Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) is a reworking of the original film’s scenario with its storyline updated to modern zombie film conventions. However, Snyder’s remake essentially fails to address the ideological foundations that distinguish Romero’s work. It was envisioned as a reinterpretative homage to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and was intended to deviate from the original’s essence, tone, and plot. Nonetheless, the remake superficially leans on the original’s thematic conventions while abandoning the theoretical trajectory of Romero’s body of work. In this writer’s opinion, it qualifies as a bad remake.
Rotten tomatoes describes Snyder’s version as a “surprisingly worthy remake.” Truly, it is a thrillingly grisly zombie flick that inventively contextualizes the basic gist of the original in the contemporaneity of early to mid–2000s. That ‘basic gist’ of Dawn of the Dead—a group of survivors finding refuge in a shopping mall during a zombie apocalypse—is what the remake reductively focuses on in its iteration. However, the ideological and thematic scope of Romero’s Dead films is much wider than this one definitive element.
More than its forthright satire of consumerism that Snyder’s version just doesn’t get right, Romero’s Dawn directly criticizes interrelated structures of ideological oppression. These critical themes include the police state, governmental irresponsibility, the role of media and journalism during social upheaval, the collapse of white male structures of dominance and ownership, and violent white male resistance to social revolution. Snyder’s remake only obliquely reflects Romero’s visionary social commentary, and its lack of ideological awareness qualifies it as an object of the dominant consumerist ideologies that Romero’s film sets out to criticize.
To understand the ideological trajectory of Romero’s Dead films, you must really consider them as a sequence. Romero’s Dawn carries forward themes of social criticism from Night of the Living Dead (1968) and contextualizes these themes within a progression of events in the series’ diegesis. That is to say, the plots of Romero’s Living Dead films are not interconnected and there are no recurring characters, but the evolution of the series does represent the continuation and spread of the epidemic that first breaks out in Night of the Living Dead.
As the diegetic zombie apocalypse intensifies with each film in the Dead series, Romero’s social commentary also evolves in tandem with an ongoing breakdown of traditional, oppressive systems in the theoretical collapse of dominant social structures. Snyder’s Dawn begins just before the outbreak of the zombie disease. The opening sequence traces Ana Clark (Sarah Polley)’s transition from her last night of normalcy at work and with her husband to an abrupt intrusion of the disease into her neighborhood and home.
The first eleven minutes of the Snyder’s remake syncopate essential thematic elements from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead that are carried over into the original Dawn. Specifically, the opening sequence rushes us through a rupture of the white female protagonist’s dependence on a male partner and the looming threat of a murderous child zombie that dislocates the sense of possibility for heteropatriarchal futurity. This abrupt referential pattern continues as the Dawn of the Dead remake glosses over iconic examples of the critical ideology that suffuses Romero’s Dead films.
The remake superficially updates the scenario of the original to modernized zombie film conventions, but it lacks the theoretical substance of its referent. Consider the essential thematic element of the police in both films. The opening of Romero’s Dawn lingers on a SWAT team raid of an urban housing development where residents have refused to exterminate the undead. This early scene is rife with racial and authoritarian tension. As officers indiscriminately, enthusiastically shoot the living and undead alike, the film conveys a sense that zombification, like consumerism and industrialization, is something that is inflicted on the populace.
Snyder’s reiteration of the theme of police violence in Dawn of the Dead is disappointingly insubstantial. Like the representation of other critical themes in the remake, law enforcement characters’ roles in the film betray a lack of awareness of their ideological function in the original. Police officers are major characters in both versions. In the remake, police sergeant Kenneth Hall (Ving Rhames) is a heroic protagonist who has abandoned any remaining formal authoritative responsibility. He no longer operates with the police force, and his singular, individualistic goal is to find his brother alive. Kenneth’s character is a correlative embodiment of the SWAT team force protagonist Peter Washington (Ken Foree) in the original Dawn.
The other representation of law enforcement in the remake are the three security officers who the band of survivors encounters when infiltrating the mall. Of the group of mall cops who reflectively embody a major pillar of ideological criticism in Romero’s original, two of the characters are relatively benign and static. Their leader, CJ (Michael Kelly) is a menacing, snarky asshole who at first represents an intensified conglomerate of negative social criticisms prevalent throughout Romero’s Dead films: preoccupation with ownership and control in the group’s survival space, destructive inclinations to unnecessary violence, misogyny. Later, though, CJ is proven likable in an aw, shucks type of way, and he is ultimately a heroic martyr.
The original Dawn also humanizes individual characters who represent law enforcement—that is something that the remake didn’t get wrong. However, this thematic representation is entirely stripped of its sociological implications. Intact, governing bodies of police or law enforcement that exact lethal violence in a futile attempt to establish social control do not appear in the Dawn remake. There is no representation of the catalyzing role that violent, authoritarian bodies of government have in situations of social upheaval or breakdown. Empty, misplaced reiterations of Romero’s major thematic elements like this one leave me wondering, why allude to them at all?
Snyder and the producers of the Dawn of the Dead remake have emphasized that it was not their intention to explicitly “re-make” the film, but to “re-envision” it. Their stated goal was to create a newly inspired version that was improved by technology and special effects, attracting younger audiences to the genre. It does not stand to reason that the Dawn of the Dead remake would have to forego a robust social commentary in order to foster its own originality and to attract a new audience. In fact, overlooking the inherent ideology that Romero’s Dead films instill serves to detract from the contributions that the original films made to the genre.
I had no desire to remake the picture…. Reinterpretation is what we wanted to do. Re-envision it. We put some steroids into it. – Zack Snyder
Being that Romero’s original version was an independent film, he was enabled to produce a film that entailed radical social criticism. Snyder’s remake, on the other hand, was written, directed, produced, and distributed within the major studio system. It is easy to infer that profitmaking was a major incentive for producing a Dawn of the Dead remake heavy in action and gore but light in ideological awareness. The early 2000s generated renewed commercial interest and mass audience appeal in new zombie movies, and zombie films and TV shows have been highly profitable in mass markets for the decades that have followed. But, where does the mass marketization of the zombie genre leave the ideological, social criticism of Romero’s Dead films? The original Dawn, if you’ll remember, satirizes gratuitous consumerism. It is more than a little ironic that its remake is part of the wave of big-budget films that propelled the zombie genre into the mass consumer market sans ideological critique.
According to the ideological theory of film criticism, all films are necessarily ideological because they are material products of political systems. Films can be classified by their level of awareness of their inevitable relationship to the political realities that produce them. By this standard, Dawn of the Dead is a bad remake because it represents a regression from a film that directly confronts ideological assimilation to an unaware film that is imbued with the dominant ideology. Viewers deserve a new remake or “re-envisioning” of Dawn of the Dead that is not only updated with modern zombie film conventions but also puts Romero’s original social commentary in conversation with contemporary issues.