Dawn of the Dead: A Second, Useless Post

Yesterday I picked up Dawn of the Dead on DVD for $3 – funny how it took me this long. I saw it in theaters in 2004 and have rented it at least three times since. Why it took me so long to purchase it is beyond me (I probably didn’t want to pay $15-$20). Although I hate Zach Snyder I really feel this film is excellent. Below are my thoughts on the film seven years after its theatrical run. I am typing this while watching the movie so it’s possible this post will be quite scatterbrained but at least it’s chronological.

I love how this film begins. It starts showing working class suburbanites at work and leisure and within five minutes you’re in hell. I know many dislike fast zombies and for the most part I’d agree but Snyder’s film pulls it off – there’s a constant state of anxiety when watching Dawn of the Dead and you never know what’s happening next. I’ve seen the movie at least six or seven times and it’s still frightening. It’s possibly a testament to the power of the zombie apocalypse; maybe it relates to our anxieties about instability. After all, zombie movies like Dawn of the Dead depict the survivor’s attempts at order in a chaotic world – a similarity between the original Dawn and Snyder’s version is the miniature civilization the mall’s inhabitants create.

If Romero’s original film is a critique of ‘70s consumerism in America then Snyder’s remake is an extension of that theme, showing the mall again as a hyper-real symbol of the American Dream. Both films feature vignettes where the protagonists revel in the mall’s excesses; they also depict the mall as safe – a consumer retreat from the horrors of the everyday. Here you can be a flaneur, an observer window shopping from an anonymous distance. However, each film also demonstrates the mall offers illusions as reality – there is no real safety in the mall, which is sometimes crowded with zombies and ultimately penetrable.

One comment I’ll make about Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is how the CGI in some instances looks fake. In the beginning when Anna (Sarah Polley) horrifyingly surveys her war zone of a neighborhood the fires look cartoonish, certain figures in the distance seem computer generated, and the following scene where a helicopter flies in front of the camera just looks a little silly. I despise how CGI artists implement exhaust distortion to cover their shoddy animation (Dawn of the Dead is a prime example) and when watching it on a Blu-Ray player (which supposedly heightens the resolution) it looks even worse. The gore effects, however, look very impressive and have held up. Unlike other films, where the violence is very disturbing, so far I haven’t seen anything which really bothers me. The situations the characters are dealing with are more violent than the actual gore, which is a sure sign a director has crafted a solid film.

Another clever device Snyder implements into Dawn of the Dead is the way the characters are glued to the television. C.J., the head mall security guard, corrals everybody into the electronics store, where the news is playing around the clock. From C.J.’s perspective everything will get back to normal (“America always sorts its shit out”). It reminds me of most Americans post-9/11 – glued to their televisions and hoping for information. The spirit of patriotism following the WTC attacks was higher than I’ve ever seen but it offered an illusion. Instead of solidifying with the world America went to war – two wars actually (and now a potential third). Like the zombies taking over the world, the post-9/11 world’s television sold a false depiction of events. Yet, just like the 9/11 coverage it eventually said nothing and didn’t tell the truth until it was too late. Romero discusses this in Diary of the Dead, but that film isn’t very popular with the zombie aficionados.

Jean Baudrillard would say all the media representations of the event are false; Neil Postman would claim their presentation nullifies their context, making even the apocalypse into entertainment. It’s possible the medium only allows for a certain perspective which, as Postman would argue, turns anything into amusement. I’m not sure how television would look if something like this happened. Would the media’s coverage of the apocalypse be useful? After all, in Romero’s first two zombie movies the media is only half constructive – the information didn’t solve anything after a while and the rescue stations quickly became obsolete.

There’s a specific scene which is both frightening and silly: the zombie baby/parking lot scene. It begins with a power outage and ends after a series of action packed events in a parking garage, a baby store shootout, and a zombie baby. The score moves from eerie, sinister sounds to a dark action score, building the tension and the film’s pace. What sounds like a medley of horns accent the darker notes while higher notes build in the background. It finally culminates in a drone that fades out with the group watching multiple zombies burn.

The delivery scene relies first on a music box score but slowly builds up a segment of strings before opening into music a little similar to the parking lot scene’s. However, this scene, mostly lit by a large flashlight, doesn’t rely so heavily on horns and instead gives an atmospheric undertone to it. This scene is where I feel the movie traverses into the absurd. A zombie baby? Give me a break Snyder! I’ll admit the scene’s construction and aesthetic don’t completely obliterate it’s seriousness but a zombie baby seems like too much. Even though I really like this movie it’s the one flaw I see – it’s pandering to sensationalism by killing a baby, even though it’s already dead. Snyder’s decision to cut the scene demonstrates Snyder is a coward; he should’ve gone all the way, not discarding sensationalism at the last minute. It’s like robbing a bank: if you’re going to do it and risk going to jail for years you should at least go for the big score.

Maybe I’m giving Snyder too much crap (and, by the way, I don’t condone robbing a bank whatsoever nor am I suggesting it); maybe this omission is the result of focus groups, executive interventions, and so forth – not his. Maybe he’s just a bitch, delivering silliness under the guise of the extreme and not delivering on his promises. After all, Snyder botched both 300 and Watchmen, who’s to say he didn’t plan for mediocrity in the first place?

However, the rest of the movie is great and I’ve really enjoyed watching Dawn of the Dead again. At this moment they’re preparing Andy’s (who looks a little like Iggy Pop) rescue. Their escape idea, getting to the rich prick Steve’s boat, seems asinine and if I was in their situation I wouldn’t leave the mall. It’s filled with food, water, and, most importantly, shelter from the zombies. I’m sure the monotony would be horrendous but I think I could divert myself with the bookstore for quite some time. I think I’d sit it out and wait for the zombies to rot away. I know I’m not the first person to think of this (even though I rationalized this years ago in high school).

Really, why wouldn’t people just sit out the zombie apocalypse? These zombies are out in the hot sun all day rotting away. Eventually dead muscles atrophy and the skin starts decomposing – they’re not supernatural here, they’re the product of a weird, unexplained virus. Those killed by gunshots in Dawn of the Dead don’t come back; it’s only those bitten. While the origination of this virus is unexplained the presentation in the film isn’t supernatural and the only real reference to a higher power is in Ken Foree’s cameo as a televangelist. I’m sure the laws of biology haven’t ceased in this horrific zombie dystopia and after a while you could probably just walk by these monstrosities. I’m willing to wait, why aren’t they?

Then again, I’m approaching this from a pseudo-civilized world where the possibility of the dead rising is a myth reserved for stupid Christians (that isn’t a textual assault on all Christians, just the dumb ones who believe Jesus is coming back in their lifetimes).Personally, I think I’ll see Jesus before I see zombies but, getting back to my original point, I am applying 2011 America ideals to a completely fictional world – in essence, I can say and do whatever I want. Isn’t that what Romero, Snyder, and every other zombie filmmaker do? Isn’t that what Robert Kirkman does with The Walking Dead (the comic and the horribly mediocre AMC series)?

This then makes me ask whether zombie films are really horror or science fiction. If we’re using Philip K. Dick’s or Isaac Asimov’s assertions about science fiction then aren’t zombie movies a part of that genre? Sure they’re horror because they’re violent and have monsters but isn’t Alien terrifying? It’s a movie like that which blurs the line between science fiction and horror; I don’t see why zombie films aren’t the same. Their propensity for bloodshed rests them in horror territory but the motivations coincide with Dick and Asimov’s claims. At this point I’m wondering if anybody’s asked this question before; my answer is probably.

Dick asserts science fiction, unlike fantasy, uses a real human setting and extrapolates; Asimov believes the same, stating science fiction authors, “foresee the inevitable.” If these two authors believe science fiction uses a familiar world as a launching point don’t zombie films do just that? Almost all post-apocalyptic films without zombies are classified science fiction so why not zombie films? I think from this point forward I’m categorizing any zombie film where civilization falls apart because of a zombie outbreak as science fiction. In essence, they’re only in the horror genre because of the excessive bloodshed and there are numerable hyper-violent science fiction films: Predator, Videodrome, Starship Troopers, Total Recall, District 9, A Clockwork Orange, etc.

I think I’m appropriating the zombie from horror fans, taking their prized possession and claiming it for the science fiction camp. Fuck you, horror fans. You’ve had your time in the sun, having your overcrowded conventions, midnight movies, and trendy internet hotspots. Actually, is any of that real or am I just imagining it? Maybe I just know a plethora of horror fans and think some of them are annoying. I remember science fiction conventions were packed when I was younger and now conventions solely devoted to science fiction have disappeared, replaced by conventions covering everything nerdy under the sun. Then there are the horror conventions, filled with people dressed up in hack horror costumes and paying too much money to meet somebody who could care less.

I used to, like a flaneur, wander around various collectable conventions looking for bootlegs, records, and miscellaneous oddities but  have given up on them since my encounter with Orlando’s horror convention last fall. I wanted to meet John Carpenter, have him sign my Escape From New York soundtrack LP, and ask him about Marxist representations in They Live; I found instead a concert-like experience that was as expensive as a day pass to Magic Kingdom. I took my money and bought a pair of nice sunglasses instead. I still think I made the right decision.

How did I go from Dawn of the Dead into this tangent?!?!?

I think here I should end this little writing (which is now 3 ½ pages long). I started writing about Snyder’s zombie film and ended by appropriating zombies for science fiction and ripping on comic book conventions. Who knows why this happens, aside from typing over 100 words per minute and just letting ideas fly. I feel moving back to Dawn of the Dead is appropriate because I started there and here’s my summary of the film: it’s good. It’s the only successful Snyder film and everything else I’ve seen of his is garbage. If you can look past fast zombies you’ll find Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is an interesting look at the genre from a post-9/11 perspective and delivers genuine horror at some points. However, don’t let that statement let you believe I don’t still hold zombies belong in the science fiction category.

Enjoy this while I’m away. =)

Here is a thing I found on Youtube where somebody mixed Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Goodfellas. Normally I don’t enjoy these mash-ups but this one is great.

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2 responses to “Dawn of the Dead: A Second, Useless Post

  1. Even I liked the Dawn of the Dead re-make. Remember how I was peeking out the windows and making sure they were locked afterward? Pretty silly!

  2. It’s one of those films I can watch regularly and not get sick of – a major accomplishment for Snyder considering all his other stuff is complete garbage. Any time you want to watch it again I’m game. =)

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