To the undiscerning zombie fanatic Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake could be easily dismissed as just another ill-advised remake of a cult classic. After all, in the intervening years since this effort, studios such as Platinum Dunes have wreaked havoc on the canon of horror classics, results varying between passable and downright insulting. From Friday the 13th (2009) to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), it seems as though nothing is sacred.
Despite Snyder’s effort arriving largely before the shameless-remake bandwagon gathered pace, his Dawn Of The Dead still had to contend with the outrage of the die-hard fans of George A. Romero’s original. Within the zombie genre, nobody is more monolithic a figure than the bearded Pittsburgh native; no series of films more central to the zombie myth than his original Dead trilogy: Night of the Living Dead (1968); Dawn Of The Dead (1978); Day Of The Dead (1985). Romero has since added Land, Diary and Survival to the series, but to many the first trilogy remains the holy trinity of zombie horror. Thus, it seemed, to remake one of his classics – perhaps the most critically acclaimed of his oeuvre- would surely be nothing short of sacrilege.
The trick with the remade Dawn Of The Dead is to put these prejudices and worries aside, because what lurks beyond is one of the must-own zombie films of the new millenium.
To get the comparisons out of the way first: Dawn Of The Dead 2004 is not a straight transplant of story and characters. Snyder’s remake retains the setting of the original – a huge abandoned shopping mall – but otherwise replaces the cast of characters and the overall plot. And, crucially, it expunges the aspect of Romero’s film that drew the most critical acclaim: the biting social satire. Whereas Romero’s Dawn of the Dead made an overt theme of commercialism and western excess, using the zombies as both metaphor for and victim of these ideas, Snyder chooses to remove this almost entirely. Sure, there is the occasional sideways glance at materialist ideals, but this is explored in brief asides rather than being thrust to the forefront.
As much as some might decry this recalibration as a weakness, it is in fact a stroke of genius, for it allows Snyder to focus his energies on what he is clearly very talented at: action, action and more action. Dawn Of The Dead 2004 is a film unconcerned with satire or social commentary. Instead, this is a relentless white-knuckle ride, a lesson in skilled direction, pacing and set-piece placement. As a director coming from an advertising background, it’s little surprise that Snyder demonstrates a flair for precise and economic storytelling. His film wastes little time in launching us headfirst into the apocalypse: core characters are introduced quickly and in archetypes, shuttled to the next thrilling sequence, with only the occasional montage or brief exchange of dialogue to remind us of the good guys/bad guys/dickheads. A hard-working ensemble cast provide much value for money, with memorable performances including Ving Rhames’ grouchy cop, Mekhi Pfifer’s overprotective dad-to-be, and Ty Burrell as the obligatory selfish, chauvinist playboy. Indie darling Sarah Polley unexpectedly turns action heroine as our protagonist Ana, all outrage and bravado and more than holding her own against a diverse cast of misfits.
Snyder proves himself above all to be a master of the set-piece, and Dawn Of The Dead is littered with memorable scenes. From a jaw-dropping opening sequence tracking Ana’s flight from crumbling suburbia, to a neat gag in which zombies are identified at distance by their resemblance to celebrities, Snyder squeezes the plot for the sorts of iconic moments this genre demands. Some miss – most hit – and such is the pace of the film that boredom is never an option. What helps is the inventiveness of execution: one part of the opening sequence uses a nifty overhead tracking shot of Anna’s car as she heads to the city, brilliantly conveying a sense of scale, which then turns to creeping isolation as the camera gradually zooms into the car. The film is full of moments like this, with Snyder constantly showing the sort of flair arguably lacking from the source material.
Adding to the Snyder’s direction is a pitch-perfect soundtrack which gives the film a neat gloss of postmodern cool. Making immediate impact is the choice of Johnny Cash’s brooding ˜Man Comes Around’ over the opening credits, but elsewhere there are some superb choices of music in place. A lounge version of Disturbed’s nu-metal hit ˜Down With The Sickness’ particularly stands out, neatly underlining the second act’s opening montage as the survivors settle down in their new home. Such moments of pop cool punctuate the raw terror elsewhere in Dawn Of The Dead, extending to a number of cameos from Romero’s original cast, and various ˜easter-egg’ references to the genre as a whole.
Some criticism at the time of release was levelled towards the presence of running zombies; such was Romero’s canon dominated by the ever-shuffling slow zombies we’re used to seeing. But, again, this is a great example of Snyder demonstrating an assured confidence in his own style, as he uses these reconfigured zombies to unleash more of an immediate, visceral terror upon the viewer. These zombies are not the shambling, slowly-gathering threat of old. These zombies are of the OH SHIT! RUN! school of jump-scares and sheer, utter panic. Where a Romero zombie allows the survivors to settle, bicker and eventually fall apart in their own time, Snyder’s ghouls offer no time to think: once they’re in, all hell breaks loose. The change fits the film perfectly, with razor-sharp editing and direction turning each zombie attack into a truly hair-raising encounter. By the time the film has raced towards its conclusion, the cast have been whittled down to just a handful, the rest succumbing to the relentless pursuit of the zombie hoard (or, in one gruesome scene, an accident with a chainsaw. Indeed, gore-hounds will not be disappointed, and may even find themselves shocked at the ferocity of one or two death scenes).
Dawn Of The Dead‘s modern remake is a worthy addition to any zombie fan’s collection, and by all means a superb action/horror flick in its own right. Sure, it doesn’t have the chin-stroking commentary of a George A. Romero classic, but it more than succeeds as a frantic, splatter-filled rollercoaster ride. It is no surprise that Snyder went on to the visually stunning adaptations of graphic novels 300 (2006)and Watchmen (2009), for this film is a perfect vehicle for his own unique eye for spectacular, iconic action sequences. If you were at all disappointed by the dated action of the original film (admit it, Romero fans) , or intrigued by the energy and pace of Danny Boyle’s excellent 28 Days Later (2002), there’s no reason not see this stunning remake.