Dawn of the Dead
Review by Mike Finkelstein
When Night of the Living Dead received a remake in 1990, the reasoning for it was sound: the original film almost immediately got tied up rights disputes and essentially went into the public domain the second it was released. The remake at least was owned by original creator George Romero and would allow him to turn a profit on that film, at the very minimum, whereas the original got re-released by just about everyone in all kinds of editions. A remake for that film was understandable.
The same can't be said for the original Dawn of the Dead. While that film saw a few different versions (an original American cut, a European cut, and then an Ultimate cut even later), the film was largely considered a masterpiece of zombie fiction and wasn't exactly calling out for any kind of remake. That hasn't stopped Hollywood before, of course, and any time there's a film sitting in the vault that seems old enough (a moving goalpost with a gap that seems to get shorter and shorter every passing year), out trots a new version of the film. The one hope fans could have had was that at least the film would be respectful to the source material.
And then along came Zack Snyder. At the time this film came out, Snyder wasn't yet known for the kind of hyper-stylized garbage that has become his calling card (in films like 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch and, of course, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). Hell, up until this point most of us hadn't really seen anything from the director who had mostly worked on music videos up until 2004. Sure, plenty of good directors have come from the music video scene and managed to crank out auteur-level work. As Dawn of the Dead would showcase, Zack Snyder is no auteur *not unless we really stretch the definition of that term farther than the English language was designed).
In the broad strokes the Snyder version of Dawn of the Dead follows the layout of the original. Both films start with the outbreak just beginning to happen, the world beginning to collapse. Our heroine here, Anna (Sarah Polley), end up fleeing from her husband and crashing her car in the woods as the zombies take over her neighborhood. After she ends up with a cop, Kenneth Hall (Ving Rhames), the two, along with other survivors, end up at the local mall where they hold up, living off the supplies in the building while the zombies steadily pour out into the streets and take over the city. But they all realize it's only a matter of time before their comfy home falls apart, either because they run out of supplies or simply because the zombies break in. So they have to find a way to escape and get to some kind of sanctuary before they all end up dead.
There are any number of issues with this film over the original. For starters, if you're looking for any kind of social commentary, something you'd figure would be a requirement for any film based on the Romero series of zombie stories, you're going to have to look somewhere else. There's no mention of mass consumerism, or of cops and their cruddy politics, or black vs. white issues. There's one guy that's just a little bit of a redneck, but even he is accepted as a hero eventually, so the film really doesn't have anything to say about anything, except maybe zombies are bad.
While we're on that topic, this is the film that made "fast zombies" a true part of the cultural landscape. While, yes, I know these creatures showed up before, with their history really getting traced even further back to the 2002 Resident Evil film and also 28 Days Later, in the latter they're rage-infected humans, not zombies, while the former is just a really stupid movie. No one expected fast zombies to be a real thing right up to the point Dawn of the Dead made them standard and the film became a big hit.
I know this probably sounds like the bitching of an "elite", and while I will admit I am a purist when it comes to zombies (and their relative speed), there's a horror to the slow zombies that the faster creatures lack. When they're slow they resemble us. Yes, they bite and feast on our flesh, but we're just one step removed from them. There's a sadness to a single zombie or two, slowly trudging along, having lost its sense of self. Meanwhile, in packs, there's an inevitable dread , a mounting horror that you're stuck and there's nothing you can do. The end is coming for you, one trudging step at a time.
With fast zombies you get none of that. There's no sense of humanity lost, no sense of "us, but less", and certainly no thing divide between us and them. Fast zombies are very much an "other" with no connection to us so we can't mourn their tragic loss or fear, with creeping dread, that we're slowly becoming them. They attack, quickly, and unstoppably, and there's no time to mourn the loss or even react because their attacks are over so quickly. That mounting sense of dread is lost in the wake of fast attacks and quick, frenetic cuts before we quickly move on to the next thing.
The argument, of course, is that "they sure look cool", and yes, there's an adrenaline rush to seeing a few zombies run at a survivor. This film, though, is packed with survivors that quickly get bumped off, one by one, as the movie drags on. And the thing about adrenaline is that it wears off; the initial shock of seeing the fast zombies quickly gives way first to "I've already seen this" before leading to total indifference. "Oh, look, survivors have been caught straying from the crew. They're gonna die. There's no hope." Instead of knowing how to build horror and let the tension mount, Snyder goes for the easy, flashy action sequences that barely make an impression once the first couple of attacks are done (especially once you realize Snyder only has so many tricks in his bag and will simply reuse them over and over ad nauseam).
The reason the film works at all isn't because of the direction, or the zombies, but because of the cast. It's an absolute coup that the film got Polley for the lead role as the actress is absolutely fantastic in everything she's in, but she also largely picks art house fare to appear in. This is probably one of the biggest movies she's ever starred in, and while she kills it the entire time you're watching her you're thinking, "you're too good for this movie." Actors like Ving Rhames and Mekhi Phifer are great in this film as well, but they made blockbuster movies regularly (especially back in 2004). Polley was a surprise and she absolute makes the film watchable with just her presence alone.
It's easy to see how much worse this film could have gotten without the right actors (and a specific actress) in the cast. The whole climax of this film is a mess, with Snyder's ADHD-adled direction going from one big smashy-blow up to another without any context or reason. The survivors blast through and impossibly large horde of zombies, escape to a boat, and then sorta get a happy ending (so long as you don't want the mid-credits ending). A lot of people you don't care about die in the process, no one really gets any kind of character, and it all amounts to nothing. So, really, it's just like every other Snyder film you watch.
And yet, I do find myself enjoying the film in many places, and it's all because of the cast. I lament the fact that these people had to be in a Snyder movie. I kind of wish Snyder had gotten a worse cast so we could have nipped his directorial career in the bud early. That or if we had just gotten a better director this decently okay film could have been a worth successor to Romero's original. It's neither so bad nor so good, and that's just a little sad, really.