Back From the Dead: The Best Horror Remakes

I’ve made this argument before here on this hellish collection of rambling, incoherent thoughts I call a blog, but I’ll say it again: As a general rule, I hate remakes. It’s the absolute bottom of the barrel in terms of sheer creative bankruptcy. It’s a studio and a collection of writers, producers, directors, and actors all getting together and saying “Hey, we don’t have a single original thought between us anymore, let’s just redo something that we already did and make it worse!”

It’s the most unnecessary form of filmmaking imaginable, and almost always results in a product that is vastly inferior to the original. And it seems to happen a lot in horror. For a while in the early 2000s, it seems like every single major franchise within the genre was remade, rebooted, or reimagined. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street all received the remake treatment, and were all absolutely god-awful.

On the rare instances where a remake actually surpasses the original film, it’s usually a case where the story was more of a re-adaption of the same source material rather than a straight remake. John Carpenter’s The Thing, for example, is widely considered to be a remake of the 1954 film The Thing From Another World, yet is more accurately just a new take on the novella that the previous film was adapting, Who Goes There?. Likewise, the most recent versions of It and The Invisible Man, while both excellent, are not so much remakes of their namesake earlier films, but rather more modern attempts to adapt their literary source material to the big screen.

But sometimes, once in a blue moon, when the stars are aligned and the Cinema Gods are feeling uncharacteristically generous, a remake will appear that isn’t actually a flaming pile of garbage. This doesn’t have to necessarily mean that it’s better than its predecessor, but that it manages to hold its own against it. Maybe it’s a straightforward retelling an original film, or maybe it diverges onto its own path while retaining the basic concepts of the film that came before it. Either way, there have been a few horror films that have managed to revive dead franchises and films not only tastefully, but in an exceptionally well-done manner that impressed both new audiences and longtime fans alike.

Let’s take a look at a few of those diamonds in the proverbial rough, rare gems in a sea of cheap, lazy cash-grabs:

Dawn of the Dead

Hell has completely frozen over, because I’m about to compliment a Zack Snyder film. Yes, this 2004 remake of George Romero’s 1978 classic is actually pretty stellar. Snyder’s first outing as a director, and backed by a solid, darkly funny script by a pre-Marvel James Gunn, Dawn is one of the slickest, most polished zombie films of an era where they became the most over-represented, market-saturating horror subgenre in pop culture. The timing was great for the film, as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later had just rejuvenated the zombie craze 2002, and it hadn’t quite hit the wall that it eventually would in later years. Both a faithful retelling and clever update on the original, the film deals with the same overall plot concerning a group of survivors holing up in a local mall while a zombie apocalypse rages outside. While not as bitingly satirical as Romero’s version, and lacking in any real depth as far as its characters are concerned, it’s still an absolute blast to watch on a technical level. It’s a shame that Snyder would eventually devolve into what he ultimately became as a filmmaker (seriously, compare this to his most recent flick, Army of the Dead, and it’s a night and day difference), because Dawn of the Dead is about as promising a start as a person can have.

Fright Night

The original Fright Night, released in 1985 by Tom Holland (no, not that one) in his directorial debut, is one of the most beloved cult-classic horror-comedies of all time, spawning a sequel (with talks currently happening of a third), comics, and a fantastic documentary about the film and its fanbase. Typically, when a studio decides to remake something so beloved, it can pretty much only end in disaster. And yet, against all odds, Fright Night managed to revive itself from the dead in spectacular fashion, not only honoring the original, but updating it and refreshing it in such a way that made it unique and justified its existence. Loosely adhering to the plot of the original, the film follows a teenage boy who discovers his next door neighbor is a vampire, and seeks out washed-up B-movie actor Peter Vincent (played by the delightfully hammy Roddy McDowall) to help him put an end to the bloodsucker’s reign of terror. The remake embraces the comedy of the original in a much dryer, much more modern way, swapping more obvious comedy gags for snappy, sarcastic dialogue and meta self-awareness in a post-Twilight age where vampires are a bit less spooky in popular culture. But the real highlight here is the cast: Anton Yelchin (a genuine talent gone before his time), Toni Collette, Colin Farrell, and my personal favorite, David freaking Tennant as Peter Vincent, reimagined as a Chris Angel-esque Vegas shock magician. It’s funny, it’s surprisingly sincere, and its as tense and fast-paced as you’d hope a vampire-killing horror movie would be. This is easily the most fun film on this list. Plus, you know, David Tennant in leather pants.

The Crazies

Another George A. Romero remake, The Crazies takes the basic premise of the 1973 original, that of a small town finding itself exposed to a secret government virus that causes rage and insanity, and expands upon it in all the best ways. The original, like many films of the era, was held back by a miniscule budget and was ultimately a commercial failure, eventually becoming a cult film over time. With much more money behind it, the remake instead had everything it needed for a full-scale, mayhem-filled playground to go nuts in. The result is a relentless, energetic thrill ride that hits the ground running early on and never slows down for a second. It’s all the best parts of a zombie movie and a slasher all rolled into one, as the residents of a small farming town in Iowa begin to violently terrorize our horrified protagonists while the US military struggles to keep the incident contained and out of media attention. Reinvigorated with post 9/11, Bush-era distrust of the US government, the film hits much harder on the social satire as than the original, which is saying something considering the 1973 film was released when Vietnam was still fresh in everyone’s minds. Backed by a stellar cast, including the effortlessly cool Timothy Olyphant of Deadwood and Justified fame, The Crazies is a smart, exciting horror experience that checks nearly every box imaginable for a film of its type.

Child’s Play

By all accounts, I should hate this movie. It should be terrible. After all, nearly every other major remade/rebooted/retooled slasher franchise, from A Nightmare on Elm Street to Friday the 13th, all ended in complete and utter failure. Studios (mainly Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes) seem to insist on making these remakes, all of which are based on very cheesy, campy 80s-era film runs, into dark, gory, overly-serious generic slasher films, robbing them of all the unique charm and personality that the originals possessed. And on the surface, the 2019 Child’s Play remake seems to do the exact same thing. The original film followed a young boy as he was hunted by a mass-produced kid’s toy possessed by a snarky serial killer with voodoo magic. Wacky, right? The original changes this to a Wi-Fi-connected smart-home toy that glitches and becomes homicidal. No voodoo, no wise-cracking, smart-ass psycho, just an angry Alexa with a kitchen knife. And yet, Child’s Play manages to compensate for these changes by being a smart, bitingly satirical takedown on consumerism, smart devices, and surveillance culture, all while crafting its own brand of humor and tone. And it’s got Aubrey Plaza. I don’t think this film should have been labeled as a Child’s Play remake, as it really shares disappointingly little with its namesake, but on its own merits, it’s a good time nonetheless. Where else can you see a doll voiced by Mark Hamill stab a guy and scream “This one’s for Tupac?”

My Bloody Valentine 3D

The last film on this list sort of teeters on the edge of what I was just complaining about in the last item on the list, slashers that get rebooted and lose all of their trademark style and charm. Only, this time, it’s thankfully the reverse. The original 1981 version was one of the seemingly endless Halloween knock-offs that appeared in the success of John Carpenter’s prototypical slasher film, all trying to claim their own holiday as a designated slaughter-zone (incidentally, Friday the 13th was one of these as well). My Bloody Valentine, while now considered a cult-classic (like virtually everything from the era, apparently), was a bland, unoriginal pastiche of cliché horror tropes and slasher stereotypes that should have frankly faded into obscurity. Which makes it such a bizarre choice to be remade by Lionsgate in 2009. But then again, I suppose if remakes are going to happen, they might as well be done with films that need it. Even more bizarrely, the resulting My Bloody Valentine 3D is actually a hell of a movie. Not good by any stretch of the imagination, the film knows exactly the caliber of entertainment that it is, and rolls with it in good spirits and a wry sense of self-awareness. It’s gory, its gratuitous, and there’s enough nudity to make Hugh Hefner blush, but in a way, that’s almost perfect for a campy ode to the slasher staples of yesteryear. Plus, with Jenson Ackles in the lead role, you can pretend it’s an extended, R-rated episode of Supernatural. The 3D gimmick, however, is pointless, and since virtually no one owns 3D TVs, is pretty much a non-factor at this point anyway.

Despite remakes happening all the time, it’s very rare that they end up being anything other than a stain on the legacy of their predecessors. There are others out there, of course, but I excluded a lot of them like the near-perfect 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake on the technicality that it’s a re-adaptation of a source material, rather than a straight-forward remake of the original film. And “rebootquels” like the 2018 Halloween are so complicated that I’d rather not open that can of worms right now.

But if you know of any more horror remakes that aren’t complete train wrecks, or maybe think that there are some that are unfairly judged and deserve more credit, I’d love to hear them!

As always, Happy Halloween!

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