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Dawn of the Dead

DAY 23

Dawn of the Dead
Zack Snyder, 2004

During a zombie apocalypse, a group of survivors take refuge in a shopping mall.

This review may contain unmarked spoilers.

Still on a zombie kick, I guess, enough so that I revisited one that may not be the worst the genre has to offer but is easily one of the most confounding (especially because it's hard to like but easy to rewatch). I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with remaking Dawn of the Dead, but you have to account for how much of its classic status was rooted in its sheer idiosyncrasy and be able to strike out in a worthwhile new direction while staying at least somewhat true to the source. Writer James Gunn (yes, that one) takes the barebones survivors-in-a-mall setup and turns it into a twisted love letter to Romero's films, often recontextualising familiar iconography in bizarre ways (the "no more room in hell" line, initially a humble nod to the zombie genre's voodoo origins, now punctuates a televangelist's rant against abortion and gay people) and adding new elements that invoke mid-2000s edginess, action-based intensity, and undercooked interpersonal drama. Dawn of the Dead ultimately ends up drawing more from Night of the Living Dead by throwing together a sizeable ensemble and trapping them in a single location - the mall itself eventually starts to feel far more anonymous than it should, which definitely comes across as a problem for a film that calls itself Dawn of the Dead.

But what is the Snyder/Gunn version of Dawn of the Dead really about if it's not going to perform a 1:1 repetition of Romero's much-vaunted social commentary about the ills of consumerism? The drastically different third acts of both movies suggest that they are almost fundamentally at odds with one another in regards to how they view the mall and what it signifies - while the remake still recognises it as a gilded cage that the characters must ultimately leave behind, here it is framed as a more conventionally exciting climax to a film that tends to emphasise action over horror (which makes sense in the context of Snyder's later works but here seems an odd fit) and results in an epilogue that, while an amusing subversion of expectations in the moment, only seems to suggest that the whole film might actually be pro-mall. This inconsistent push-pull approach can also be felt in every aspect of the film - Snyder has long since become infamous for his slow-motion action sequences that he is visibly attempting to pull off even in this low-budget horror debut, but such choices are a bad fit in the context of a film where the main threat is that of fast-moving zombies. The same misdirected sense of speed can be felt when it comes to plot and characterisation as the size of the cast (most of whom are introduced at least a third of the way through a hundred-minute movie) means that development gets spread awfully thin and even the most well-established characters barely have two points of characterisation to rub together.

It figures that both the films I've covered at length here have been modern zombie movies. Maybe it's because I've still got enough fondness for the genre that I'm disappointed when the attempts to keep it going into the 21st century don't exactly measure up. The 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead could arguably be seen as an attempt to ride the coattails of 28 Days Later... with its fast zombies and (somewhat) faster style of horror, though there is still a semblance of an effort to do right by the classics. Even so, much of it plays like superficial homage that never quite seems to get at what made its source material truly work (but what else do you expect from a Snyder film?). Yet there must be some reason why I've come back to it as often as I have. I think it's more that it's scattered with moments that work amidst a whole that doesn't, but again that's pretty much par for Snyder, a filmmaker who builds films around individual moments. What it may lack in terms of genuine satirical bite is somewhat compensated for by how it manages to play certain aspects (a subplot involving a pregnant survivor takes a dark what-if scenario from the original and plays it right down a knife edge between genuinely disturbing and Troma-esque camp) and I guess that its overall slightness adds towards it being a relatively easy watch - but then again, should a movie like this really be easy to watch?