Dawn of the Dead (2004)
“36 billion people have died since the reign of humanity. For the new Dawn, there’s a reunion…”
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer
Synopsis: A nurse, a policeman, a young married couple, a salesman, and other survivors of a worldwide plague that is producing aggressive, flesh-eating zombies, take refuge in a mega Midwestern shopping mall.
You’ve got to admire the nerve of Zack Snyder, taking on Dawn of the Dead, the remake of George Romero’s classic 1979 sequel to the seminal Night of the Living Dead, the movie which changed the face of horror cinema. It must have been a daunting prospect, especially given the hostility with which Hollywood remakes of classic movies are generally received by both critics and audiences, but Snyder showed no caution in stamping his own style on the 2004 version from the outset.
A nurse named Ana finishes her shift at a Milwaukee hospital and returns to her suburban home, stopping on the way to share a few words with a young girl, a neighbour keen to show off her rollerblading skills. After enjoying a date night with her husband, Luis (Justin Louis), which sorts of distracts their attention from the news reports of a strange virus gripping the country, the couple settle down into a slumber that will be the last peaceful ones of their lives. The following morning, Luis awakens to find that young neighbour standing in the shadows at the bedroom doorway. When he moves towards her, the girl leaps forward, momentarily revealing the blood smeared around her mouth and the deathly white skin of her face before sinking her teeth into his throat.
Luis dies while Ana is seeing off the girl, but before she even has a chance to deliver any kind of resuscitation he’s back on his feet and looking for a chunk of meat to munch on himself. Ana makes it out of the house and walks into a depiction of suburban hell in which terrified neighbours are chased down by the kind of zombies who could give Usain Bolt a run for his money, and speeding ambulances slam into anyone unlucky enough to get in their way. As Ana drives away from this carnage, hotly pursued by the zombie which was once her husband before his attention is distracted by screams from elsewhere, Snyder steps back from the horror and shoots from high above the road on which she drives, and we see from this bird’s eye view a vehicle overrun a junction, piling into another car and then into a petrol station which goes up in a huge explosion.
All this before the cool opening credits which announces the resurrection not only of Romero’s franchise but the resurgence of interest in the zombie sub-genre which shows no sign of abating nearly ten years later. The pace of Snyder’s movie hardly ever lets up, with Ana soon hooking up first with a burly police officer (Ving Rhames — who has found it impossible to shake off the ghost of Marcellus Wallace) and then with three others — Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his heavily pregnant wife, Luda (Inna Korobkina), and Michael (Jake Weber), a nondescript type who shows an unexpected resourcefulness and ability to adapt to the horrific changes they all face. Together, they head for the apparent sanctuary of the local shopping mall, where they now face, in the form of three security guards led by the over-zealous C. J. (Michael Kelly), another threat, which, in the short term at least, proves even more menacing than the ever-growing hordes of zombies outside. C. J. reluctantly allows them access to the mall, but only at gunpoint, and locks them up in one of the shops overnight.
The satirical nature of Romero’s film, in particular the metaphor of zombies as symbols of mindless shoppers seduced by the dubious attractions of mass consumerism, is well documented, but it’s almost entirely absent in Snyder’s version of Dawn of the Dead. In fact, Snyder goes to the opposite extreme by having those trapped in the mall — whose numbers rise to double figures — as the zombies congregate outside, enjoying the treasure trove of material goods on offer in a humorous montage sequence. It’s a wise move on Snyder’s part. The comparison was old hat by 2004, and any attempt to incorporate it would have been at odds with the Snyder’s clear intention of creating a re-imagining of the original rather than a straightforward remake. In 2004, the mall is simply nothing more than a convenient location for our survivors to regroup and for us to get to know them a little better.
The odd thing about zombie movies is that they nearly all seem to take place in worlds in which zombie movies don’t exist, meaning that the survivors are learning the rules as they go along. In a way it ratchets up the tension — we know that, at any moment, that fat woman who’s just died from a zombie bite, is going to wake up hungry, but the characters blithely turn their back on her without a second thought. Until the final twenty minutes or so, the survivors do little that stands out as being standard-issue stupid: for example, they don’t split up to investigate remote areas of the mall in which a stray zombie might be lurking.
But then, all of a sudden it’s as if they’ve become infected with a virus of their own; one that sees a character venture out into an area crawling with zombies in order to rescue a dog in which we — and she — have already learned they have no interest; one that tempts them out of the total safety of the mall, with its huge supply of everything they could ever need until and beyond the time when the zombie’s become so enervated (or rotted) as to no longer pose a threat; one that sees them allow Ving Rhames to drive the big bus in which they make their escape — because that dude can’t drive for toffee.
Nevertheless, despite this sudden drop in the characters’ IQ levels — which presumably arises out of writer James Gunn having to find some way of getting them back into the path of danger — Dawn of the Dead delivers a fast-moving and enthralling horror movie which is both more tightly plotted and better acted than its venerable ancestor.