When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Director: Zack Snyder
Country of origin: USA
Description (no major spoilers)
The 2004 film Dawn of the Dead is a loose remake of George A. Romero's 1978 movie, which was the second film in his acclaimed trilogy of zombie movies. It takes from Romero the basic scenario of a world where almost everyone has turned into zombies and a few survivors find themselves hiding out in a shopping mall fending off attacks from the undead. However, in terms of plot and characters it is a totally different movie.
It begins with Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse working in a hospital in Wisconsin, who wakes up one morning to find her peaceful suburban community has been overrun by a plague. Most of the inhabitants have become crazed, violent, and inhuman, trying to take bites out of the few human beings who remain. These zombies are lightning fast, with a vicious desire to sink their teeth into the living. Following the death of her boyfriend, she escapes to her car and drives away; her home town now resembles a war zone with exploding vehicles everywhere and the streets blocked by wrecked cars.
She crashes off the road, and is discovered by police officer Kenneth (Ving Rhames). They meet a couple more survivors and then take shelter in the nearby shopping mall where the bulk of the film takes place. Within the mall a number of different people gather, including an elderly woman, two teenagers, and the dimwitted mall security staff, while across the street a survivalist gunshop owner tries to communicate with them. Within the group, there are squabbles and relationships formed, while the zombies wait outside trying to gain entry. Beyond the mall, nobody knows or cares about the main characters, and they must fend for themselves.
The new Dawn of the Dead is a well-made horror movie that seems designed to offer maximum entertaiment to the multiplex hordes. It follows the lead of 28 Days Later in making its zombies fast-moving and ferocious killers rather than the lumbering, slightly ludicrous monsters of Romero's films. The high-speed zombies fit the film's fast pace and emphasis on action and excitement.
The opening scenes are effective in conveying a sudden and terrifying transition from normality into a horror that seems like the end of the world. After ten minutes, in which civilization ends, comes the opening credit sequence, soundtracked by Johnny Cash's The Man Comes Around, which is right up with that of Seven in terms of atmosphere and artistry; after that it is all a little downhill. Once the main characters reach the mall, the pace slows down a little to communicate the boredom and frustration of being trapped in a hopeless situation. But there is always enough happening to keep the viewer interested, with plenty of humor, mostly verbal rather than prosthetic. The film picks up pace again in its incident-packed final act.
The film has no major stars, but there are a number of actors familiar from television and other movies, many of whom have done great work elsewhere. It is disappointing that with the film's strong cast it does not do more to make the characters interesting; most of them are one-note stereotypes, and the women in particular are ill-served. The problem may be that there are too many characters in the film, and none of them get enough time to develop.
Canadian Sarah Polley (Ana, the nurse) has the main role; she began as a child actor, and has appeared in such acclaimed films as Michael Winterbottom's The Claim and Atom Egoyan's Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. She is a competent horror heroine, resourceful and compassionate, but doesn't show much character, and Polley's acting talents aren't stretched. Ving Rhames (Marcellus in Pulp Fiction, also Con Air, Bringing Out The Dead, eponymous in Don King: Only In America) is the wise old black cop and turns in a typically likeable performance without much effort. ER star Mekhi Phifer is the hot-headed young black man and I'd have liked to have seen more of him. The film's other main star, Jake Weber, is less well known, but gives an interesting performance as an intelligent drifter whose past and psychology are sadly unexplored; despite his aura of mystery he ultimately serves little purpose other than as Ana's love interest. Michael Kelly is also entertaining as the archetypal authoritarian and deranged mall security guard.
First-time director Zack Snyder deserves praise for telling a fast-moving story, which is told in clear but sometimes too obvious fashion (creepy music precedes attacks, characters tell each other what is happening). The special effects are impressive, with some very big explosions, and lots of zombies in the outdoor scenes, although there isn't the same amount of blood and gore as the legendary Tom Savini provided for the original. In general the film seems to take a detached and clinical approach to the horror with its use of long-shots and bright lighting rather than close-ups of spouting blood and crunching heads. The gruesome shocks are carefully parcelled out rather than forcing the viewer to swim through a sea of gore, and most of the time the heroes are content to dispatch zombies with a bullet to the head. The dominant mood is tension rather than revulsion, and the violence tends to be functional rather than really gratuitous.
Writer James Gunn - Tromeo and Juliet, Scooby-Doo, Scooby-Doo 2 - has produced a screenplay that is nowhere near the embarrassment you might expect from his past credits, with plenty of witty lines and some good ideas. The problem is that once he's assembled all the people in the shopping mall, he doesn't know where to go from there, and all the interesting ideas hinted at in the first part of the film are ultimately jettisoned. He seems to have nothing whatsoever to say about his characters or the world in general, and there's ultimately no real point to his screenplay other than providing regular shocks.
Romero always played down the notion that his zombie movies were intended as political or social commentary, saying "I'm not a crusader, if you know what I mean. I'm just an observer."1 However, many people saw in the original Dawn of the Dead a critique of consumerism. In Romero's film, the undead zombies feel a strange compulsion to congregate at the shopping mall, which is little different to the zombie-like people who slowly stagger through malls today.
This remake offers less in the way of social observation. After the sunny suburbia of the opening scenes it briefly suggests a religious theme - the end of the world - with the song The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash and a couple of early conversations; but biblical ideas are left unexplored. In fact once the characters are in the mall, there is little sense of a wider catastrophe (television and radio reports soon stop), and it might as well be The Alamo or Zulu. The characters do offer a spectrum of American society: black cop, bitchy flamboyant playboy, gun nut, white liberal nurse, but while some people have suggested this film is about America bonding together against the terrorist threat, it's certainly not Independence Day (thankfully no speeches at all).
In tone it is lighter than the original zombie trilogy. Romero's films offer a nihilistic worldview in which people are doomed by their own viciousness and stupidity, whether in the shock ending of Night of the Living Dead or the unremitting grimness of Day of the Dead and its thuggish military figures (see also Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, where the soldiers are more of a threat than the zombies). This film is more content to be an action movie where people fight an external enemy; while the people do squabble a bit and occasionally act very stupidly, basically all these different specimens of humanity get on ok.
Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead isn't a bad film, and nor is it a retread of the original, but it doesn't add anything to Romero's vision, and it certainly doesn't surpass it. Romero's zombie movies offered both intelligence and genuine fear; in contrast, while this Dawn of the Dead is certainly exciting, with lots of chases and a few fights, it isn't actually scary.
Most horror film fans I know enjoyed the film, but how much you get out of it will depend on your expectations. If you're wanting something that is genuinely disturbing or really advances the horror movie technically, stylistically, or thematically, you may be underwhelmed: this isn't the sort of individualistic and devious work you'd demand from horror auteurs like Romero, John Carpenter, Dario Argento, or David Cronenberg. To an extent, this is film-making by numbers - but what would you expect from a remake? Despite that, if you're looking for straightforward thrills, spills and chills, this film does all that with style, wit and some great moments. Rent with beer.
Facts and trivia
Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and Tom Savini, who all appeared in the original film, make cameo appearances. In the remake, Ken Foree utters the line "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth," which comes from the original Dawn of the Dead.
Other references to the original film include the WGON traffic helicopter and the trucking firm B.P. Trucking.
Director Zack Snyder cameos as a commando and a security guard in the opening credit sequence.
This is the second official remake of a Romero zombie movie, with Tom Savini directing a version of Night of the Living Dead in 1990; most reviews said it was quite good but pointless.
The remake was filmed in Canada, partly in Toronto.
Zombie facts: the zombies are very fast, quicker than when they were alive; they bite people but there is only one brief shot of them apparently eating human flesh so it is uncertain whether they kill for food; they cannot talk, which is one way of identifying a human being; they are vulnerable to fire and to bullets or other objects through their brains; the etiology of zombiedom is not fully understood but seems to be due to a plague spread by biting and probably through blood-to-blood contact; the origin of this plague is not explained; victims die and then soon after get up again as zombies; zombies do not attack animals, only people; they seem to congregate in public spaces.
The film continues through the end credits, so don't walk out early.
Cast and crew
1George Romero interviewed by Brian Ridgway. The Zombie Farm. 2000.
(Viewed April 5, 2004)
Homepage of the Dead: George A Romero's Dead Trilogy
(Viewed April 5, 2004)
Guardian Unlimited Film
(Viewed April 5, 2004)
The Zombie Farm
(Viewed April 5, 2004)