Intermittently throughout the summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to a major new release. This week: Netflix has commissioned a new zombie movie, Army of the Dead, from slow-motion enthusiast Zack Snyder. There could be no better opportunity to return to his last adventure with the undead, at the (as it were) dawn of his career.

To remake George A. Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead took an ungodly amount of hubris. It is the single film that, more than any other in existence, defines whatever it is we think about when we think about what the term "zombie films" refers to; in a horror subgenre that has been unusually prolific in the decades since Dawn's 1968 predecessor Night of the Living Dead showed everybody how far you could go with cheap film stock and butcher shop cast-offs, it has the rare privilege of being agreed by just about everyone to be not just an exemplar of that genre but one of its finest masterpieces. Setting aside the fact behind every single remake that has ever been made - because producers, distributors, and exhibitors are very happy to have an established brand name do most of the the work for them, and do not give a shit if a film is an artistically worthy extension of that name as long as it's marketable - in order to avoid royally pissing off pretty much every single zombie fan that would constitute its target audience, a new version of Dawn of the Dead would more or less have to be the single best zombie movie of the 21st Century.

The amazing thing about the 2004 version Dawn of the Dead is that, a fifth of the way through the 21st Century, it seems to have more or less hit that target - "or less", because if you told me that I could only keep this or 2002's 28 Days Later, I would after much hemming and hawing pick the the other one. And I am for the sake of tidiness pretending that fellow 2004 Romero riff Shaun of the Dead doesn't count. In either case, though, it's a tight margin, much tighter than anything else in that entire generation of horror remakes would lead you to believe was possible. The 2004 Dawn is pretty much across the board the best we could conceivably hope for, doing nothing to besmirch the legacy of the original film while using its ingredients to create something pretty much entirely new and different, and extraordinarily entertaining taken solely on its own terms.

This is all the more impressive since the two people most individually responsible for that success were two more-or-less random hacks chosen by the rightsholders. The first of these was screenwriter James Gunn, who had spent the early part of his career in the 1990s at Troma, where he worked on a lot of projects and only officially signed his name to the script for 1996's Tromeo and Juliet. Which, to be fair, is one of the company's more highly-regarded titles (I don't like it at all, but I'm not a Troma guy), but it's still not much of a peg to hang your hat on, and his only big studio project up that point, the script for the 2002 live-action Scooby-Doo, could hardly be considered training to write an edgy, in-your-face update to a legendarily gory horror picture. Even so, he was practically an old hand compared to director Zack Snyder, whose career up that point had consisted entirely of music videos and television commercials. And there is a kind of shiny metallic veneer to Dawn of the Dead that suggests such a background; it's better than anything fellow advertiser-turned-auteur Michael Bay ever directed, but there's a similar "every close-up is a product shot" vibe to the way that the visuals feel like they all have been tied up to a dial marked "intense" "intenser" and "intensest".

The resultant film is successful in ways I frankly can't explain: the sarcastic gross-out meanness of Gunn's script and the almost prideful hollowness of Snyder and cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti's visuals (Leonetti being one of those solidly anonymous D.P.s who gets the job done whatever the job is - no man who shot both Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection, for the same director at that, can be accused of having a siganture style - but for the tiny window of time that produced this and 2 Fast 2 Furious, it felt like he might have a Thing going on) should work together to produce something awfully smug in an especially off-putting way. Instead, we get one of the most propulsive of all "running zombies" movies, as well as a shockingly good story about a group of isolated characters forging a community out of adversity. And the latter isn't just because the film has landed some ringers in the cast, like Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, and Mekhi Phifer. Among the biggest changes Gunn's script makes to the original is that has considerably expanded the cast of characters: instead of four people holing up in a shopping mall to wait out the zombie apocalypse, Dawn '04 gives us practically a whole village, and with the arguable exception of Rhames's cop Kenneth, presumably based upon and named for Ken Foree in the original (Foree gets the best cameo of all the people associated with the original, as a charismatic end-times televangelist happily declaring that this is all the fault of the liberals), there's no attempt to match any of these many figures to the original script, or to run them through the same events, except in the most general sense.

Indeed, while the 1978 Dawn is a cynical satire of culture as Romero saw it existing at the end of that decade, the 2004 film does away with social commentary of any but the most idle sort (the televangelist is probably the biggest satiric target it ever aims for), replacing it with, God forgive me for saying it, but basically a tribute to human endurance. The biggest trick the film plays is that, beneath all of the aggressive nihilism and violence - a bigger cast means more expendable meat - and beneath Snyder's gleaming surface of ice-blooded "coolness", Dawn '04 actually puts in a lot of work to make us care for the characters. They're all sketched out with just enough detail to feel like they have real backstories, even if we only get to hear much of those backstories from maybe four people tops, and somehow, the best members of the cast - obviously Polley in the first slot, with Rhames, Phifer, Jake Weber, and Ty Burrell all putting in credible arguments for #2 - raising their co-stars' work rather than simply standing above them. The film also gets a lot out of one of the fundamental screenwriting rules that a lot of writers seem to forget about: how the characters we already know react to new characters guides our impression of the new characters. And this is how, through Polley's yammering panic about killing people who might become zombies before they have become zombies, we get to feel a sense of terror on behalf of poor doomed Frank (Matt Frewer) from only the second time we meet him, which will also be the moment in which he will end up dead. To be sure, that's an easier trick to play when you have an all-star like Frewer on hand to give some depth to a character who appears in, I believe, a grand total of four shots. But the film does this again by making us feel simply horrible for a man whom we have only seen through binoculars, simply by focusing on Rhames grimacing in despair.

The point being: beyond all reason or even need, Dawn of the Dead does a superb job of making its humans feel recognisable and allowing us to empathise with their humanity, even when we don't have any reason to like them, while waiting for them to die horribly in one of the film's impressively well-mounted gore effects (which, like the characterisations, are much improved in the unrated DVD cut that pushes a 100-minute film up to 110 minutes, and makes for a superior film in every way). Horror films with loftier goals than this have struggled with that goal, and somehow Zack Snyder, of all directors, was able to nail it in his first trip to the big time. To be sure, most of the cast here are "well-developed for a zombie film", this isn't an ensemble from out of Chekhov. But the the simple, two-note emotions and easy-to-comprehend motivations that Dawn of the Dead provides for its whole cast, down to the more anonymous zombie bait, are exactly the kind of thing that pushes a genre film like this from palatable to genuinely good - hell, genuinely great even.

All of which shouldn't distract us from the fact that Snyder and Gunn are clearly looking to provide us with a big, splashy ride through violent action thrills (other than maybe its opening sequence, where Polley's Ana is startled by the sight of the neighbor girl (Hannah Lochner) chewing a big bite out of her husband (Louis Ferreira), the film isn't really dabbling in "horror"). And Dawn of the Dead amply delivers on this goal, right from the moment that Polley hobbles out of her house one terrible morning into a shot with a crazy wide-angle lens that turns the suburban intersection outside into a warped bubble of high contrast colors and chaotic blocking. And then comes the best opening credits sequence in Snyder's estimable career for such things (whatever else one thinks of his aesthetic, opening credits are consistently a strong suit), as Johnny Cash's recording of the apocalyptic, thundering "The Man Comes Around"Β  accompanies snatches of grungy stock footage of the world falling apart.

And from there we get to the shopping mall pretty quickly, and the filmmakers just start having all the fun in the world riffing on ideas from Romero and adding plenty of their own, using the expanded cast to offer up several new angles from which to look at the simultaneous terror and boredom of being in an enclosed, safe environment surrounded by a sea of mindless cannibals in every direction. It's a zombie film for and by zombie film fans, providing a series of "what would happen if?" moments, which all feel like they derive from the characters and not just genre conventions. Even the most bleakly nasty, like the "shoot zombies who look like famous people" game. The point being, it's a fun film, a brutal-hearted film, and even a thoughtful film, a mixture that many a zombie film down through the years has aimed for, and only the very best of the best arrive at. This is, in a weird way, the benefit of the brand of snottiness Snyder and Gunn bring to bear: the content takes care of the brutality, while the style and tone add the fun. And the thoughtfulness? That's the pure blessed X-factor that, against all odds, raises Dawn of the Dead v.2 into the top ranks of its genre, a triumph matched by no other 21st Century horror remake I can name.