Monday, August 9, 2010

Remake v. Remade: Dawn of the Dead

| by Justin Thomas |

MTV did more than kill the radio star when it debuted in 1981. MTV also started editing on its path to the seizure-inducing 0.05-second cuts currently masquerading as style. Gregg Toland had style. People wishing to make long-form cinematic works would have been better served watching TCM than MTV.

The two Dawn of the Dead films, the original by George A. Romero and the remake by Zack Snyder, show the dramatic difference between filmmaking in 1978 and filmmaking in 2004. Romero lets his cuts and sequences run long, which wouldn’t have felt out of place upon release but seems slow today. Snyder has a bit of Bay in him and he also goes the handheld route during intense action sequences that, even only six years post-Saving Private Ryan, was overused.

Both films have essentially the same stories: survivors of the zombie apocalypse seek shelter in a mall. They feature characters of the respective eras. In the original, Francine sits in a room separated from the men while they discuss her pregnancy and what to do before she later tells the father she wants to have a say in it. The remake has Ana as a tough-as-nails nurse who screams at CJ, “Get that fucking gun out of my face.” They both have A-Team sequences where they must build things to stop the zombie attacks be it a false wall to keep secret their hideout in the original or A-Team vans designed to get the survivors from the mall to the marina. There’s enough in Snyder’s film to look at it as taking the original and making it applicable to the era in which it was made while leaving just enough to see they both sprang from the same source.

Romero’s film is slow. Once the survivors lockdown the mall and even go so far as to put the corpses in a freezer, the film moves into character development mode. For what seems like an hour, they build a nice little apartment in their hideout, ice skate, have a date or two and Francine even learns how to fly a helicopter, but with the zombies outside all but neutralized, it fizzles. There’s no urgency driving the movie forward until the biker gang finds the mall. From the end of securing the mall until the bikers show up, the film is in “let’s play house” mode and it’s long, long, long.

Snyder’s film sacrifices time to round out the characters to keep things moving. They lock down the mall and then have the obligatory shopping scenes, but there are other things to do. A second group of survivors forces them to understand how the bite works and how even a dad needs to be put down if he’s been bitten. There’s not just a pregnancy but a birth. There’s a friend across the parking lot stranded alone in a building who needs help. There are things to do and Snyder’s film can’t be asked to wait around.

They’re products of their times, but if an entire world populating having turned into the living dead is what they share then Snyder’s film makes better use of the situation by not allowing for much time to breathe. The situation that drives the breach in the mall that forces the survivors out is less contrived in Snyder’s film. Romero has the satire down pat, which is completely abandoned by Snyder, but if constructing a plot in such a way to keep the audience’s interest is the measuring stick, then Snyder has a leg up on the original. It’s not blasphemous to suggest Snyder did something better in the remake of an all-time classic because the original has issues. The remake also has issues but improvements in certain aspects were made.

Every single aspect of Romero’s film is dated. There isn’t a single thing, straight down to the Penney’s logo, cripes, even it being called Penney’s and not JCPenney, that isn’t locked down in the late 1970s. Snyder’s film will one day be just as dated based on how he uses the camera and maybe it will be just as unsettling and foreign thirty years from now as Romero’s film is to watch now.

So there you have it: you can tell MTV launched and completely destroyed Western Civilization between Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Snyder’s remake.

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