Zack Snyder Reveals the Valuable Lesson He Learned From Making Dawn of the Dead

Exclusive: Zack Snyder reflects on his Dawn of the Dead remake 20 years later and what he still loves about it.

Zack Snyder and zombie corpse in Army of the Dead
Photo: Netflix

It was an initially groan-inducing idea 20 years ago: a remake of George A. Romero‘s 1978 zombie classic Dawn of the Dead. That film was arguably the Romero’s masterpiece, a biting satire about American consumerism that still feels relevant today. But the Zack Snyder version that followed turned out to be much more worthy of the Dawn name than anyone expected from a director making his feature film debut.

More of a reimagining than a traditional remake, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead was a gorier, balls-to-the-wall action flick featuring zombies that didn’t just shamble down the post-apocalyptic street but sprinted across them (taking a page from 2002’s 28 Days Later), turning these classic monsters into a scarier and more gruesome threat than ever before. Written by James Gunn and filmed in Snyder’s gritty style, the movie is a more surface-level entertainment that strays from the themes of the more layered original. Still, it’s become a classic of the genre in its own right. Not only did it kickstart a whole new era of zombie movies and TV series in the States, including Romero’s own return to the genre for the seriously underrated Land of the Dead, but also Snyder’s eventful career in Hollywood. It’s also, in this writer’s humble opinion, still his best film.

On March 19, Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead celebrated its 20th anniversary, so when Den of Geek sat down to chat with Snyder via Zoom ahead of the Netflix release of the second part of his sci-fi epic Rebel Moon, we had to take a minute to get down with the sickness and get his thoughts on the movie all these years later.

Although Snyder is known for reworking his finished films and re-releasing them as director’s cut — including the upcoming director’s cuts of his Rebel Moon movies, which will be longer, darker, and take place in an alternate universe — Snyder reveals he’s not interested in doing the same for Dawn of the Dead.

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“There’s nothing I would change because it’s very much the movie I made at the time and it completely satisfied what I was trying to do,” the director says.

Dawn of the Dead remains Snyder’s highest-rated film on Rotten Tomatoes to date, with a 76 percent “Certified Fresh” score, and it’s no secret that the director’s work since then has divided critics and audiences. Interestingly, you can already see in Dawn many of the qualities that now define his brand of filmmaking: the grimdark tone and ending, the emphasis on violence and brutality, the (not-yet-so-extreme) desaturated color palette, and his love of ensemble casts. But Dawn also features a surprising amount of levity and a dark sense of humor; it’s free of the CGI-heavy slow-motion action sequences of his later films; and it’s not concerned with recreating the original shot-for-shot, unlike his comic book adaptations, which at times go to great pains to copy specific panels from The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen. Dawn feels like the work of a director who isn’t overthinking it or trying to deconstruct horror tropes, and just having a lot of fun with the material.

But what does Snyder himself say he’s proudest about when looking back at the film that began his feature film career?

“The thing I’m proudest of is that, even though it was a genre film made for a studio, and low budget, I still feel like I made an unexpected movie,” Snyder says. “I didn’t clean it up too much. You know what I mean? Like how a modern remake can sometimes sanitize an idea.” Snyder explains that his goal with Dawn of the Dead was to make something that still felt like the “cult movie” from ’78 and not just something “more glossy and more Hollywood.”

He continues, “I feel like I really resisted that as best as a I could with the studio, and in the end they understood that’s what I was trying to do. Make something that had that cult quality feeling. That’s what I am most proud of.”

According to the director, the film also taught him a valuable lesson about storytelling that he carries with him to all of his projects.

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“The thing I learned most from making that movie was that tone is everything,” Snyder says, tying in that valuable lesson to what fans should expect from his upcoming director’s cuts of the Rebel Moon movies: “That’s the exercise I’ve just gone through with Rebel Moon. It’ll be really exciting for audiences to see the two alternate universe Rebel Moon movies and understand the tonal difference between the two movies. Tone is such an incredible part of it.”

After several detours, Snyder finally returned to the zombie genre with 2021’s Army of the Dead, his first film for Netflix. His long-awaited follow-up to Dawn takes place on a Las Vegas strip overrun by the undead and follows a group of mercenaries led by Dave Bautista’s Scott as they attempt to pull off the heist of a lifetime in the middle of zombie territory. Oh, also the zombies fuck now. Despite a much lighter tone than his controversial DCEU movies, Army never quite reaches the heights of its predecessor, bogged down by distracting stylistic flourishes like the dreamy blur effect that accompanies many of its scenes, the result of Snyder’s choice to use lenses from the 1960s.

But one thing’s for sure: Snyder had a hell of a lot fun shooting that world, which may or may not also involve time travel and parallel worlds, cyborg zombies, and the Devil. Like with Dawn, he has no plans to make a director’s cut of Army. This is the movie he wanted to make from the start.

“[Netflix] just let me off the chain and I just made that crazy zombie flick and it was just fun. It’s just completely bonkers.”

Rebel Moon Part 2: The Scargiver hits Netflix on April 19.