Dawn of the Dead: Looking back at Zack Snyder’s feature debut
Smart, bleak update9
Anton Bitel | On 22, May 2021
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell, Michael Kelly, Kevin Zegers, Michael Barry
Where to watch Dawn of the Dead (2004) online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
It is 2004. The dust has barely settled from the impact of 9/11 three years earlier, and America is now at war abroad while struggling to achieve a bunkered return to normalcy at home, with a deep sense of anxiety and alarm, terror and trauma remaining. The world looks forever different. Civil liberties have been eroded by the Homeland Security Act, a regime not unlike martial law is in place, people no longer trust each other, paranoia rules, and nobody knows when or where the next attack might come. It was in this context that Zack Snyder’s feature debut emerged: a remake of Dawn of the Dead, George A Romero’s slyly satirical gore-fest from 1978. By coincidence, Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead would come out in the same year – but where Wright’s film was an affectionate spoof of Romero’s influential zombie sequel, Snyder and his screenwriter James Gunn would take an altogether more serious approach to reimagining the original’s mall-set mayhem.
“I just want the opportunity to change things,” says Andre (Mekhi Phifer) some way into Dawn of the Dead. He is talking about his desire to turn over a new leaf, to leave behind his criminal past and to become a better father than he ever had to the baby that his pregnant girlfriend, Luda (Inna Korobkina), is bringing to term. Yet his words might equally apply to the film itself, which honours the original while ringing the changes and forging its own path through the end times.
Like Romero’s film, Snyder’s features a jaw-dropping cold open, except this time, instead of a messy SWAT raid on a derelict urban tenement building, there is an outbreak that overnight transforms Milwaukee’s middle-class suburbia into a zone of chaotic pandemonium. Scott Reiniger, Ken Foree and Tom Savini, all of whom starred in the original, may have cameos in background TV broadcasts here, but they are playing completely different people, while the large ensemble of main characters here has been invented from the ground up as a random cross-section of American society, with no connection to Romero’s dramatis personae.
From the start we follow nurse Ana Clark (the ever excellent Sarah Polley), who proves a resourceful and ethically grounded protagonist through all the unfolding disorder. In her breakneck flight from the infected, she falls in with cop Kenneth Hall (Ving Rhames), jack-of-all-trades Michael Shaunessy (Jake Weber) and Andre and Luda, as they break into a nearby mall for shelter and supplies. There, they encounter a trio of security guards led by the extremely suspicious CJ (Michael Kelly), who initially wants to run the place like his own fascist fiefdom until he learns to trust others again. Not long afterwards they are joined by a ragtag truckload of other fugitives – including one of cinema’s great arseholes, Steve Markus (Ty Burrell) – and they also communicate (via rooftop signboards) with Andy (Bruce Bohne), who is trapped in his gun shop across the road.
Apart from the mall setting, and the reappropriation of a few iconic lines – “When there is no more room in hell,” Foree’s televangelist says, “the dead shall walk the Earth” – nothing here is the same. In Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero invented modern cinematic zombies as slow-shuffling flesh eaters that inexorably overwhelm their human prey through sheer numbers, but Snyder, taking a cue from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and before that from Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980), makes his undead run at speed in a murderous fury, so that contact with just one of them, let alone a rampaging crowd, is a highly dangerous frenzy of panic.
Romero went on the record many times with his negative view of the fast-zombie concept that became so popular in the Noughties thanks to Boyle’s and Snyder’s films, but it ensures that this remake is distinct from its nominal model, transforming the slow-burn tensions of the original into unrelentingly ferocious action. The zombie scenes in this film come with an intensity that would not be matched till Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [•REC], whose found footage take on zombies is in fact anticipated via the shakily diegetic camerawork of Snyder’s coda – a coda whose subjectivised presentation would also influence Romero’s own Diary of the Dead (2007).
There is a sequence here where all the survivors gather for a formal set dinner together and, for the first time, we get a glimpse of them sharing food, stories and laughter, easing into their old humanity. This is brought to a sudden halt by the lights going out, and then Snyder cuts between a deadly mission to restore the building’s power and scenes of Andre at the grotesque birth of his child, infected in utero by the bitten Luda. With the harrowing horror of these parallel events still burnt into viewers’ retinas, Snyder returns to a calm still-life shot of that dinner table, now abandoned, to underline the fragile grip on civilisation that has here been lost. It is an encapsulation of a broader strategy in the film to keep dangling the hope for escape and a return to normality before the characters and audience, only to take that hope away time and time again.
This is a narrative of dripping despair, where good and bad people alike engage in actions that prove futile in the face of the growling, snapping death moving in from all around – and any moments that show the characters relaxing or even having fun are doomed to be short-lived, as the catastrophe plays itself out to the bitter end. For the zombie plague that has rapidly turned most of the American populace into a baying mass of the undead may reveal in extremis the true character of those still living, and may even allow some of them brief flashes of nobility, heroism and redemption (or selfishness, cowardice and narcissism), but for the most part this apocalypse of infection intensifies everything by bringing mortality that much closer, so that even Andre’s paternal aspirations will be perverted by rotten circumstance. Andre’s baby drives the point home: here there is no future.
Snyder’s remake would be criticised for missing, in all its visceral thrills, the anti-consumerist subtext of Romero’s original – but the truth is that it comes with a different subtext, entirely tied to its own times. Its jarring, juddery opening credits show a macabre montage of writhing infected, chaotic urban scenes and confused news reports, and ends with the arrival of zombies at and in the White House, all to suggest an accelerated breakdown of American society – but the sequence begins incongruously with black-and-white footage of Muslims praying. It is a mirror to what was really triggering the insecurities of a beleaguered America in that post-9/11 context. The destructive rage of these brainwashed hordes, and the indiscriminately homicidal aggression that they bring without compunction against anyone who happens still to be breathing, reflect the anxieties of a once-confident nation engaged in an ill-defined “War on Terror” – a war that has everyone fearing everyone. Even if Gunn’s screenplay retains the line from the original asking “Why do they come here?” of the undead amassing in the forecourt, this mall is less an arena of rampant capitalism than a last desperate bastion of a country under siege both from without and within, no longer able to find a space where it feels truly safe. It is also a place of wrenchingly nightmarish horror – although the name of one of its stores, Metropolis, looks forward to another location where, in his later DC Comics films, Snyder would stage yet more existential threats to humanity.