> Volume 6 > Number 12


Zack Snyder

Sarah Polley
Ving Rhames
Jake Weber
Mekhi Phifer
Ty Burrell
Michael Kelly
Kevin Zegers
Michael Barry

Release: 19 Mar. 04

Dawn of the Dead


Like many of the films of the 1970s and 1980s, the horror genre meant more than just clichéd shocks and awes. These were deeply analytical, expressively political statements on society that spoke to the masses, most of whom were unaware of the spoonfuls of liberalism being fed to them. Clive Barker, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, and John Carpenter made millions by being the Michael Moores of their days. Even if their judgments on Ronald Reagan’s America came in the form of a man degenerating into a fly or aliens infiltrating the human race, these horror parables came with a sociological message.

Although Alfred Hitchcock does and always will get much of the credit for the reawakening of the horror and suspense genres into an art form, the father of this style of politicking is more likely George A. Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead had more to say about race politics in America than Norman Jewison’s Oscar winning In the Heat of the Night. He didn’t stop there, soon he turned to rampant materialism in a Carter-era shopping Mecca.

His Dawn of the Dead is seminal. Although never quite as scary as its predecessor, the shocks are still there and the meaning is palpable. But nearly none of this is found in Zack Snyder’s remake, a film that distances itself from the original’s wit to make room for the very clichés that killed the genre under the guidance of Jason Voorhees and a middle-aged Norman Bates. Even if the zombies he’s creating are faster, more agile, and smarter than those found in Romero’s Dead trilogy (which concludes with Day of the Dead), they aren’t scarier. Their senseless brutality is defeated by their anonymous numbers and slick-gore makeup. People might find the blue paint of Romero’s zombies to be humorous now, but it showed a far more human looking antagonist for the heroes to kill.

But what’s mortally wrong with Dawn of the Dead isn’t so much in the zombies, but in the people we are meant to root for. The gaggle of miscreants who are stuck in a Milwaukee mall as the undead attempt to knock down the doors aren’t particularly engaging enough to really care about, which means that even if Snyder were honest enough to deal with the sociological repercussions of this scenario, as Romero did, these people would still have the depth of Dakota Fanning’s trousers. While the original’s cast slowly decay into scarier representations of ourselves, most everyone in the new Dawn of the Dead just plays the roles they’ve been relegated: the tough-as-nails black man, the smart and sexy nurse, the caring father, and the antagonistic cad (the latter’s sudden reversal comes as most unprovoked acrobatics since Jeff Goldblum's daughter in The Lost World: Jurassic Park).

Even the setting, which was integral to the thesis for Romero, comes as a castoff reference to the original without an ounce of context (save for one line, in which the zombies’ attempts to enter the place are explained as “memory, maybe, instinct”). Unwilling to fill the socio-political critic’s shoes he’s purchased, Snyder would have been better off just nixing the whole mall setting and title. There’s more 28 Days Later... to this film, anyway. And if this were just called Zombies in Milwaukee, or some other crappy title, unctuous critics like me wouldn’t be calling this an ugly recreation of a classic. We’d just call it a bad horror film

[Postscript: I will give the film some credit for a moment of inspiration.  The much ballyhooed opening scene isn't much to consider, but the opening credits are fantastic and nearly worth the price of admission (as long as you leave once the credits conclude).  I must admit, though, that I may just be a sucker for anything that marries anarchy with Johnny Cash.]

©2004, David Perry,, 19 March 2004