Dawn of the Dead. 2004. Directed by Zack Snyder. Screenplay by James Gunn, based on the original George A. Romero film of the same name.
Starring Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell, Michael Kelly, Kevin Zegers, Michael Barry, Lindy Booth, Jayne Eastwood, Boyd Banks, Inna Korobkina, & Matt Frewer. Metropolitan Filmexport/New Amsterdam Entertainment/Strike Entertainment.
Rated 18A. 101 minutes (110 minutes – unrated director’s cut)
Remakes are a dime a dozen these days. But when Zack Synder’s Dawn of the Dead released – remade from George A. Romero’s original screenplay, written anew by James Gunn – there weren’t as many as there are today. That’s because this is one of the movies which really got people (a.k.a studios) on the remake bandwagon. Reason being, this is one of those remakes which also does justice to the original. And while Romero’s original film will always be my favourite of the two, as well as one of my favourite zombie horror movies out there, Snyder and Gunn do a fantastic job here crafting something that pays homage to Romero and simultaneously carves out its own niche.
2004’s Dawn of the Dead reignited the public’s love for all things zombie. Afterwards came the avalanche of zombie movies, even another (much lesser) Romero adaptation with 2008’s Day of the Dead, and of course then Frank Darabont got AMC’s The Walking Dead running, now America and the world are captivated weekly by the blood, guts, and societal breakdown of a zombie wasteland.
What Gunn and Snyder manage to do is make zombies terrifying. I’m always going to be a fan of the slow moving zombies, but these guys wring the terror out of zombies that are able to run track and field. On top of everything, they offset all the wonderful undead action with all the various troubles of the humans left in the midst of this new, horrific world. Striking an even balance, Gunn and Snyder cover all the bases, and throw lots of good blood and effects at the viewer to make sure it’s all up to snuff. Again, Romero made the superior film in my mind. Yet this Dawn of the Dead is nonetheless super appealing.
A big reason for why this works well, as opposed to some of the stuff Snyder pumps out, is due in part to the screenplay by James Gunn. I’m actually not a huge fan of Gunn’s films, but his talent as a writer is fairly solid. He can be funny, very darkly comic. He’s also got the heart and soul that’s necessary to paint out an engaging story. And on top of everything else he does well writing action sequences, or anything that’s suspenseful and filled with tension. Again, not a fan of anything else really that he’s done, other than Slither; Guardians of the Galaxy was popcorn fun but felt tedious, and Super is just all right (maybe if Rainn Wilson weren’t in it I’d have enjoyed the movie more). Dawn of the Dead is definitely his greatest achievement so far in the industry, as far as I’m concerned.
Gunn took a beloved horror classic then remixed it into a contemporary setting, new characters and an overall expanded cast, yet also kept so much of what makes the original incredible. Even how he opens the story and takes us into the zombie apocalypse breakdown is masterful. He didn’t try to copy everything, and then kept bits and pieces which felt organic to his reworking of the material. And isn’t that what a remake should do? Equal parts paying respect and also innovating his own character/plot inventions.
Also, for any of the uninitiated zombie movie fans, this is not the first appearance of fast moving zombies. This phenomenon really began with Umberto Lenzi’s 1980 cult classic Nightmare City. I’ve genuinely heard so-called horror fanatics tout this as the first of the infected films to feature zombies that run. That just goes to show how some run their mouth off about being film lovers yet have only seen the well-known movies. All the same, Gunn makes things tense with this increase in speed, and of course the flashy style of Snyder also works to make this aspect more terrifying.
In any zombie film, no matter how much of the human drama and element is present the zombies themselves must always take precedence. Much as I personally do love AMC’s The Walking Dead sometimes their writers forget the main ingredient is the undead. So it’s nice to see that Gunn and Snyder together, along with the talents of the makeup and special effects team (much of the work here is practical which is excellent), made sure to include nice gory zombie action, and a ton of fun, creepy, wild looking zombies.
Some of my favourites follow…
Obviously the whole pregnant infected mother giving birth to the zombie baby is a highlight. I’m always wondering if shows/films in the post-zombie apocalypse will tackle that particular issue. This one does, in fine, nasty fashion.
Something else I admire overall is their use of blood. For different stages of undead decomposition the crew used varying colours for the blood. So the newer zombies have brighter red blood, the slightly older ooze brown, then the oldest of the undead have black, oily blood. That’s a nice subtle touch many people likely passed over.
The big bloated, infected woman that ends up with the survivors in the mall is pretty gnarly, too. They had a man play the role, which adds an even better element to the features. But it’s the nasty wound, the hideous skin, all those gross bits that make this one zombie something special. She is not just gross looking, she is scary and the moment her reanimated corpse gets ready to boogie you’re just rooting for someone to smash its head in.
There are a few blemishes overall. Not enough to make this any less than a damn great zombie flick. More than that, as I’ve said the whole production does justice to its roots in George A. Romero’s original 1978 classic. The finale pulses and pounds at the senses, as this group of survivors tries their best to make through a wall of zombies. For the most part, the actors hold this up well, from Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames who both give fantastic performances in their roles, to smaller parts like Ty Burrell with his comic relief and Michael Kelly as the bad guy who eventually becomes slightly likeable. Everyone works together in an ensemble cast to make this more diverse than the original, so that alone changes the dynamic a whole bunch. Also, the diverse cast makes for a variety of characters that are all different, all looking for something of their own desires, and this allows Gunn to have a bit of fun with some of the scenarios. Added to everything, the blood and gore here holds up to any proper zombie movie. This is probably the only Snyder film that I find actually great, as opposed to how great he thinks all his work comes out.