Looking back at Zack Snyder’s feature directorial debut, there’s no denying DAWN OF THE DEAD hits a little differently now in a post- (or is that mid-) COVID world. You can tell who would be an anti-maskers almost straight away – the multitude of bite marks are a dead giveaway for starters.
Working from a script by James Gunn – fresh off penning both Scooby-Doo films, directing a remake of so revered a movie as George Romero’s original was a bold choice for a theatrical debut but Zack Snyder would end up delivering something very different than Romero’s eerie consumerist critique, but just as good in its own way.
When the world suddenly collapses in the face of a virulent and seemingly unstoppable plague which turns people into aggressive, flesh-eating zombies, a nurse (Sarah Polley), a policeman (Ving RHames), a young married couple (Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina), a salesman (Ty Burrell) and other survivors (Michael Kelly, Kevin Zegers, Michael Barry) in a Midwestern shopping mall. But as their situation becomes more desperate and nerves start to fray, they face up to the unwelcome need to leave their temporary sanctuary in search of somewhere more sustainably secure.
Snyder sets out his stall from the first frame of DAWN OF THE DEAD, going straight for the jugular with a pulse-pounding and relentless sequence of the quiet streets of suburbia falling to the ravenous horde of zombies. It’s a masterclass in disorientating horror as we accompany Sarah Polley’s Anna as she desperately struggles to stay alive while attempting to piece together just what the hell is going on. The assembly of the principle cast is efficient and economical and its only once there’s a chance to catch our rgged breath in the perceived satey of the shooping mall that the character interplays which always provide the real drama of any zombie movies start to come into play. CJ (Michael Kelly) is both an archetypal survivalist and the beginning of what would go on to become a staple of Snyder’s work: ready to act in a crisis, especially when that action requires cruelty or lethal force but utterly uninterested in anything involving compassion, kindness or supporting others. DAWN OF THE DEAD is interested in humanity stripped back to the bone, red in tooth and claw and in that interest, it finds its soul mate in its director.
Snyder’s decision to ramp up the danger by creating a more kinetic zombie threat pays dividends and pioneers the cinematic idea of the irresistible fast-moving flood of zombies overwhelming their victims. Before this, carelessness cost lives in zombie movies but after this dawn, being careful won’t be enough, you’ll need to be quick – and lucky – to survive.
More action-packed than its progenitor, Snyder keeps things moving at pace although there’s little sign of the stylistic flourishes he’d bring to bear on 300 and perfect with WATCHMEN which would go on to define and then dominate his work forevermore. In a way, watching 2004’s DAWN OF THE DEAD now is akin to seeing what Zack Snyder was like before he was bitten by and succumbed to the graphic novel edgelord virus that’s infected his work and fandom ever since. Perhaps it was while working on this film that Snyder acquired his taste for thousands of shambling followers, mindlessly hanging on his every word?
Out and out frightening rather than creepy and thought-provoking, Snyder and Gunn’s reimagining isn’t particularly interested in a deconstruction of late-stage capitalism – the mall is more of a location than a commentary on the shambling mindlessness of consumerism. There’s more of a mediation on redemption and reinvention, though, as the old world collapses it reveals both opportunities and temptations for the group of survivors suddenly freed from societal constraints. With solid performances, smart action and a wickedly knowing use of the genre’s tropes to terrific effect, DAWN OF THE DEAD is an apocalypse you can believe in.