Movie classics are usually not to be messed with, but some films are worth remaking. George Romero’s 1978 zombie flick Dawn of the Dead paved the way for much of modern horror, but there’s no excusing the fact that it’s far from perfect. The updated story of survivors of an epidemic taking refuge from flesh-eating zombies in a shopping mall, helmed by Zach Snyder in 2004, kickstarts its gripping narrative in an opening horror author Stephen King cites as “genius”.
King’s career and its influence over the horror genre, such as writing the works adapted into horror’s most iconic movies, leads to an expressive perspective on where it stands today. The Carrie and Cujo writer looks to Snyder’s remake, starring Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, and Mekhi Phifer, as an example of a brilliant story world and style introduction.
As stated in his 2010 book, Danse Macabre, King argues: “Genius perfected would be Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn [of the Dead] remake, which begins with one of the best opening sequences of a horror film ever made”. The opening presents a typical American couple, Ana and Luis. Having worked a long shift as a nurse, Ana returns to her suburban neighbourhood with her husband, Luis. Due to a scheduled date night, they miss an emergency news broadcast. The following day, a girl from their neighbourhood kills Luis and reanimates him as a zombie, attacking Ana.
The nurse rushes outside to a catastrophe of carnage, blood-curdling screams and chaos as more zombies take down terrified civilians who turn on one another to survive. Anna flees in her car, sees the horrific sight of someone being pulled apart by the zombies in a bus and crashes after another stranger tries to force his way into her blood-stained car.
A title sequence intercutting images and sounds of the zombies attacking towns, shots of the military and sounds of government press conferences merge clash against ‘The Man Comes Around’ by Johnny Cash.
With tight and precise camerawork balancing Ana’s horrified expression and the exterior disaster threaded by explosions and attacks, Dawn of the Dead’s opening sets the film alight effortlessly. King addresses this and states: “I’d argue that the most effective terror sequences are either the result of instinct or pure accident rather than screenwriting or direction, and that’s the case here.”
In its opening, Romero’s original film takes a more subtle and story-expositing approach. The 1978 version, starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross, introduces audiences to its apocalypse in the shooting of a televised discussion on how to combat an unidentified plague turning humans into zombies. Concepts of humanity, morality and survival are tossed around in dialogue, situated against shots of distressed and frantic expressions.
“It’s here that Snyder shows us exactly what this inspired remake is about and how well he knew what was driving our fear engines at that particular point in time,” King adds in his examination of the 2004 version’s brilliantly compelling opening.
Speaking to Screen Rant, Romero shared his thoughts on what the DC filmmaker created from his foundation; interestingly, he also references the introduction as a highlight. “It was better than I expected. I thought it was a good action film,” Romero shared. “The first 15, 20 minutes were terrific, but it sort of lost its reason for being. It was more of a video game.”
Watch Dawn of the Dead on Netflix now.