I love horror movies. I love zombie movies. But more specifically, I love one very specific part.
I love the beginnings of zombie movies.
I love the inherent sense of dread at what we all know is coming. If the sequencing is done right, it’s a thrill to watch, with a few disparate, seemingly unconnected events and soon enough, it’s all going to shit. It’s quick. It’s brutal. It’s total. And best of all, you are never told why it is happening.
Zombies have often been painted as a metaphorical criticism of our own over-consumerism but I think it also functions as a demonstration of our own existential shelf life. That at any given moment, anything can turn on us and bring about a cruel and uncaring demise. The frailty of our own condition is really highlighted in the terrifying opening moments of any great zombie film.
Thanks in part to my indulgence of never being able to get to bed early, I was able to sit down and watch both mini series versions of Salem’s Lot through the course of the week. That’s right. I watched 6 hours of of Salem’s Lot… TOTALLY WORTH IT! I’d seen the 2004 before, but it had been years ago, and I’d seen parts of the 1979 original. As luck would have it, I was able to get my hands on a copy of the original ’79 film. The 2004 one was already in my collection.
It was nice being able to watch these amazing movies once again. First off, before we dig into the meat of the discussion here, lets talk a bit about the source material for these mini series’. Its an important place to start. Salem’s Lot, as for many of you I’m sure, is one of the pillar novels every horror fanatic reads. Even people who don’t like King, read Salem’s Lot. It’s a classic vampire tale told in a very traditional way, even more traditional some would say then Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. In all it’s glory, Salem’s Lot doesn’t have some black ink virus running amok, nor does it glitter in the sunlight, nor are there packs of ravaging monsters with shark teeth. Salem’s Lot is about evil incarnate taking form in a small town that from the outside seems idyllic, but for those who walk its streets and call it home, its nothing idolize.
Here’s a short synopsis of the legendary book:
Author Ben Mears returns to ‘Salem’s Lot to write a book about a house that has haunted him since childhood only to find his isolated hometown infested with vampires. While the vampires claim more victims, Mears convinces a small group of believers to combat the undead.
Cut and dry, and for a lack of a better word, each of the mini series’ captures the jest of what King wrote, though some more than others, I’d say. In in mentioning that, I’m begging my own question, just what are the differences?
Dynamic Verses Literal Translation…
Yup. That’s pretty much what the differences boil down to. The Tobe Hooper directed 1979 made for TV movie mini series was what I’d call a dynamic interpretation of the source material, meaning, the movie is not a word for word literal translation of King’s masterpiece. Tobe took the ideals of the book and made it into his own movie, which was to be frank, creepy as fuck.
Here’s a short synopsis of the 1979 Tobe take:
Ben Mears (David Soul) has returned to his hometown of Salem’s Lot to write a book about the supposedly haunted Marsten House that resides on a hill overlooking the small town. His project is curtailed, however, when he finds out that someone has bought the long-empty property. But when people around the Marsten House start dying mysteriously, Mears discovers that the owner of the mansion is actually a vampire who is turning them into an army of undead slaves.
Was it perfect?
No, what movie is…especially a King adaptation?
Some of the bigger differences from the book to the 1979 movie include a lot of marginalized characters, such as the priest and most of the town, though, you could argue that the town of Jerusalem’s Lot is more imaginative than the 2004 counterpart. Barlow is also a notable difference, Tobe seems to have wanted to go full Nosferatu in terms of the Master. I actually liked this version of Barlow more than in the suave 2004 version. The return of the Glick boys, I think, is also more terrifying in the 1979 take. And if we’re going to be honest, the 1979 movie was more terrifying.
So, what happened with the 2004 version?
Before we movie on, here’s a quick synopsis of the 2004 movie:
Ben Mears, a writer returns to the small Maine town of Jerusalem’s Lot (also known as Salem’s Lot), where he spent the first few years of his life, to write a book. Little does he or the townfolk realize that a couple of other new residents are coming…Straker, an antiques dealer, and his partner and master Barlow, a ancient and malevolent vampire bent on making Salem’s Lot his new home
The 2004 version was directed by Mikael Salomon, not a well known name among horror fans because as far as I know he’s never directed any horror movies, before or after. Salomon’s direction for the 2004 take of Salem’s Lot is what I’d call a literal translation. This mini series is the closest of the two compared to King’s original book. Some of the highlights that I enjoyed from this version involve the actors.
Donald Sutherland played a wonderfully creepy Richard Straker…maybe, to be hair, too over the top. A few other favorites include, James Cromwell as the priest, and Dud Rogers, the hunchback landfill guy who traded his handicap to become not just equals with his peers, but better. I will say this about the Priest character, neither movies got it right. I like the 2004 part slightly better only because I really enjoy seeing Cromwell on screen. What they did to his character though, especially at the end…is the most annoying thing abut the redub. Even though he’s a very minor character in the mini series, I thought it was a wonderful part. And if we were to say anything comparable of the two takes on Salem’s Lot, its the focus on the characters. I thought both films did a marvelous job with that. And in fairness, perhaps the 2004 version actually brought in more of those characters than the 1979 one. The one character I could have done without was Rob Lowe. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but his narrations were buggy.
Overall, I think because of my particular tastes for classic films, my favor is leaning towards the 1979 version. Sometimes a literal translation of a book to film doesn’t always work, in fact, it hardly ever works. Was the 2004 entertaining? Yes. And I think you should at least watch it once. Was it better then the 1979 take? No. The 1979 film took the theme of the book but made it its own movie, giving the atmosphere a more chilling presence then the 2004 counterpart. The 1979 movie really gave me an impression that evil was coming into Salem’s Lot.
1979 = 5/5
2004 = 3/5
Often called The Hemingway of Horror, Thomas S. Flowers strives to create character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore dinner feasts to paranormal war thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was soon published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest writers who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow from Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.