Dawn of the Dead (2004):
With House of Wax and Cry_Wolf covered, that’s essentially our slasher movie quota done and dusted. In the lead to Halloween, I now turn my attention to another popular subgenre in horror. The zombie apocalypse was first popularised by George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Zombie movies were always common horror fare, but they seemed to explode in popularity in the 2000s. Romero’s own franchise received three sequels in that decade, as well as three remakes of originals (another Night remake happening earlier in 1990). Besides that franchise, the Resident Evil games received their own series of film adaptations. Britain gave us 28 Days Later and the more light-hearted Shaun of the Dead. And eventually along came The Walking Dead to bring this subgenre to television. This was accompanied by more tongue-in-cheek fare like Planet Terror, Slither, Zombieland and Boy Eats Girl. But you might argue that the catalyst for this zombie boom is 2004’s remake of George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
The movie doesn’t waste much time with the introduction – as the zombies attack within the first few minutes. Our protagonist is Ana – a nurse at a local hospital. One of her neighbours walks into her house that morning and murders Ana’s husband. But he returns from death immediately – with a lust for flesh and increased running speed. Ana escapes with her life but the world is falling apart around her. She manages to hook up with a group of other survivors and they take refuge in an abandoned mall. While there the survivors face plenty of obstacles – such as tension with each other, what will happen if supplies run out and just what they’ll do when the zombies eventually overpower them.
We may as well begin with a brief history of the zombie as a figure in pop culture. The zombie we’re familiar with is actually much newer than you’d think. We can trace it all back to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In that he pretty much changed the idea of zombies as we know them. Beforehand the zombies were known as creatures from Afro-Caribbean legends – corpses that were resurrected through voodoo or black magic, bound to obey the wishes of whoever conjured them. Romero reimagined them as hordes of shuffling humans, inexplicably brought back from the dead to feast on the flesh of the living. Of course in that movie, they’re referred to as ‘ghouls’ and it’s suggested they were activated by radiation from a falling Venus probe – not to mention them being much more mobile than the familiar zombies later on. But Romero codified what we’ve come to expect from our undead friends.
The original Dawn of the Dead was the second film in his franchise. While not a direct sequel to Night of the Living Dead (where the zombie problem seemed to be all wrapped up by the next morning) it was a definite follow-on. The zombies there were actually a metaphor for something else: American consumerism. In the 1970s shopping malls were becoming commonplace for the average American. They had moved from the more commercial downtown areas out into the more regional suburbs. Suddenly every suburb would have a place where its residents would flock to shop at chain stores and get things they would normally have to travel all the way to the city for. It was also the transition that went from ‘Mom and Pop’ stores to corporate chains – where recognisable brands would set up in smaller residential areas. Romero envisioned these zombies as an attack on this new trend; one character in the film theorises that the zombies come to the mall because of some residual memory since it was an important part of their lives. The zombies in the original were therefore a metaphor for mindless shoppers who would flock to malls to buy as much as they could – in this case represented as creatures that feasted hungrily on human flesh. Notably in that film, the zombies themselves don’t pose much of a threat. Rather it’s the other humans who do that.
It’s a common trend in Romero’s zombie films for a bunch of survivors to be thrown together. As the situation worsens, cabin fever sets in and the protagonists usually turn on each other. As Romero was raised in a post-war world that faced constant fear of nuclear attack, the line of thinking may be that a national disaster would bring out the worst in humanity. And interestingly enough, that’s where this remake differs majorly with its predecessor. This film was clearly feeling the influence of a real life disaster. Much like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds – which came out a year later – Dawn of the Dead is very much influenced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That was a large-scale disaster, and it actually didn’t bring out the worst in humanity. Rather the disaster actually united people and inspired a feeling of solidarity – echoed in that “you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us” scene from the first Spider-Man movie. So the general public had seen a real life disaster happen, and felt the toughness and togetherness of it. And that’s reflected by the characters in this film. They’re at each other’s throats at the *start* of course. But the opposite happens when they’re cooped up in the mall together. They actually grow closer, rather than distant. Romances form – particularly in Terry and Nicole, and Michael and Anna. Significant friendships form between the strangers too. You could honestly play any song about friendship and togetherness over the montage after Frank’s death and it would still fit.
It’s quite surprising how idealistic this film actually is. You wouldn’t expect a story about a zombie apocalypse to be anything more than ‘humans are bastards, let’s kill these things’ but you can definitely find a rather positive and idealistic tone in here. Again this is feeling the effects of the 9/11 solidarity. Notably CJ is the typical asshole character that looks like he’s being set up to betray the group – think Cooper in Night, Wooley in the original Dawn, Ridley in Diary of the Dead etc. But he instead undergoes a special kind of character development and ends up pulling off a heroic sacrifice. Elsewhere this film really treats the loss of any life as something tragic, in a way that a lot of horror films don’t. CJ again shows obvious sadness when Bart – dickhead though he was – gets devoured by zombies. It likewise takes the deaths of three major characters to convince the survivors that sitting around waiting for cabin fever to finish them off is a horrible notion. And the film doesn’t shy away from the ethical conflict involved in killing those who are already infected. The only deaths that the film doesn’t make us feel bad about are those that happen towards the end – and that’s mostly due to the fast-paced nature of the climax. It’s quite impressive that the film can make us feel for all these dying characters instead of going down the exploitation route. With one exception of course:
The characters themselves are all pretty good. Sarah Polley – mainly a veteran of gritty independent dramas – plays against type to be our lead. Ana is a welcome change from the Final Girl archetype in these kinds of movies. Not at one point is she left a screaming damsel that needs to be saved. Nor is she presented as morally superior based on her lack of sexuality. Her being a woman is kind of incidental. Good writing like that, coupled with Polley’s great performance, creates a really powerful lead. I think Ana is pretty underrated in terms of our horror females. I also give the film major props for making its lead character a heroic nurse. Next in character prominence is Ving Rhames playing Kenneth. He apparently sought the filmmakers out personally when he heard they were remaking Dawn of the Dead, since he was quite the fan. And his love for the project really shows. Like Ana, Kenneth is a very layered and deep character who feels like a real person. Jake Weber’s Michael is a little more vanilla compared to Ana and Kenneth – him being the everyman good guy of the group. But his performance isn’t bad and the little romance that forms between himself and Ana is believable at least. I already sang the praises of CJ’s character but I really feel like Michael Kelly deserves more props. He’s hysterical in this movie and you’ll end up liking CJ more and more as it goes on. My brother and I would frequently go around saying “fucking nursery school” over and over to make ourselves crack up.
Lindy Booth pops up once again in a considerably less malevolent role than her turn in Cry_Wolf. She plays the youngest member of the group Nicole, who creates some of the strangest third act conflict I’ve ever seen in a film: driving a truck across a field packed with zombies to rescue a dog. I actually know a girl in real life who probably would do that but said girl is also a wrestler and powerlifter, so I like her chances better than Nicole’s. It’s a testament to Booth’s acting ability that I felt sorry for Nicole rather than telling the zombies to have their way with her. Mekhi Pfieffer’s delivers a sympathetic and yet really unnerving performance as Andre. I won’t spoil this particular detail but he’s responsible for probably the darkest moment in an already very violent film. Ty Burrell’s Steve is funny yet possibly a bit too cartoonish for a film like this. He’d feel more at home in Shaun of the Dead or Planet Terror if I’m being honest. Jayne Eastwood and Kim Poirier turn in nice little spots as Norma and Monica respectively, even if their characters don’t get as many lines or scenes as the others. A real dark horse for me is Kevin Zegers as Terry – the one good security guard. He was always my favourite character in the movie, and that fact hasn’t changed. He admittedly does slip into the background in the second act, but I still enjoy what he brings to the table. Others like Glen, Bart and Tucker – and even Frank – give some nice small performances for their limited screen-time. Overall this is an unbelievably strong cast who could definitely have carried this if it were switched over to a TV format.
The zombies in this differ from Romero’s in several ways. First of all, they’re fast-moving in contrast to Romero’s shufflers. The filmmakers said this was mostly to avoid unintentional comedy brought on by slow-moving zombies. This works on a different level too with the change in tone; in this the humans aren’t the real dangers – since they’re not going to turn on each other. So the zombies have to be extra dangerous. As a result they’re also more ferocious and animalistic as opposed to mindless. You could chalk that up to changing values in the audience; a 70s crowd was still new to the idea of zombies as we know them. An early 2000s crowd would however be used to them, so making the enemies faster and hungrier ups the tension. Being cornered by an army of slow-moving zombies is probably a little inconvenient, but it mostly works as a long term thing – in that the number increases as time goes on and one is driven mad by the thought of what might happen when there are too many to deal with. But being cornered by an army that can run just as fast as you and rip you to shreds in a second…well there’s your short-term tension. So therefore this film has a more action-packed climax than the original. That one only leaves the mall towards the end. Here the entire third act is escaping from the mall and fighting it out. I’ll admit that there isn’t a lot of terror in the action scenes – but they’re certainly thrilling anyway. The two films differ slightly in how one becomes a zombie. In Romero’s films, everyone who dies comes back as one. The bites are poison and just accelerate the process. Here however it’s only the bites that cause it. They clearly took notes from 28 Days Later, which gave a reason for the infection – though here the filmmakers described the plague as supernatural rather than scientific.
The one thing I really can’t agree with this movie on is its ending. Up until the screen fades to black is a great ending. I usually stop the movie there. But there’s unfortunately a rather unnecessary bit in the credits – where we get a little extra. Not to spoil it for you but it’s completely unnecessary and really contradicts the movie’s tone. The movie had been acting as a metaphor for a real life disaster – saying that people must come together and work with each other to overcome any difficulty. Or at least that’s the impression I get until the credits roll. That extra bit undermines the message for a clichéd horror ‘shock ending’. This is apparently due to test audiences not being satisfied with the way the film originally ended – hence the decision to add a bit more. The irony is that a similar thing happened to the original film, except the other way around. The film was meant to end on a bleak note with the protagonists committing suicide due to the hopelessness of their situation. Midway through production, they changed that idea for a more hopeful ending. So the bleak movie got a hopeful ending, while the idealistic movie got a cynical ending. Sometimes the sudden downer ending can work – see Atonement, Lucky Number Slevin, Shutter Island and The Skeleton Key for notable examples – but it totally doesn’t here. You honestly get a better movie if you turn off immediately before the credits roll. The downer ending would have worked for the original because of how bleak the story was – and as a metaphor for Americans slowly becoming slaves to consumerism. But here since the metaphor was more for post-disaster togetherness, the credits scenes just do not work. It’s alarmingly like how the first Final Destination would have had a nice peaceful ending, but test audiences disagreed and we got our cheap horror ending instead.
So Dawn of the Dead seems to be one of those horror remakes that never gets discussed. General consensus says that it wasn’t terrible enough to be used as an example of ‘bah, remakes always suck!’ and also didn’t make as much of an impact to really sweep the nation by storm like the original Night and Dawn. But in the long term, this and 28 Days Later are likely responsible for the zombie apocalypse boom. By adding some good character development and merging it with the action genre, it paved the way for more of them. I’m not saying that Dawn and 28 Days are entirely responsible for the modern zombie apocalypse films – but most of them do feel their influences. It’s probably very telling that the directors of both have gone onto enjoy much greater success. Zack Snyder is one of my favourite directors and this is a really underrated project in his repertoire. Aside from the ending – which doesn’t have to be taken as canon if you turn off before the credits roll – I can’t criticise anything about this. Snyder hits all the right points to make a horror movie memorable: good characters, intense scenes, creative setting and excellent special effects. So this is a remake that does it right – and it’s a horror film that just does it right in general. I’m going to give this one a 9/10 – and it probably would have bagged a ten if not for the ending.