I think it’s time I blogged about Zach Snyder’s remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. I saw this in the theater six years ago with a friend; we both went into the theater with very low expectations. Most horror remakes of the last decade or so have been horrible – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th being two that come to mind right away (even though the latter was better than the former). I loved Snyder’s take on Dawn. It was violent, insightful, well paced, and had decent character development. When people died in the film I felt bad. Snyder didn’t reveal everything about these characters, but enough was given that when something terrible happened it was easy to feel for them and I didn’t want to see many of them turn into zombies.
Robert Kirkman, the creator of the comic book series The Walking Dead states in the introduction to the first graphic novel that a truly good zombie film isn’t about the gore or the monsters, but rather about the people dealing with the phenomenon and the world they reside in. How the people react to extreme circumstances is more important than seeing mass carnage. I agree with Kirkman, since the most interesting parts of Romero’s zombie films isn’t the gore (even though this is highly entertaining), but rather the people. The most enjoyable part of the original Dawn of the Dead is how the four protagonists make a life for themselves inside the Monroeville Mall. Ultimately, this consumerist life turns against them, indicating that materialism is always trumped by the human desire to grow. Stagnation is what drove them insane in the film and lucky for them a gang of bikers came in and mixed things up. Yes, this resulted in many deaths and the loss of their safety, but most people would gladly trade banal security for dangerous freedom. I know I would.
Snyder’s 2004 remake asks many of the same questions and probes many of the same issues that Romero did in 1978. The difference is that Snyder renovated the zombie and brought the issues of Romero’s world into a modern context. Instead of the zombies being slow, they move with the same speed as the living and instead of the mall being a perfectly self contained little world as displayed in Romero’s film, the mall is lacking in certain amenities that were in the original. For instance, the mall in Romero’s Dawn contains a grocery store; most modern malls don’t. Instead of getting tons of food from a market, the mall’s inhabitants in Snyder’s rendition rely on the food court to feed them. Most of the time the characters sit around at the coffee stand and the pantry seems to run dry after some time. Personally I think this is smart, since malls nowadays don’t have a surplus of food items that would feed people indefinitely. Romero gave the impression that food wasn’t a concern whereas Snyder did, even though this was only mentioned briefly.
Just like Romero’s version, the remake discusses consumerism in a variety of ways. The mall is a focal point for the living and the dead. The zombies, who are depicted as mindless killers, keep coming towards the mall. Its speculated upon, just like in the original, that it’s “instinct,” since, “this was an important place,” when they were alive. Even after death they keep coming, looking for bargain bin items – this time it’s the living instead of Gap shirts. After some time those trapped in the mall being shopping and a montage of the characters indulging in various consumer goods and tropes is shown: a homosexual man trying on women’s shoes, a hyper-sexualized woman trying on lingerie, and so forth. However, even these distractions can’t remove the epidemic happening outside their acquisitive safe zone and the characters are catapulted back into reality. Human connection seems to be the only thing that really matters and a barrage of consumer goods can’t satisfy this need.
Another interesting thing that Snyder explored that Romero only touched upon was the importance of television in creating a worldview. When the characters first arrive at the mall they watch the reports of what’s happening everywhere else. These reports demonstrate how to kill the zombies, how the world is falling apart, and so forth. The reliance on media is so important that even after the television signals are gone, the characters still read magazines, watch DVD’s, and try to touch upon the symbols of a world now gone. Two of the mall security guards take part in a Cosmopolitan questionnaire, which means very little when the world we know is gone. Ironically, the quiz is about trust, which comes up later in the film. Overall, this idea isn’t fully realized in the film but is definitely different from Romero’s take on media in a crisis situation. Romero’s television broadcasts are documenting the decline of Western civilization whereas Snyder’s are creating a narrative, albeit a choppy one. What Snyder is saying, whether intentional or not, is that our society needs narratives in order to make semblance of an ever growing and connected world. When these narratives are lost or fragmented, everything falls apart. To quote Yeats, “the centre cannot hold.”
The gore in the film is excellent and will satisfy anybody who enjoys violent zombie films but isn’t a gore hound. The extra features on the DVD discuss how the make-up effects were conceived and executed. For instance, the make-up supervisor decided that the zombie make-up would come in three stages: the recently deceased, where people would like normal aside from their wounds; the not so recently deceased, where a few weeks had gone by and the flesh is starting to decompose; the decomposing, been dead for a while look, which features zombies in an extreme state of decay. I thought this was a good idea, since the dead don’t remain in stasis. Flesh rots and I’m glad that this was taken into account. Being a lifelong zombie film fan, I always thought about this and figured if somebody can hole up with enough food and water that it’s possible to wait for the zombies to rot away. It’s not like they’re filled with formaldehyde and preserved. They’re among the elements, in the hot sun, and will eventually start to fall apart. This idea was taken into consideration in The Walking Dead, but not fully realized. Then again, The Walking Dead is an ongoing comic book series (soon to be a television series on AMC) and it’s possible this will eventually happen.
Unlike Snyder’s other films (Watchmen, 300), Dawn of the Dead doesn’t rely on a barrage of Matrix-like effects to tell a story. I’m not a fan of anything he has done aside from Dawn of the Dead and find his other flicks to be silly and their visual effects cheap. I think he butchered Alan Moore’s idea for The Watchmen and didn’t care for the theatrical presentation of one of the best comic books of all time. I thought 300 was a little too homoerotic for my tastes. His new film about owls looks horrible and my friend Justin pointed out the flaws in the trailer – instead of relying on the scenes to tell a story, they had Snyder discuss the film. Is it so terrible that somebody needs to narrate the trailer? Usually narration of this sort is reserved for terrible films and I’m fairly certain that Snyder’s Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings/Narnia owl movie is going to be a cinematic abomination, but 300 and The Watchmen were so it should come as no surprise.
There are a few ridiculous moments in this remake; especially noteworthy is the zombie baby. For those who haven’t seen the film, I’m not going to give anything away, but there is a segment that features a zombie baby (featured above), that borders on the absurd. I’m not saying it takes away from the film, but it definitely could’ve been removed from the film and not changed anything. There’s also a scene reminiscent of the original Dawn of the Dead where a head explodes. The original Dawn features an exploding head in the first ten minutes of the film and it looks cheesy and fake, but is a laugh riot. In Snyder’s version homage is paid to this moment, but the effect looks very computer generated and was one of the few instances in the film where I felt ripped off. I don’t like computer generated gore and Snyder’s film isn’t the only instance where I can say this. The last Romero zombie film, Survival of the Dead, features a litany of computer generated gore effects that made me feel embarrassed for him. I know that a film’s budget sometimes makes such decisions necessary, but I can’t help but think that using a fake head that looks like latex would be better than one that looks like it came out of a video game. Then again, this is just my observation and I’m sure there are many who believe this to be wrong.
Box Office Mojo states the Dawn of the Dead remake cost $26 million to produce and raked in almost $60 million domestically. All in all, a pretty profitable film that made over double its budget. My ten dollars is figured in there somewhere, although I wish I could get my time and money back for The Watchmen. For some reason I can’t find an embed code on Youtube for the American trailer for Dawn of the Dead so here’s the trailer for the Japanese release. It’s the same thing except the narration is in Japanese.