The 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead has been on my mind a lot lately, for two key reasons. One is the release of Brightburn, which the marketing would have you think was a James Gunn film even though he neither wrote it (his brother and cousin did) or directed it (that would be David Yarovesky, who blessed us with the terrific "Inferno" music video from GOTG2). The film's concept - "What if Kal-El turned into Michael Myers instead of Clark Kent?" - could have originated with someone's (Gunn's?) reaction to Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, where Superman's reckless use of his powers in the film's third act conceivably wiped out more innocent people than any movie slasher ever has. As Snyder made his feature debut directing Gunn's script for Dawn (which featured a store called Metropolis!) it's fun to think about the two of them possibly talking about Supes one day and then going on to make their own distinct versions of the basic story later on in their careers.
The other reason I kept thinking about it is because of these idiotic petitions to remake the final season of Game of Thrones, or recast Batman with someone besides Robert Pattinson, or whatever else nutjob "fans" have decided to project their unhappy lives onto in between the time I write this sentence and the article goes online. And that is because a much younger (read: dumber) me with a surplus of free time on his hands distinctly remembers signing an online petition to boycott the (then) upcoming Dawn of the Dead remake by "some commercial guy and the writer of Scooby-Doo", believing it to be a slap in the face to George Romero. Not only was his 1978 original one of my all time favorite genre films (and remains so), but the filmmaker had only managed to get one film made in the past decade, so it seemed insulting that Hollywood would rather cash in on his work rather than give him a job. "Under no circumstances will I support this film!" 23 year old me thought.
And I guess that technically remained true, as I went to see a free screening of it in Boston about a week before its theatrical release, figuring I'd have more ammo to talk people out of buying a ticket if I actually saw it, and wouldn't have to give it a dime to find out just "how bad" it was. Unfortunately for my very noble intentions, as it turns out the movie was pretty damn good, winning me over almost instantly with its terrific pre-credits sequence and keeping me on board thanks to its stronger than expected mix of characters, exciting action scenes, and - most importantly - a script that wasn't just rehashing Romero's scene for scene. While I've always admired Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead remake for lulling us into a sense of deja vu with a very similar first half before pivoting into uncharted territory, Gunn and Snyder went even further and barely kept anything at all from the version I knew and loved.
In fact everything they reprised could be summed up in less than a paragraph. Both films, naturally, concern some survivors of a zombie outbreak holed up in a mall, and two of the survivors are a black cop and a blond woman. But the characters themselves are very different; Sarah Polley's Ana is nothing like Gaylen Ross' Fran, and while they are embodying a similar type of role there is very little about Ving Rhames' Kenneth that recalls Ken Foree's Peter. In fact, Foree himself shows up in a cameo/tip of the hat as a TV preacher who gets to re-deliver his iconic "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth" line, rather than go the obvious route of letting Kenneth say it, which further distinguishes that character from Foree's original. And the other folks aren't similar at all - plus there are far more of them in the remake; around a dozen as opposed to the original's four.
This allows the film to succeed or fail on its own devices rather than living in the shadow of its predecessor. I still prefer the original, yes, but I can also watch the two films back to back with minimal restlessness, which isn't something I can say about, say, Rob Zombie's Halloween, which restages any number of sequences directly taken from John Carpenter's original. In that film, and so many other remakes of the 00's, I can never get sucked into the update, as it's constantly reminding me of the film I likely prefer, and as a result I spend half my viewing time thinking "Why am I even bothering? I can just go watch the original." But here, outside of those few jokey nods (which occur relatively early, for the record), the film has its own identity and carves its own path; that sort of "Ugh, no. In the original they did THIS instead..." thinking can't ever really intrude unless you're actively looking for excuses to hate on it.
And like I said, I was indeed in that group when I sat down in that Boston multiplex, only to change my attitude rather quickly. There was just too much for me to like, in particular its motley group of characters, which felt more in line with the original Night of the Living Dead than the smaller, more familiar group in Dawn - all given enough to do that I cared when they died, a feat that escapes so, so many zombie movies past and present. I'm not sure even Romero has ever given a bonding situation as much as I loved as the one between Kenneth and Andy (Bruce Bohne), who is stuck in a gun shop across the street and communicates via wipe board. The two men play chess and send each other updates without ever speaking directly, and it's legitimately heartbreaking when they get him a radio (via courier dog!) and, within seconds of hearing his voice for the first time, find out he's been bitten.
Also, as someone who usually rolls his eyes at the nearly obligatory "The humans are WORSE!" angle in zombie films, I flat out loved growing to like CJ, played by the great Michael Kelly. As the mall's security chief he's an asshole when we meet him, at first not even wanting to let Rhames and the others enter, only to agree to let them in but lock them up so they don't "steal anything" (he takes his job very seriously!). But over the course of the film he softens to them, backs them up when necessary, and - sniff - dies a hero, blowing himself up with a huge swarm of undead so that the others can escape. And there's no other evil human really, either - Ty Burrell's Steve is a rich jerk, yes, but apart from being a coward he never does anything truly despicable (on the bad guy scale he's somewhere between Cooper in NOTLD and, well, Kelly's character). As much as I love the original, I've always kinda lost interest once a bunch of pirates show up out of nowhere to provide the impetus for them to leave - I actually prefer this one's version, where they decide to move on from their would-be paradise only for things to go south.
In fact, that third act "we're leaving the mall" sequence is one of the few times I found myself mentally comparing this one to the original, and it's interesting the context was "they improved it". That said, it's a shame that Snyder and Gunn opened themselves up to two easy criticisms that the original did indeed do a better job with. One is the use of the mall itself; while Romero and his team managed to use the big department store and several of its little ones for various action sequences and character beats ("robbing" the mall's bank for poker money always sticks out as a charming gag), this Dawn seems content to stick its characters in front of a coffee shop for what seems like 75% of their time in the mall. There's no real sense of geography we can ever learn from their location, the bigger setpieces take place in areas that aren't mall-specific, like a parking garage, and even when they offer up a brief wish fulfillment "let's make the most of our living situation" type montage it's curiously light on using the material wealth at their disposal. Two characters are seen trying on luxury clothing and Steve uses the electronic store's demo equipment to film/watch himself having sex with one of the others, but that's about it - most of the other slice of life snippets (two of the guys playing basketball, the younger characters/lovebirds peering through a telescope at night, etc) could have taken place anywhere.
The other easy complaint is that it's not a particularly scary film, but that one's more defensible - they were clearly making more of an action movie version of a zombie outbreak tale. All you have to do is look at Snyder's subsequent films to know that he's more excited by guys throwing punches than swinging kitchen knives, so over time it's less and less of a surprise to watch this and discover that it only has a handful of legit scary moments (unless you are like my wife and scared enough by the basic *idea* of zombies to freak out over their appearance regardless of how they act). But it's still very much the odd man out in Snyder's filmography; it has some of his slo-mo stuff (usually of bullet casings hitting the floor) and goofily on-the-nose soundtrack selections (namely "People Who Died" over the credits), but thanks to Gunn's script and the budget (far less than half of anything he's worked with since) it never feels like a "Zack Snyder film" as we know it today.
Then again, since I like it more than anything he's made since (300 being the only other one of his films I can say I really like, with Watchmen being a mostly decent attempt at something I'm not sure anyone could have pulled off in a feature film and everything else being... mostly watchable, at best?), I guess that only helps its case as one of the better horror updates, if not ever at least from the remake-heavy 2000s. Since it's more likely that younger folks have actually seen both versions (unlike say, The Fly), I find myself using it more and more as a good example of the best way to go about remaking a horror movie - while carefully noting that I don't PREFER it, lest the listener tune out anything I have to say after. I'd love to read Gunn's original script (it had at least two uncredited rewriters) as I suspect I'd like it even more, as I am more in tune with his sensibilities than Snyder's*, but as it stands it's an engaging and fun take on the material that has held up quite well over the years. And its success helped Universal agree to fund Romero's Land of the Dead the following year, while never making a sequel (or even another movie with Snyder, for that matter), so even if I hated it, I'd at least have to give it some respect for that much. Everyone - except whoever started that boycott petition - wins!
*Indeed, on the commentary Snyder laments not showing Jake Weber's character shooting himself, as if any sane viewer would want to see that. No surprise from the guy who'd later consider showing Batman being sexually assaulted in prison.