I was a latecomer to zombie films, mostly out of terror, but also because there just weren't many memorable zombie movies coming out in the late 90s. Believe it or not, besides George A. Romero's Dead films, which I would discover a little while after my first viewing of Zack Snyder's 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, zombie movies and TV shows (non-existent in the 90s) weren't the cash cows they are today.
I'd say 28 Days Later's Rage-infected psychopaths are largely responsible for revitalizing this gruesome subgenre. Director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland saw a potential in this corner of cinema that had yet to be unlocked. While Romero, the father of the modern zombie film, used the apocalypse to comment on society's greed and prejudices, Boyle and Garland discovered more personal stories. How do you find the will to survive in a world where you might be forced to watch your loved ones die, try to kill you, or force you to kill them? That, coupled with the manic speed of Boyle and Garland's Rage zombies, is essentially what Snyder tried to inject into his remake of Romero's masterpiece.
These days, Snyder is a bit of a polarizing figure in geek culture. Comic book-inspired films, such as 300, Watchmen, and Man of Steel, have certainly raised his profile, but not necessarily for all of the right reasons. For a certain kind of moviegoer, those who love comics and don't want their beloved stories tampered with by big-name directors, Snyder is either a godsend or the hellspawn. He has a knack for filming panel-by-panel recreations of classic comic book scenes, but has also changed stories around to better serve his brutal movies. His heroes are often dark, grim subjects used to study morally gray areas. "Can a hero ever truly be pure at heart without first shedding his darkness?" Snyder seems to ask in his movies, especially in 2013's Man of Steel, where Superman is forced to snap Zod's neck "in order to learn that killing is bad."
This "punch first, ask questions later" mentality has earned him much grief from fans who feel Snyder has traded intellectual pursuit for meat-headed action. And it's true that his latest offering, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is out March 25, could further solidify his place as the ambassador of the "bro film," with its scowling superheroes, raging thunderstorms, and grim, desaturated colors, all to tell a story about godly punching bags. But despite how people might feel about Snyder now, his first film remains his crowning cinematic achievement.
Snyder's Dawn of the Dead isn't as much a remake as it is a re-imagining of the original. It has to be said that Snyder doesn't quite go for the thinly-veiled criticism of American consumerism that is Romero's thesis. About the only resemblance to the original is the remake's main setting (a mall), a couple of cameos, and some references to Romero's film, such as the one you can watch above. Snyder's Dawn of the Dead is purely an entertainment piece, full of outrageous set pieces, scary moments, and extravagant dialogue. And it's all the better for it, sandwiched in between 2001's 28 Days Later and Romero's 2005 Land of the Dead, as a fun popcorn flick, a movie that won't make you think as much as holler at the screen. If nothing else, Snyder deserves credit for directing a critically and financially successful horror movie remake, which is no small feat. (See: 2008's awful awful awful Day of the Dead remake, starring Nick Cannon, Mena Suvari, and Ving Rhames.)
All of the hallmarks of Snyder's later career are front and center in Dawn of the Dead: the brutal storytelling, the desaturated colors, and big action sequences. It makes me think that perhaps we'd be more kind to the director if he had stuck to horror movies. His style is certainly best suited for darker ventures. One only has to look as far as the opening of the movie, which is seriously scary stuff.
28 Days Later's opening section is famously unsettling for its shots of an empty London. The movie smartly builds the tension by making viewers wait for the monsters to pop out their nasty heads. In comparison, Dawn of the Dead is already chasing you down the street almost as soon as the curtains open. Snyder, like his predecessor, builds the chaos wonderfully in the opening twenty minutes. We get confused news reports, dead lovers, and pandemonium on the streets, as a little suburb in Milwaukee suddenly finds itself crawling with zombies. The main character, Ana (Sarah Polley), doesn't have time to wake up, think, collect cans of Pepsi for the road, or say goodbye to her husband, Luis (Louis Ferreira), before she's already crashed into a tree.
One of my favorite scenes in Romero's movie is in the broadcasting station, where news anchors and pundits and "experts" are all arguing about what the hell is going on in the streets. You watch reporters, cameramen, interns, and producers frantically running around the studio, pages of information blowing away behind them and coffee spilling on the ground, while this news network tries to keep American citizens informed. But are those citizens still watching? It almost feels like those sweaty newsmen, standing at their altar of information, are just trying to keep themselves busy.
In the case of Snyder's protagonist, she's not listening. The remake raises the tension by keeping us ill-informed. All we get are snippets of conversation at the hospital and the quick drone of the radio. Even the emergency news bulletin on TV is interrupted by shower sex. Snyder gives us just enough to know something is going terribly wrong, but not enough for Ana to prepare. Things are clearly not going to go well for her.
I kinda wish this movie were called "The Mall" or something, and not Dawn of the Dead, so that we wouldn't know what to expect when we start getting the hints. Well, except for a mall. Either way, the wait, which isn't much of a wait at all, is still scary.
As soon as shit hits the fan -- that little girl lunching on Luis' throat, Ana frantically climbing out of her bathroom window as her undead husband smashes his head through the door, gas stations exploding on the side of the road -- we get the rush of information in one of the greatest horror movie opening credits in cinematic history. Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around" is already terrifying, but when combined with those grainy news reports of the end of the world, it becomes a completely different monster. Images of people bowing in prayer are interspersed with lines from the Book of Revelation and the deafening cries of the undead. An official at the CDC answers questions while the pulse of a heart rate monitor slowly dies out in the background. There's nothing quite as chilling as when a reporter asks the official if the hungry psychopaths running around are alive or dead and he nervously answers, "We don't know." In a two-and-a-half minute credits sequence, shelters are compromised, bloody riots break out, reporters are eaten, and Capitol Hill is overrun. All while Ana sleeps.
The rest of the cast is introduced pretty quickly. Ving Rhames' badass Officer Ken looks like the guy who will ultimately save the day, the Ken Foree of the remake, while Mike (Jake Weber) becomes the voice of reason of the group. There's also the delinquent Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his wife, Luda (Inna Korobkina), who's pregnant. Which is pretty bad news for that baby.
I should mention that this film benefits greatly from the pen of James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), who wrote the screenplay. (Gunn reportedly left the project to work on Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, and Michael Tolkin and Scott Frank were brought in for rewrites, although they did not receive writing credits.) Through the years, Gunn has shown that he can balance large casts of characters in his movies, telling large stories while also focusing in on the more personal ones. Dawn of the Dead is mostly successful at this.
Ken wants to find his brother, who's evacuated to a quarantine zone at Fort Pastor. Andre wants to build a better future for his baby, whom he sees as the reason he was put on this zombie-infested Earth. Mike, a former TV saleman at Best Buy, used to be a dad, the thing he feels he was best at before the outbreak. Nicole (Lindy Booth) loses her entire family and becomes dangerously attached to a dog named Chips. Ana, as we already know, watches her husband turn into a cannibalistic monster.
One of the security guards at the mall, Bart (Michael Barry) hoped to have sex with "the fat chick at the Dairy Queen" before everything went to shit. Another security guard, Terry (Kevin Zegers), quickly replies, "Bart, dude, everybody's dead, okay? Your mom's dead. Your brother's dead. That fat chick at Dairy Queen? Dead!" scolding Bart for his insensitivity.
My point is that this movie tries to exploit every single angle on loss that it can, especially when it comes to family. Snyder and Gunn want you to know that every single character has lost everyone he/she loves, and in that way the characters become relatable and sympathetic, even if they are zombie movie archetypes in the end. Mind you, Dawn of the Dead isn't telling some epic tale of redemption, the will to survive, or anything fancy you might slap on as a tagline. This is an action movie, so the stories are very light, but they at least explore the personal repercussions of the apocalypse.
The mall itself poses less of a logistical problem than its older sibling. Romero's mall (Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania) is like a glass egg, begging to be cracked, which it eventually is by a group of bikers (led by Tom Savini, who was also the make-up and effects artist in the original and made a cameo in Snyder's remake). It's also full of zombies, unlike Snyder's mall in Milwaukee (which was actually an abandoned mall in Thornhill, Ontario that no longer exists), which is relatively safe and shatter-proof. The group in the remake doesn't have to do anything as fancy as clear out a horde or build a fake wall to hide its living space.
In fact, the mall doesn't present much danger at all. After clearing the three or four zombies and subduing the security guards, who don't take too kindly to their new patrons at first, the mall is relatively safe for the survivors. There are a few close calls, of course, including a cool scene where another group rams the back of a truck into the mall and uses the storage container to climb up to safer ground while the zombies give chase.
This second group brings with it one of the most terrifying old ladies in the history of zombie movies. Have you ever noticed the fact that no one ever knows what a zombie is, how you kill one or become one, in movies about the undead? Unlike vampire movies, where EVERYONE knows how to kill the creature, characters in zombie films can't even fathom the notion of such a monster. Snyder's characters learn how the infection is spread from the old lady, who dies from a bite wound and rises back up for one swift sprint across the mall. You can tell her face is completely computer generated, but that doesn't make it any less scary.
Frank (Matt Frewer), Nicole's dad, is quarantined after the group discovers he's been bitten. Ken is forced to put Frank down after he turns. The tragedy continues.
Nothing is as tragic as the zombie baby, though. This is another reason why Snyder, who hasn't revisited the genre since, is a perfect horror director. He seems to have an itch to go there. Remember that whole thing about Superman killing General Zod in Man of Steel? You shouldn't be surprised that Snyder doesn't shy away from the implications of Luda's pregnancy, although this is way more violent and terrifying than anything Superman could possibly do.
Andre and Luda's subplot, while not given too much screen time, proves to be the movie's most poignant. Whether intended or not, Snyder presents the fall of the American family in these violent scenes. To Andre, the baby represents a future for his family (and to us, society as a whole) and a chance to right his wrongs, to make something of his life. It's too bad Luda's been bitten, though. The baby is already tainted with the infection, already lost, like the world outside. Andre can't escape what's coming for him.
Earlier in the film, Andre has a moment of doubt while talking to Ken. He thinks that maybe he's being punished by God for his sons. Ken angrily replies that Andre only feels remorse for his past because he "saw Hell outside" and now Andre is afraid that he's going there. Rhames delivers one of the best, most Synder-esque lines of the movie in this scene, too: "Go in the stall, say five Hail Marys, wipe your ass, and you and God can call it even." I probably should've mentioned this a bathroom scene.
Anyway, through Andre's story, we get the sense that these characters are already in Hell, or at least some kind of demonic purgatory, waiting to succumb to the monsters outside. Their fates are inescapable.
Andre's final scenes are the most disturbing of the movie. He hides his wife away in a store, where he plans to see his dying wife's labor through, zombie or not. Eventually, he's forced to tie her to bed posts to keep her from attacking him. He rests his head on her bulging belly, as his baby kicks frantically inside her, trying to get past the flesh. No number of gruesome, cannibalistic deaths can compare to the gush of blood that spills out of Luda as the baby is born. As Andre holds the newborn in his arms, bundled up in a soft blanket, you almost feel a slight glimmer of hope that the baby's turned out fine.
Snyder uses a CGI baby for the infamous shot of the zombie's little gray face, yellow eyes piercing through the screen. Andre dies cradling the baby after being shot by another survivor, who also kills the zombified Luda. He lands on top of Luda's corpse, the baby still kicking and screaming in his arms. "You see?" Snyder seems to say, "One happy family."
I couldn't write a whole piece about Dawn of the Dead without mentioning Andy (Bruce Bohne), Ken's gun-toting pal from across the parking lot. The character isn't particularly important except for the fact that he has a gun store full of much-needed firepower. But he's also a neat trick. Andy's the only contact the survivors in the mall have to the outside world, and a glimmer of hope that there might be more people like him out there, surviving amidst all the chaos.
At first, Andy's just another guy on a rooftop, waiting for the military to rescue him. He watches along with the mall group as the last rescue helicopter zooms past them, unwilling to make a landing in zombie-infested territory. Later, he becomes Ken's stand-in for the brother he's most likely lost, and it's a cool idea to have them communicate via whiteboard. They play chess, a twisted version of Hollywood Squares, and just shoot the shit. It's almost surreal, like he's a mirage in the distance, a cruel trick being played on Ken, who obviously needs some brotherly comfort.
Ken eventually sends Chips on a mission to deliver a sandwich and a walkie talkie to a starving Andy, who's unfortunately bitten while fetching the dog. It stinks Andy doesn't make it in the end, but at least he gets a page's worth of lines before he dies. Andy and Ken get to hear each other's voices for the first and only time, although only one of them knows it. About a minute later, Andy writes one last message for Ken (see above).
If nothing else, Andy is most certainly a plot device used to move the story along to the third act. He's eventually the reason the group has to get out of the mall in such a hurry.
If it weren't for his later DC superhero offerings, Dawn of the Dead's final action sequence would be Snyder's most outrageous cinematic moment. The third act of the movie is basically one long action scene. Nicole's unhealthy obsession with Chips drives her to chase after the dog, driving the truck from earlier in the movie to Andy's gun store. She's not much of a fighter, though, and is forced to lock herself in a closet when she discovers Andy's turned into a zombie.
The group organizes a rescue mission by sneaking across the parking lot through the sewers below. This is a fast-paced action sequence, full of explosions and fancy shooting. Snyder's characters don't miss. There's a great tongue-in-cheek moment where one of the guys has broken his leg. One of the security guards, C.J. (Michael Kelly), is forced to drag his injured friend through the sewers while the zombies give chase. The guy being dragged shoots and curses at the approaching monsters, a pistol in each hand. It's just so good.
I would've loved to be in the room when Snyder and the writers were planning the climactic vehicle scene. It probably would've gone something like when Mike is showing Ana how he plans to mow zombies down from the side of the armored shuttle with a chainsaw. She sarcastically says, "Romantic," but Snyder and I say, "AWESOME."
In its final minutes, Dawn of the Dead lets go of the notion that it's a horror film at all and puts all of its chips on blockbuster action, as the group blazes through the streets of Milwaukee with two armored shuttles, chainsaws, propane tanks, and lots of guns. Snyder tries to exploit what he thinks is the film's emotional center, the end of Ana and Mike's very brief love affair (which never really develops into anything believable), as Mike is forced to stay behind at the marina after being bit while trying to save Ana from the zombies. But I don't think anyone actually cares for or even falls for that cheap bit of sentimentality. At this point, I just want the survivors to get to the yacht in time. The film fades to black on Ana's face, as Mike shoots himself in the head while watching the sunset.
According to DVD commentary from Snyder, the director added the end credit boat scene after preview audiences responded negatively to the abrupt ending of the original print. What this adds to the theatrical version of the movie is a final nod to Romero's film. The remaining characters—Ken, Ana, Nicole, and Terry—sail off into an uncertain future. Along the way, we see them run out of gas, smoke rising from the yacht's engine. A severed head in a cooler, chomping away at nothing, makes for one final gruesome moment. The characters eventually arrive in an island off of Lake Michigan where they're greeted by a lot of hungry residents. The movie ends for a second time, again with the sound of a gunshot accompanied by the mad cries of the undead.
On a budget of $26 million, a very humble amount compared to Batman v Superman's $410 million, Snyder scored a $102 million box office hit for Universal. Interestingly enough, Snyder co-wrote a sequel (with Joby Harold, writer of Awake) to Dawn called Army of the Dead, which was set to be produced by Universal and directed by Matthijs van Heijningen, who later went on to direct 2011's The Thing. The movie was set in a zombie-infested Las Vegas and would have featured "rapist zombies" who attack human females in order to breed "hybrid zombie offspring." So basically, I'm really glad this never made it to production.
I can't help but think that Snyder's success with Dawn of the Dead helped Romero get the funding he needed to make his ambitious Land of the Dead, the legendary director's first Dead film in twenty years. This fourth installment, which was also produced by Universal, remains the highest budgeted film in the series, at $19 million. It was a zombie renaissance, thanks to Boyle, Snyder, and Romero. It was around this time that a relatively unknown comic book writer named Robert Kirkman began to hit his stride on a creator-owned book called The Walking Dead. The rest, as they say, is a gruesome history.
Dawn of the Dead was ultimately a successful debut for a director who until 2004 had only directed commercials. In this movie, you can already find signs of what was to come in his later movies, especially Snyder's taste for big action setpieces, overwhelming grimness, and the notion that any film could be resolved with over-the-top violence. If you're sitting down to watch a Zack Snyder movie, more often than not it's best enjoyed with a big tub of popcorn. Not all good habits, as many fans will tell you, but they're the trademarks that have kept him on the A-list of Hollywood directors. There's definitely a place for his kind of movie. It may just not be in the superhero genre. But I'd welcome his return to horror any day.
Don't forget to listen to Den of Geek's Walking Dead podcast, No Room in Hell!