Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Director : Zack Snyder
Screenplay : James Gunn (based on a by George A. Romero)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Sarah Polley (Ana), Ving Rhames (Kenneth), Jake Weber (Michael), Mekhi Phifer (Andre), Ty Burrell (Steve), Michael Kelly (C.J.), Kevin Zegers (Terry), Michael Barry (Bart), Lindy Booth (Nicole), Jayne Eastwood (Norma), Boyd Banks (Tucker), Inna Korobkina (Luda), R.D. Reid (Glen), Kim Poirier (Monica), Matt Frewer (Frank), Justin Louis (Luis), Hannah Lochner (Vivian), Bruce Bohne (Andy)
The only things that George A. Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead and the new remake by music video director Zack Snyder have in common are (1) there are flesh-eating zombies taking over the world and (2) a group of human survivors take refuge in a shopping mall. That’s where the similarities end, which is why it’s probably best to view this remake as a separate entity from the original—if you want to get any pleasure from it, that is.
That won’t keep those who know and admire the sharp, witty, blood-soaked satire of Romero’s masterpiece from finding the remake shallow by comparison. The new Dawn of the Dead is a product of modern Hollywood, which is big on delivering thrills and reluctant to infuse too many “big ideas” into the spectacle, whereas Romero’s film was a product of the late-1970s independent scene, where the tenets of traditional genre films were often reworked and embedded with scathing social satire. There are a few brief traces of the original’s wit in the remake, but they are scattered and often undermined by the movie’s distrust of its audience. For example, after escaping a hoard of zombie attackers, a group of survivors find themselves in the silly position of riding in an elevator playing the worst sort of Muzak one could imagine. In the original, such a moment would be a joke in itself, but the remake doesn’t trust the audience to get it, so one of the characters has to point it out by saying, “I love this song.”
Screenwriter James Gunn, a graduate of Troma Films (he wrote 1996’s Tromeo and Juliet) who was also responsible for hacking out the script for the live-action Scooby-Doo (2002) and its upcoming sequel, drops most of Romero’s satirical subtext in favor of a straight-up action/horror hybrid. The movie starts off on all the right notes, introducing us to one of the main protagonists, a nurse named Ana (Sarah Polley) who goes home after a long shift, makes love to her husband, and wakes up the next morning to find the world turned upside-down. Once Ana escapes from her house (her husband is turned into a zombie after being attacked by the zombified little girl from down the street), the real horror begins to set in as she drives through a vision of American suburbia gone to hell.
The perfectly blue sky, flawless green grass, and tastefully middle-class brick homes make for a pointed backdrop to the spread of utter carnage as the quickly multiplying zombies turn a banally peaceful neighborhood into a war zone. It’s an apocalyptic scene that, given the realities of a post-9/11 world, feels that much more frightening. (When Ken Foree makes a brief cameo as a televangelist and repeats his line from the original “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead walk the earth,” it has a real chill to it.)
Ana eventually connects with several other people, including Kenneth, a hardened police officer (Ving Rhames); Andre, a gangbanger (Mekhi Pfeiffer), and Luda, his very pregnant wife (Inna Korobkina); and Michael (Jake Weber), the kind of decent everyman who always has the right suggestions and can be counted on for resilience in the worst of circumstances. The members of this ragtag group make their way to a local shopping mall, where they run into a trio of security guards led by C.J. (Michael Kelly), who wields a gun and has absolutely no patience or sympathy for others. Eventually, another group of people arrive, and the mall dwellers also develop a long-distance relationship with a gun store owner several blocks away via binoculars and holding up signs.
The middle section of the movie takes place within the mall, as this disparate group of survivors attempts to form some kind of community while keeping the increasing hoards of enraged zombies at bay outside. The mall, of course, provides as perfect a refuge as any, replete as it is with supplies and food. This is not enough, however, to maintain the peace within the community, especially once one of the newcomers, a yuppie schmuck named Steve (Ty Burrell), makes it clear that he plans to go home with the biggest jerk award. Andre also complicates matters when he hides the fact that Luda has been bitten (and thus infected, meaning she will eventually die and become a zombie) and allows her to give birth in her zombified state (the gender horror in this scene—with the birth after death turning pregnancy into the ultimate abjection—is one of the remake’s strongest additions).
First-time feature director Zack Snyder gives the movie plenty of style, perhaps too much. His overreliance on slow motion and his hammy fetishizing of guns frequently aligns the movie more with testosterone-driven action flicks than the horror genre. He also packs the frame with a few too many references to other movies, some of which work better than others. The relationship between the mall survivors and the gun store owner owes a debt to Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), particularly in the gripping scene where we hear everything that’s happening in the store over a CB radio, but, like the characters, are powerless to see what’s going on, much less do anything about it. And, once the survivors outfit a couple of shuttle buses with reinforced sides, barbed wire, and heavy artillery, the movie morphs temporarily into a Mad Max clone.
Of course, the first thing people will notice is how indebted Dawn of the Dead is to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2003), which reinvented the zombie film (to use the marketing slogan) by reimagining the reanimated corpses not as lumbering, reactive sloths who eventually win through persistence and sheer numbers, but as frighteningly fast, proactive attackers. This makes for some truly scary horror, but it also deprives the film of the nuance Romero was able to instill in his zombies, who were alternately frightening, sad, repulsive, and even pathetic. These remake zombies certainly look better, but they are never anything other than bloodthirsty killers on the rampage.
For the most part, Gunn’s screenplay maintains a sensible level of intelligence., with characters responding in an understandable manner to their outrageous circumstances. Unfortunately, when the time lag between zombie attacks gets a little too long, Gunn gives a character something really stupid to do that is guaranteed to result in some bloodshed. The most egregious of this is a girl who steals one of the buses and drives into a zombie maelstrom for the inane purpose of saving a dog. Granted, this girl has recently lost her father and, I suppose, we are intended to believe that this dog, who has been on-screen for all of two minutes, is her new familial stand-in, but c’mon. It’s just dumb enough to jerk you out of an otherwise compulsively watchable movie and make you start questioning, which is never a good thing.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright ©2004 Universal Pictures Inc.