Let's get the comparison issue out of the way. Though I'm fairly sure that this will brand me as a boorish Philistine, I have to say that Quarantine, the 2008 American remake of [REC], the Spanish 2007 outbreak horror flick, is generally superior to the original.
No doubt my decision is partially influenced by the fact that I saw them in reverse order. I saw the remake first. Both films hit so many of the same notes, with almost exactly the same inflection, that the impact of whichever flick you see second is going to be muted. But, honestly, that only partially explains my disappointment with the original. More than a perhaps unfair sense of over-familiarity, what struck me about the original is how slight it is.
To explain this, a plot summary and a comparison between the two flicks might be helpful.
[REC] begins with a young Barcelona news reporter, Angela, and her cameraman, Pablo, doing the latest installment of the human-interest series: While You Sleep. This series follows around folks whose jobs drag them through the midnight hours the rest of us blissfully sleep through. This particular episode covers a firehouse. The reporter is assigned to tagged along with firemen, Manu and Alex.
After some "life-at-the-firehouse" footage, a call comes into the station. Manu and Alex are dispatched to a nearby apartment building to help an elderly woman who is, according to dispatch, trapped in her apartment. Angela and Pablo dutifully follow. Once they arrive, they find the residents of the building in a fit. The shrieking of the trapped woman has freaked them all out. Two police officers, who arrived before the fire truck, has tried to scope out the scene, but have been unable to enter the apartment.
The emergency personnel bust down the door and find the "trapped" woman. She's pale and dazed and, as soon as one of the cops gets close to her, she bites a big ol' hunk out of the officer's neck.
And everything starts going downhill from there.
The old woman suffers from an unknown strain of crazy-people disease that turns folks in 28 Days Later style violent madmen. Because the government can't risk the spread of the infection (as our prtogs were figuring out the disease inside the house, the health officials were following the evidence trail from an infected dog that was wigging out at a vet's office) the house is sealed off. Trapped inside, the uninfected must fight to stay alive until either help comes or they find a way to secret slip under the government quarantine.
For those who have only seen one version or the other, here's some of the bigger plot differences betwixt the original and the remake. Be warned, here be spoilers.
1. The cast of the Spanish version is smaller. There are fewer residents. Most notably, the gay resident who runs the attached textile business has, in the American version been broken up into two roles: the landlord and the gay opera instructor. The opera student from the American film has no Spanish equivalent. Max, the infected doggie, is mentioned in the Spanish film, but he's present and a threat in the American version.
2. The relationship between Angela and Manu is less involved then relationship between the lead firefighter and the reporter in the American flick. In the American flick, they start off playfully flirtatious and develop into a sort of cooperative team. Not so much in the Spanish flick.
3. In [REC], the government appears more plodding and incompetent that sinister. In the American film, the government ruthlessly threatens and then executes some of the film's victims as they try to bust out of the apartment building.
4. There are fewer "escape" attempts in the Spanish film. In the American version, the trapped protags cook up two or three different schemes to get out of the building. In the Spanish film, only one of these plans – escape by sewer drain – ever features as a plot point.
5. In the American film, the fact that the government cuts the building's power and communications is a big deal. Part of the plot involves the prtoags puzzling out for themselves what exactly is going on. In contrast, the government acts as an explication device in the Spanish film, communicating needed information through the cop.
6. The doomsday cult responsible for the creation of the super-rabies plague in the American film is replaced with a vague Vatican cover-up plot. Some have suggested that the infection in Spanish flick is supernatural in origin, a theory that tenuously supported by news clippings that suggest the disease's "Patient Zero" was initially thought to be demonically possessed. I personally don't see it. Rather, I think the implication is that the Vatican stumbled across a girl who became a kind of religious celebrity. They found out she wasn't a miracle, but just hinkied up with some weirdo disease (which the screenwriters repeatedly call an enzyme in defiance of germ theory). Fearing fallout, they hid her away for study. If the doomsday cult of Quarantine didn't satisfy you, the ending of [REC] is even less sensible.
Visually, the films are curious in that both make compromises with their loyalty to the first person/real time horror concept, but the makers of each version decided to make distinctly different sacrifices. The Spanish film has the matte, flat look of a real local television show. By relying on natural lighting, on-location filming, and muted digital colors, and keeping their shot set ups shallow with a steady focus on the close and mid-range, the Spanish film was really made as if it was intended to be shown on the small screen. In contrast, the cameraman in the American film seems to be working with a film camera on a set. The American film combines the lush lighting design, evocative and clever sets, and a deep color palate for a look that, while pleasing to the eye, couldn't be mistaken for found footage. Though, oddly, when it comes to staying true to the first person shtick, the Spanish flick barely bothers while the American flick busted its hump to maintain the illusion. By the 20-minute mark, the Spanish flick is throwing in montages, cutting out footage to keep the pacing tight, and otherwise throwing out the conceit that "you are there." (Frustratingly, the Spanish flick seems undecided on whether or not the camera is indeed digital or tape – like the magical devices that littered Diary of the Dead, it behaves like both when the filmmakers needs a certain effect.) In contrast, the American version works extensively with disguised cuts and swipes to avoid the sense of that anything beyond the most basic "editing in camera" is going on. The American version is also less fond of inexplicable sonic artifacts. The Spanish film plays pretty fast and loose with the aspect of first-person sound, including several incidents where the camera is recording sound even though it appears otherwise to be off. When the Spanish film loses sound, it seems like a nakedly "artistic" move; when the American movie plays with sound, there's almost always some obvious diegetic reason. Indeed, one of the main reasons for American film's extended flirtation and background scenes in the firehouse is set up ground rules for the camera's behavior, visually and sonically.
Though, honestly, the plot differences and differing visual approach aren't what win me over to the American film. Instead, it's the narrow intensity of the Spanish original that goes beyond narrative efficiency into a brutal reductionism.
The directors of the Spanish original, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, claim that their film was built to be "pure adrenaline." To achieve this effect, Balagueró and Plaza keep their story lean and plot-driven. The fashion a rollercoaster ride of a flick at the cost of characterization and thematic richness. Their movie is very much a movie about placing the viewer into the middle of an event. That event, and not the people in it, is the central focus of the movie. The results are not all the dissimilar from a video game. The American film, which adds just 11 minutes to the overall screen time, efficiently adds gravity to characters we meet. They have friendships and blondspots, flaws and surprising strengths. We don't want them to escape because that would "win" the movie. Rather, we don't want to see real people suffer. With out bloating the film unnecessarily, the American version teases out themes about cooperation, the meaning of family, and even achieves minor hints of tragedy.