved upon the original, and even then not by much. In the original, the shopping mall that the group happens to find (they were much less common in 1978, bear in mind) is simply deserted aside from the presence of zombies in the publically-accessible areas. Although this is a possible scenario, it is also an unlikely one, given that people in such desperate circumstances tend to search for places where they think they can hole up in safety, and might find others that they can join forces with. In the remake, the group of protagonists that we see make their way into the mall are greeted by a trio of security guards. These security guards are never explicitly made clear as actual employees of the mall before the big meltdown, but the story implies it well enough. Like all groups in a position of power, these security guards also have a leader who is, suffice to say, a complete asshat who thinks that lording it over a little mini-kingdom whilst the entire world is falling apart outside is a viable option. The other security guards, both younger and less redneck in appearance, express doubt in subtle ways about it. So when the group overpowers this king of shit hill, it is not much of a surprise that they do so with the willing help of at least one guard.
In both cases, there is a fairly lengthy middle act in which the two groups fortify their position, try to make themselves as comfortable as possible, and try to make sense of their situation. Again, the differences between the two leave no sense of mystery as to why the 1978 original is the better film. In the 1978 original, the group works out with one another how they are going to work on the situation. In case people watching the film missed it the first time around, Francine is told as the men plan to go scouting around the area for items to implement the plan that her ability to come with them is conditional on her learning “how to handle yourself” (Peter’s words). So of course, Francine decides to do exactly that. Although the only part of this that is explicitly shown in the film is having Stephen teach her how to fly the helicopter in case anything happens to him, she does learn enough that she seems to be more integrated with the group as the story progresses. In the 2004 remake, our main plot development consists of interactions with a man who is trapped on the roof of a gun store, and several prompts such as an army helicopter simply ignoring them as they attempt to signal for help, that make the group realise they cannot stay in the mall indefinitely.
In the original, the group attempts one last fortification of their position by jumpstarting and moving some trucks to put in front of the main doors of the mall. Roger, by mistake, makes one too many gambles with both his life and that of the person working with him. Although Peter escapes the mission relatively unscathed, Roger is bitten, and dragged back to the mall, unable to stand as one of the zombies has torn into his leg. From there, Stephen, Peter, and Francine try to cope as best they can with the business of maintaining their hideout whilst doing the best they can to help Roger. But after several days, Roger succumbs to his wounds. To say that Scott Reiniger acts this out well is an understatement. Have you ever tried to converse with someone about what you need or want when your blood glucose level is so low that you cannot even hold yourself up, leave alone stand? You repeat yourself a lot, and every word comes out like a verbal equivalent of trying to do the kind of long and large shit that really, really hurts. As Scott, in character, keeps telling Ken that he is going to try to not come back, I wanted to leap into the movie and just put a bullet in his head right then, to save him the pain that I could grok the character going through. But come back he does, in a goofy grey make-up that in spite of its obvious fakeness is still way more convincing and distinguishing than anything in the remake. And with the sound of the shot that Peter puts into Roger’s head ringing from the speakers, the final act of the 1978 original begins.
Also worth noting at this point is that around the time of Roger’s injury and subsequent death, the whole group has been trying to tune into communications from the outside world, searching for any semblance that is left of civilisation. This results in the watching of some television broadcasts in which a scientist (Richard France) explains some interesting things. One, that these zombies, whatever else they are, are not cannibals. You see, cannibalism is an intra-species thing, and whilst they feed on the living, they do not feed on each other. But in another speech, he proposes that the government uses its nuclear capabilities to clear the cities of the zombies. As he puts it so well, they have scant few other options. Someone off-camera proposes waiting for the zombies to run out of food and starve to death, but as he puts it so well, as long as there are living, they will not run out of food. I mention all of these bits because, as an argument ensues on the television that is somewhat reminiscent of the one we saw when Francine was in the studio at the beginning of the film, she turns to one of her fellows and asks, simply, “it’s really all over, isn’t it?”. Never has a more appropriate question about the events being depicted in a film been asked.
This is where the title of this post derives from, in fact. George A. Romero, in fact, hits right on this problem with the remake with the comment quoted in the Wikipedia article: “It was better than I expected. … The first 15, 20 minutes were terrific, but it sort of lost its reason for being. It was more of a video game. I’m not terrified of things running at me; it’s like Space Invaders. There was nothing going on underneath.” Amen to that. There is nothing going on underneath at all in the remake. Even the characters who come across the best, those played by Sarah Polley or Ving Rhames, have nothing under their hood, so to speak. In fact, the cameos by Ken Foree and Tom Savini have more going on under individual their hoods during minute-at-most appearances than the entire cast has for the other hundred or so minutes of the feature. Foree, for example, appears as a Priest on television who flatly tells the audience that this plague of undead is divine judgement. I say flatly in tone, because the content is actually one of the few provocative elements in this remake. It is an interesting parallel to one dialogue he has in the original production, but unfortunately the director also fails to make it clear that this opinion is merely that of a fictional character, not that of the writers or the director, if indeed that happens to be the case. Savini‘s appearance is more to the point, simply offering a partial explanation of the ground rules that the film follows in terms of how to fight the zombies, which are more or less the same as in the original 1978 film or the 1968 classic from which that is a continuation.
Also a good point of contrast between the two films is the resolution, or the manner in which the films wrap themselves up. One would be forgiven for thinking that a film in which the protagonists simply hole up in a shopping mall and observe the world collapsing around it would end with the participants dying of what John Lydon succinctly ends one great Public Image, Limited song with: “terminal boredom!”.
In the 2004 remake, a talented sniper known only as Andy is stranded atop what appears to be his own gun store. Andy’s ability to shoot and hit just about anything that the people watching him from the mall that is situated across a road is about all the character development he gets. He does, through this skill, develop a rapport with the Ving Rhames character, but this in itself does not really add any depth to either character. Anyway, long story short, Andy is trapped atop a store without any food supply. As his condition deteriorates, several of the mall crowd decide to send a dog over with supplies (yes, I know how that sounds). The dog does not draw any notable reaction from the zombies (unlike should happen, and is happening, in reality). But when one of the teenage girls in the mall group loses their composure and goes after the dog, it all turns to shit in a hurry. An attempt to rescue this girl ends with the man assigned to guard the door through which the entire mall can be accessed abandoning his post at just the right time for the zombies to get in. So the mall crew hastily make their way to the buses that they have been working to modify for a planned trip prior to this point and hightail it out of there. People die along the way, including one memorable sequence in which, as Maddox puts it so well, a “Blonde chick” gets her “shit ruined by a chainsaw”. But the fundamental thing to stress here is that, although, again as Maddox puts it, 750,000 people at minimum are killed, the fundamental problem with the remake is simple. The film not only fails to make an intelligent audience member (ie me) give a flying fukk about its characters, it fails to even make an attempt to make an intelligent audience member give a flying fukk about its characters. That is a failure of great proportions.
In the 1978 original, as I indicated, there are only four main characters. Up to a point, we get a feeling throughout the middle part of the film that they are literally the only living people left within the helicopter’s flight radius. But a marauding gang of bikies and ex-military types who, in the words of one character, have likely been scavenging since the whole outbreak started, notice the helicopter taking off and landing from a distance. They track it back to the mall, and attempt to make contact with the three remaining heroes. But as they reveal quickly, their intentions are anything but noble, and they soon set about raiding the mall. Francine, Peter, and Stephen set about repelling them as best they can, but this is where Stephen’s overestimation of himself comes back to bite him. Literally. Growling under his breath things like “it’s ours” and “we took it”, Stephen begins firing on the bikies using a rifle from one of the stores in the mall (in those days, gunstores could be found in shopping malls, apparently). But amidst the chaos and violence, Stephen is killed, coming back as a very hobbled zombie. When he does come back, one of the little fragments of knowledge he retains is the location of the hideout within the mall that he and his fellows helped conceal from the other zombies. So he breaks down the concealments, leading the zombies up, and forcing a hasty evacuation from Frances and Peter.
Frances and Peter escape the mall, flying away on the remaining helicopter fuel, and there the original film ends. When the film was about to begin shooting, Romero had apparently originally planned to end the film with Peter shooting himself and Frances sticking her head up into the helicopter’s main rotor. The revised ending, with this pair riding off into an unknown sunset to face an uncertain future, is still far from optimistic, but disappointing compared to Night Of The Living Dead‘s exceptionally jarring and nihilistic ending.
Now, from this write-up, it would be easy to get the impression that I absolutely hate the 2004 production of Dawn Of The Dead. I do not. But unfortunately, it suffers from the exact same problem that makes me cringe whenever I see anyone write that a remake is good or that remakes as a rule are good or better than the original. I will use the loosest definition of remake for the sake of argument and call TRON: Legacy a remake for the purposes of this argument, too. You see, what makes John Carpenter‘s 1981 version of The Thing and TRON: Legacy both great films is not any comparison to the film they are remakes of. What makes them great is the fact that they have the balls to step out and do something different. In both cases, very radically different from what they were revisiting or remaking. In The Thing From Another World, we simply see a monster that can split itself into little clones, another creature feature that is basically Us Versus The Bad Guys (again). In John Carpenter‘s The Thing, destroying the creature almost becomes secondary to identifying it, to such a degree that the first time I saw the positive result in MacReady’s crude blood test, I fukking leaped out of my seat (for a film to produce this reaction from me is rare like a hen’s tooth is rare). In TRON, Kevin Flynn helps save a race of little computer people from an evil overlord that his business rival has programmed. In TRON: Legacy, Sam Flynn helps Kevin Flynn save a miracle race of little computer people from an evil overlord that not only did he himself program, but is basically him. Dawn Of The Dead circa 2004 not only brings nothing new to the table, it essentially brings even less than the 1978 production brought.
Hence, the problem is that I wanted to like that film. Any film that begins with mock news footage of a military strategist answering repeated questions with “we don’t know” before Johnny Cash starts singing and zombies eventually storm the White House… it promises something. As does the pre-credits sequence in which Sarah Polley survives multiple encounters with zombies, flees, and then crashes her car. Being that I am now reading a copy of The Time Machine, I cannot help but wonder what H.G. Wells would have made of both films. I think he would agree with me when I say to him, be it in advance or after the fact, that the 2004 remake entirely misses the point that Humanity desperately needs to start getting.
But I think he would reiterate one of the sayings that I have seen attributed to him at least twice. The future is a race between education and catastrophe.