I’ve been fairly vocal in the past about the works of one Zachary Edward Snyder – a man who seemingly has no use for the word restraint when it comes to unloading his particular brand of carnage onto the twitching retinas of a receptive audience. Say what you will about the guy (and plenty have), this one man controversy machine has never been afraid of ruffling feathers whether it’s wrasslin’ with notoriously “unfilmable” adaptations of graphic novels such as 300 and Watchmen, or taking beloved timeless characters such as Superman and Batman and making them broody edge lords; love the guy or hate him, you have to admit the guy has balls. However, possibly the ballsiest move the man has made during his feature film career may have actually been one of his first as his debut was no less than a remake of George A. Romero’s revered zombie epic Dawn Of The Dead, an act as cinematically sacrilegious as remaking Jaws with an all teen cast or Road House with a digital Patrick Swayze in the Sam Elliott role.
While we rightfully recoil at the thought of those two godless abominations I just reeled off the top of my head, it’s also fair to say that Snyder had a secret weapon when it came to such a potentially thankless task (well… two if you count a copious use of slo-mo). A secret weapon by the name of James Gunn.
Sarah Polly’s permanently tired looking nurse, Ana, finishes her latest shift and heads home to the comforting coils of her suburban home to snuggle in front of the telly, but by morning everybody’s life takes a dramatic dip into shitsville when a lethal virus that causes you to rise from the dead once infected tears through the neighbourhood faster than a dose of the runs. Fleeing the chaos, Ana stumbles across a group of survivors made up of cop and glowing ray of sunshine, Kenneth (hint of sarcasm there…), amiable tv salesman Micael and reformed gangbanger and preggers russian wife duo, Andre and Luda and she joins them as they infiltrate the local mall looking for shelter. First running foul of CJ, the brattish head security guard who’s also making an impressive play for deuche bag of the year and then taking in more survivors shortly after, the group eventually settles down to live in the mall with all of it’s sparkly, shiny things (not to mention plentiful food and shelter) and form a community of sorts as they dig in a mind wait for rescue.
But as the hordes of undead outside slowly grow, life in the mall starts to erode away the very identities of the people left alive during this zombie apocalypse and soon the decision is made to blow this pop stand and make a break for freedom. But even though this hugely resourceful group get a plan in place and start prepping to make their big breakout, how can they possibly hope to force their way through the molding mosh pit of death; and even if they do – where the hell can they go?
The main problem with with a lot of remakes made post 2000 is that despite usually being an upgrade in the visuals department, the finished product usually lacks the raw invention and personality of the original, leaving us with a flat photocopy of a classic. James Gunn’s script and Snyder’s speed-addicted direction seems to recognize this and also understands that it has absolutely no chance in matching Romero’s 70’s political musings; so it makes up for it by confidently treading it’s own path while rocking harder than a rock star eating a stick of rock while sitting in a rocking chair.
Keeping the absolute basics in place with the central concept of mall dwellers vs. flesh eaters and focusing more on the trapped group of pulse havers than instead of giving us a cross section of zombified life throughout Pittsburgh, Dawn Of The Dead takes the cue of the numerous, frantically paced zombie based video games and utilises the sprinting ghouls previously seen in 28 Days Later to show that life has picked up speed significantly since 1978.
The leads form a likeable collective of random misfits (this is James Gunn, after all) with Sarah Polly and Jake Webber forming the back bone of the genuinely sympathetic gang while Ving Rhames brings thectruckloads of badass loaded within his frequently firing shotgun. Even the asshole characters are fun to be with, with Ty Burrell and Michael Kelly locked in a death struggle to see who can be the Shithead Prime when it comes to snide remarks and shockingly low levels of trustworthiness (Modern Family’s Burrell edges it only because Kelly’s cynical CJ scores a redemptive arc).
Snyder’s more is more approach to things may have garnered him criticism later on in his career but in terms of unfettered coolness, actually pays off here in fucking spades; you may not embrace the ensemble quite as much as you did Romero’s 70’s quartet, but you’ll still mess your underoos in a frantic panic as their plight frequently has you on the edge of your seat. Snyder’s infamous use of his beloved slow motion also works well here, with endless, borderline pornographic shots of blazing muzzle flashes and empty bullet casings clinking off the floor and little micro moments where it looks like the zombies arguably have a moment of clarity before a well placed round blows a fist-sized hole through the back of their skull. The film is also blasted in harsh, vibrant colours – like someone’s turned to contrast up too high – to give the feeling that everyone has the heightened alertness that comes from having unchecked adrenaline continuously pumping through their system, which goes hand in hand with the eclectic soundtrack that gifts us everything from Johnny Cash’s legitimately chilling When The Man Comes Around playing over the (magnificent) opening credits to an audacious lounge version of Disturbed’s Down With The Sickness.
The flick is loaded with plenty of memorable bits and pieces such as possibly one of the greatest pre-credits sequences of it’s decade when it all initially kicks of and Snyder gifts us with a God’s eye view of civilisation explosively heading into a nosedive; and later we get a maniacally nasty scene involving a zombie birth that somehow, somewhere has undoubtably awakened an unfortunate bondage/zombie/pregnancy kink in some poor bastard somewhere (possibly Snyder of Gunn themselves, actually), Christ, the film even manages to sneak in a microscopic Blair Witch style, POV mini-remake of Zombie Flesh Eaters during the end credits, not to mention nifty cameos scattered about the place.
Yes, it’s technically James Gunn’s fabulously zippy script does have less to say than it’s predecessor (which was sort of the whole point of Romero’s zombie epics in the first place), but when the gore’s this good (Exploding head! Death by chainsaw!) the film’s this fun and the pace is so breakneck, you tend to forget about man’s vice like grip on consumerism when you’re hopping up and down on your seat, screaming at the characters onscreen to run faster.
Zack Snyder’s best film (that’s right, acolytes of the DCEU, come and get me!) and a cracker of a zombie flick to boot, this is a resplendent ode to the helter skelter speed the human race has adopted while hurtling towards it’s own, shallow ruin. Y’know, which is nice…
Blessed with a flashy, over abundance of style that actually enhances the experience, Dawn Of The Dead 2004 has to be seen to be bereaved.