Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Dawn of the Dead (2004)

More than ten years after its theatrical release, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) is widely regarded as a remake that doesn’t suck. 

I won’t quibble with that assessment. 

This remake is successful to such a degree because it adapts basic settings, lines of dialogue and the general premise of George A. Romero’s 1978 masterpiece, but then spins these element in a new and original direction. 

Importantly, Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead does not feature the same main characters undertaking the same horrific adventure. 

This change leaves room for the remake to prosper; to create new personalities, and to explore different aspects of the zombie apocalypse. This film could actually be considered a “side-quel” as much as a remake if not for a few significant changes in the zombie nature, and mode of zombie virus transmission.

The memory of the original Dawn of the Dead is honored with some well-placed in-jokes (like the department story, Gaylen Ross), and brief cameos from originals stars Scott Reineger, Tom Savini, and Ken Foree, but the central occupation of this film is neither fan service, nor homage. 

Instead, Snyder updates the zombie formula with scenes of epic, spectacular destruction, and frenetic, bone-jangling action scenes.

Such jaw-dropping moments would not function adequately, however, if the characters did not matter.

Fortunately, they do.

Dawn of the Dead adopts from Romero its focus on people, on human beings, and the diverse responses to crisis that different people might legitimately have during an absolute breakdown of society.

This movie concerns, more anything else, questions about how people define morality in times of chaos. 

When is the right time to kill someone who might be a threat? 

When is the right time to realize that you, too, represent a similar threat?

Culturally speaking, this is not a small issue. In 2003, an America still grieving after 9/11 launched a pre-emptive war against Iraq because that foreign country could one day metastasize as a threat to our nation. 

Similarly, today, there are those of us who want to wage a similar war against Iran on the possibility of what might, one day, be a threat.

It is abundantly true that this Dawn of the Dead does not satirize conspicuous consumption, the social preoccupation of Romero’s Carter-Era work of art.  Yet that fact, does not mean it is devoid of commentary on humanity.  

In the immediate post-9/11 age, when Iraq was starting to turn towards chaos, this Dawn of the Dead could have focused on many ideas roiling the culture.  But what Snyder’s remake seems to concern most deeply is the idea that we don’t remain “human” if we surrender our morality for the possibility of security, if we see in other people only eventual threats to our own survival.

This Dawn of the Dead makes note that in a real crisis (forecasting Hurricane Katrina, to some extent), the U.S. government and/or military simply can’t come to the rescue for everyone, and many people will have to rely on their own abilities, and relationships, to survive the dawn. 

Here, one character, C.J. notes that “America always sorts its shit out.”  But that bumper sticker slogan falls by the wayside when rescue helicopters don’t come to the rescue, but just fly on past the mall.

As the film’s characters reckon with the fact that their previous lifestyle can no longer be sustained -- “I wanted a mocha latte with cream!” complains one character -- a new order must be erected from the ruins of the old. 

The problem, of course, is that the zombies represent a competing social order, and one of numerical superiority.

None of these points are lingered on to the exclusion of thrills or entertainment, and this version of Dawn of the Dead succeeds admirably on the basis of its characters, for its dramatic twists and turns, and for its dedication to scaring the audience silly. 

There are some good horror remakes out there.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986), and The Blob (1988) jump to mind.

Dawn of the Dead (2004) earns a slot on that list.

“There are some things worse than death, and one of them is sitting here, waiting to die.”

A nurse, Ana (Sarah Polley) gets off duty after a busy shift, goes home to her loving husband, and falls asleep, like she would on any normal day.

But this is not a normal day.

Ana awakes to blood-curdling terror as her husband is killed, and the zombie apocalypse begins.

Ana flees her neighborhood, and joins up with a tough police officer, Kenneth (Ving Rhames), Michael (Jake Weber), a criminal, Andre (Mekhi Phifer), and his very pregnant wife, Luda (Inna Korabkina). 

Desperate for sanctuary, they hide in Crossroads Mall, but meet up with a Mall security team led by C.J. (Michael Kelly). 

An uneasy peace is forged, but the zombies are gathering outside the mall, and the end of the world is nigh…

“You want every single second.”

In some ways, the most significant character in Dawn of the Dead (2004) is Michael, played by Jake Weber. He is an average sort of guy.  He’s worked a lot of jobs, been married, and is generally a reasonable fellow. He prefers building consensus. He doesn’t like confrontation. 

But when injured -- meaning bitten -- people arrive at the mall requiring medical aid, Michael changes from wanting to help others to wanting to immediately kill Frank (Matt Frewer), a man who will, because of a bite, eventually become a zombie.

For the moment, Frank is fine, however.  

He is a father to Nicole (Lindy Booth), and wholly reasonable. He doesn’t want to be a danger to anyone. Yet Michael decides, pre-emptively, that he must be killed, and furthermore killed right now.

On one hand, his view-point seems reasonable. Infection always ends in zombification, no exceptions. Frank will be a threat, and will attempt to kill the survivors. 

On the other hand, to pre-emptively kill a human being -- one with feelings, relationships, and a soul -- on the basis entirely of future danger, is representative of a kind of harsh, bunker mentality.

Precautions can be taken instead. Frank can be contained, and pre-emptive murder is not actually necessary, or preferable.

Indeed, this is what occurs in the film.  Frank is given his life, and Kenneth watches over him, in a locked mall shop, as death comes. Because of this, Frank is given the opportunity to say a tender farewell to his daughter.

Later in the film, Michael is himself bitten by a zombie -- in a heart-wrenching scene n-- and realizes that he has no place in the future, either. He doesn’t travel with the survivors to their destination, a distant island, but rather remains behind to watch “the sunrise.”  He shoots himself in the head before he can become a monster and imperil those he loves.

But the important thing is that in this case, Michael chooses.  He makes the choice that, earlier, he would have expressly denied Frank.  

Nobody pre-emptively kills Michael. No one pre-emptively puts a bullet in his skull. His own choice, though heart-breaking is respected by the others.

Dawn of the Dead is not specifically about the Iraq War of course. But it is about morality, and the mind-set -- the bunker mentality -- that permits pre-emptive strike to be considered a valid option.

Even during a zombie apocalypse, the film tells us, we can’t make choices based on a possibility of what might occur. 

Why? We’re all going to die one day, but in the meantime, we want “every single second,” as Frank notes, of life, on his death-bed. We want that last sunrise, the very one Michael affords himself.

Andre’s subplot also plays into this philosophy, this debate about the morality of a pre-emptive strike.  Andre fears that the others will kill Luda and his unborn child, because Luda is infected.  So, quite dangerously, he hides the truth from the group.  If Andre did not fear the pre-emptive murder of his family, Luda and the pregnancy could have been watched -- as Frank was watched – and Andre and Norma (Jayne Eastwood) need not have died. 

So Andre’s fear of a pre-emptive attack on his wife and unborn child is, actually, the thing that led to so many deaths. Both the group, and Andre himself would have been safer with a policy of containment.

This Dawn of the Dead also features a leitmotif about the limits of military power, also an appropriate topic given the quagmire in Iraq, and the failure to get Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora. 

Initially, the survivors hold out hope that they will be rescued, and that all will be well. This interruption in their life-style is just temporary until the cavalry rides in.  Or so they believe. They are disabused of that notion when a rescue helicopter flies by, and doesn’t even acknowledge their presence.

All zombie movies are, in some sense, about the breakdown of infrastructure and an acknowledgement of government, military limits. This Dawn of the Dead takes that thought to its logical conclusion, however. In a time of total disaster, there is no rescue. People must fend for themselves because of the scale of the problem.

And Dawn of the Dead does a remarkable job exploring the scale of the problem.  

Snyder has been afforded technology and a budget that Romero never had.  He can thus show-case zombie multitudes, the likes of which have never been seen (at least until World War Z [2013]).  He artfully creates these sweeping long shots revealing the scope of the “invasion,” and the damage to neighborhoods and cities.  

It’s a stunning new take on the zombie apocalypse that makes it feel “real” in visual terms.  One of the film’s most amazing and resonant shots reveals two trucks in the dark of night, pummeled by an ocean of zombies that extends as far as the camera’s range.

The film also lingers on long, overhead shots which first show us a satellite’s view of normality, and then show us that “normality” turned to utter chaos.

In some ways, these visual compositions help the audience see why Dawn of the Dead benefits from a remake. Horror movies of this type can now depict an apocalypse with frightening reality; terms that the low-budget Romero films simply can’t compete with. 

That doesn’t mean they aren’t great (or that I don’t love them), only that the 21st century gives filmmakers the opportunity to take on the zombie apocalypse from a new perspective. An update is warranted, because filmmakers have realized a new way the story can be told.

I realize that, a decade ago, there was this huge debate among horror aficionados about "slow" zombies vs. "fast" zombies.  I think, today, it matters not a whit.  With the right director at the helm, zombies can be terrifying in either mode, and the zombie hordes in this move fit the bill.

But all of Dawn of the Dead’s remarkable visuals would not mean a thing if the drama among the characters did not work so well.  I view these particular characters as very 2004 in a way, divided by the press and politicians in their beliefs on about every hot-button topic in American life.  Still, they are willing -- finally -- to put all that nonsense away for the common good.  The TV evangelist played by Foree attempts to take wedge issues -- abortion, gay marriage and so forth -- and use them to divide people.  The zombie apocalypse is God’s punishment for those “evils," and so forth. He is a stand in for the media, and the political campaigns of the day, I believe.
Yet the films’ characters don’t stay divided for long, despite racial, ethnic, and even sexual orientation differences. To wit, one quality I love about the film is the way the C.J. character develops. He begins as an obnoxious, condescending asshole -- a kind of stand-in for Night of the Living Dead’s (1968) Mr. Cooper -- but eventually he gets on board with the program, joins the community, and proves himself a courageous and even noble fighter.  In real life I probably wouldn't like C.J. at first, either, bu by the film's end, I was hoping and praying he would survive the crisis. The filmmakers made him more than a redneck stereotype, and so, in the end, we root for him.

Similarly, Michael, goes from being reasonable to unreasonable to reasonable again, in a very realistic, very human way.  For a while, his fear gets the better of him.  There are few of us for whom that wouldn’t be the case, considering the circumstances.

The only truly cardboard character in the film is Steve Marcus (Ty Burrell), a guy who doesn’t realize that the old order is shattered, and that he has to live in a new way. He is rich, indulged, entitled and obnoxious, and he can’t ever seem to get over that, as the 1%, he’s the most important person in the room.  Or any room.

For me, the only thing that diminishes Dawn of the Dead a bit is the post-credits sequence, which reveals the group’s catastrophic arrival at the island.  I don’t feel it is necessary to see this attack of the zombies, when it could have been left entirely to our imagination what happened to Ana, Kenneth, Terry, and Nicole. 

It’s true that Night of the Living Dead features an absolutely cynical ending, with the death of Ben, so it is possible to interpret this Dawn’s ending as being right in tune with the Romero aesthetic.

I don’t object to the fact that these characters might die, I just object to the fact that the film feels it needs to show us what happens. The important aspect of the narrative is life in the mall, and the escape from the mall…the hope for something better out there.  

As in life, there may be nothing better out there, but again, that idea doesn’t need to be made concrete. 

I would have rather been left wondering about the fates of the characters of Dawn of the Dead, then spoon-fed the answer about the end of the world, and the presence of the zombies on that island.

1 comment:

  1. Great review John. Im a huge fan of the original Dawn. I remember getting to finally see it on VHS in the early 80s visiting my Aunt in Florida. It floored me! Stunned and loving Malls in a whole new way. I couldn't walk through Quakerbridge Mall back in NJ without thinking of Dawn. Actually any mall, even now at the age of 47!

    The anticipation of the remake was high. I went to my favorite theater in Battery Park in NYC to see it. As soon as that Johnny Cash song started playing over the opening credits I was in heaven, yes zombie heaven! Loved the remake, it hit all of the right notes. Was thoroughly satisfied with Zachs version. Was so hoping for a sequel and instead there was that horrific impostor remake of Day of the Dead a few years later. Remember that one? Blech.

    Regarding the Dawn remake I remember they released a few minutes of the pre credit sequence online before the theatrical release. I'm thinking that was one of the first times that happened? All the way up to the point Sarah hits the tree in her car. What an opening scene!