by Steve Habrat
By now you probably understand that I believe George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead is a towering achievement in independent and blockbuster filmmaking. It’s so sprawling and was achieved with very little. When the recent fixation with horror remakes started to show their ugly mugs, I crossed my fingers that Dawn of the Dead wouldn’t be touched. I had seen what Tom Savini did to Romero’s first outing with the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. Inevitably, the news came that Dawn of the Dead would be getting a makeover, and it came as a personal blow. How can they do this to a classic? It’s like remaking The Exorcist? Any real fan of Romero would oppose this blasphemous decision! I sulked to the theater after school on a cool spring day to be a witness to this travesty, eager to see what new they’ve done with the classic and nervous about what they got wrong. I heard that the original cast members make small appearances, it was more action packed, and not as bright as the brainy original. The lights went down in the surprisingly packed theater, the opening moments flashed across the screen, a CGI model of the original film’s helicopter glided through a war zone, sprinting zombies dashed around like marathon runners, and then came the stock footage heavy opening credits set the apocalyptic moans of Johnny Cash. I couldn’t believe my eyes. They were getting it right and giving it it’s own hellish life.
I have to applaud director Zack Snyder, who seems to be a big fanboy at heart, for respecting the original film. He had the decency to make a film with some thought and originality rather than lazily making a shot for shot duplication of a film that was already good enough. Some people like shot for shot remakes, but in terms of a horror film, if you’ve seen the original and then you see the shot-for-shot remake, there is absolutely nothing in the way of surprise. There is plenty to be surprised about in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, a thrashing and teeth gnashing zombie film that is both undeniably freaky and coated with a thin layer of black humor. One moment you’ll be giggling over a sniper sequence, in which characters pick which zombies to shoot from the roof of the mall based on their resemblance to celebrities and the next moment, your knuckles will be white for a thrilling rescue mission that turns into a chaotic escape through a sea of zombies. The film should be described as a roller coaster ride, but the misstep of the film is the blatant lack of a social commentary. The consumerism exploration is only touched upon, seemingly to satisfy those who enjoyed the underlying message of the original, but then it’s back to entertaining the screaming tweens in the front row who snuck into it.
Dawn of the Dead ’04 begins with what could very well be the best opening sequence in any motion picture in the last ten years. Nurse Ana (Played by Sarah Polley) arrives home after a long day in the ER, where an unusually large number of people are being admitted for strange illnesses and bites. The next morning, the little neighbor girl awakes Ana and her husband while lurking in their bedroom. After her husband takes a nasty bite to the neck and is turned into a shrieking ghoul (the zombies are very similar to the infected in 28 Days Later), she flees her collapsing neighborhood and hits the raucous streets to find safety. She ends up bumping into a bad ass, shotgun wielding cop Kenneth (Played by Ving Rhames), a television salesman Michael (Played by Jake Weber), and a terrified couple Andre and Luda (Played by Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina). They decide the safest place to take refuge is the local mall, where they stumble upon a group of trigger happy security guards led by the domineering CJ (Played by Michael Kelly). The group begins to coexist and soon another truckload of desperate survivors comes banging on the delivery doors to be let in. They are lead by valiant Tucker (Played by Boyd Banks) and cowardly Steve (Played by Modern Family‘s Ty Burell). The group fortifies the mall so the rotting stenches can’t force their way in, but as the group begins to crumble apart, they must make a daring escape through the zombie army just outside the doors.
Dawn of the Dead ’04 revolves around more characters than the original 1978 film did. Rather than the measly four main protagonists, we have a large group, ranging from the usual good guys to the royal pains in the ass that any group like this would be made up of. This is a smart move on Snyder’s part, but it also hinders the viewer in their attempt to allow themselves to grow attached to any specific character. It’s the quality that really drove the original film. I cared about the original characters and when one bit the dust, we mourned them as if they were real and not a part of the cinematic realm. There are likable characters to be found in this jazzed up remake, mostly Ana, Kenneth, and Michael. The reluctant CJ finally comes around in the final stretch of the film and proves himself a hero. Getting the character set up correct is an integral part for a re-envisioning of Dawn of the Dead, and this one comes up half right.
What little remains from the original is the bright colors that are used in the film, running with the claim that Romero made way back when about it being his comic book film. Here Snyder uses Dawn of the Dead to announce his chiaroscuro approach to his work. It’s always really brightly lit or shrouded in darkness. It makes the film into a funhouse, which I admired, but sometimes felt like Snyder sees the original film as pure pulp filmmaking. It’s a trait that bothers me even to this day, and I’m sure that Romero was not pleased about it either. Romero has expressed some strong feelings about the film, mainly that they never even consulted with him or asked his permission to remake it. Sure, Romero intended to make something fun, but he also used the film to say something about our society. Well, at least they kept the ending gloomy.
I like Zack Snyder’s vision here and I the entertainment value on Dawn of the Dead ’04 is out of this world. One Christmas Eve on year, my cousins and I sat around sipping beers and wallowing in the aggressive temperament of this film. It does pack a few creep out moments and the mandatory jump scare, which every horror film feels the need to apply. It is stylishly made, designed to make all who watch it will walk away deeming it “cool”. And that is precisely how to evaluate Snyder’s body of work. He does things because he thinks its “cool” and everyone will like it. This is, however, Snyder’s strongest film he’s made. Despite its flaws, it’s original and just like one of Romero’s zombies, has an immensely likable personality. If for no other reason, it wins for its opening sequence and end credits. In this case, cool is king and surprisingly scary. Grade: A-