Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Bad news is, you're the best character in this film because you're not in it long enough for me to get bored with you.
Bad news is, Andy, you’re the best character in the film. Because you don’t have any lines. The less people speak in this movie, the fewer chances they have to piss me off.

The original Dawn of the Dead was twenty-six years old by the time this remake entered the pipeline. Its time had very much come and, in one sense, already gone. Tom Savini’s 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake celebrated its sweet sixteen by the time 28 Days Later broke out of its “low” budget genre ghetto, made it to Sundance, eventually broke out of that ghetto, too, and became a critical darling and smash hit…for whatever reason.

I try to ignore Spring horror films as much as I can because they tend to suck as a rule. (A popular example from the year in which I write – 2011 – would be the Scott Charles Stewart directed Paul Bettany vehicle, Priest.) January and February are studio dumping grounds for sub-standard, shitty movies they know no one will want to see. By March they’ve usually worked through the previous year’s back catalog and begun to ship out films designed specifically for home  markets. Christ’s sake, no one really wants to watch big budget horror movies in March…but March is only seven months away from Halloween. Time enough for a film (like this one, which “only” cost $28 million) to earn its money back in theaters, allowing ancillary sales (like seasonally-appropriate DVDs and TV broadcast rights) to count as pure profit.

Predictably, this movie became the early breakout hit of 2004. Not that anyone at Universal actually predicted that. They were convinced the complete failure of 2003’s House of the Dead meant no one really wanted to see any more zombie movies. (And as long as by “no one” they meant “me” that statement held true.) Anyone with a functional brain could’ve told them House of the Dead failed because of two key words: “Uwe” and “Boll.” Never the less, Universal cut every corner they could, going so far as to turn the cameras over to some jumped up car commercial director named Zack Snyder.

Captain Bland, Nurse Ratchet, Ving Rhames, Future, His Wife, Cannon Fodder
(l to r)Captain Bland, Nurse Ratchet, Ving Rhames, Future, His Wife, & Some Cannon Fodder who’s name I forget. The one the legless zombie ate.

Dawn of the Dead opens cold with ten minutes that eventually became the first sneak peek reel to make it all the way to broadcast television uncut and uncompromised (I’m told). Good thing, too: these ten minutes are the best part of the movie and we all got to see them for free (provided we owned the right cable channels in 2004 – I didn’t).

Here we meet Ana (Sarah Polley) a nurse; her beau, Louis (Louis Ferreira); and the friendly little neighbor girl, Vivian (Hannah Lochner). Ana and Louis shag in the shower and fall asleep, waking with the dawn to discover, oops, zombie apocalypse. Louis finds out a bit before Ana, thanks to zombie Vivian has his neck for breakfast. He dies, comes back, and chases Ana out of the house by ripping off The Shining.

Escaping her suburban hellscape, Ana crashes into a tree and the credit sequence, where stock footage, shots of confused politicos, and shots of screaming zombies war with each other in cuts that can only be measured with pictoseconds. Johnny Cash plays over the digitally-inserted static fuzz as our director reveals his first love and greatest strength lay in making music videos. Yeah, the song’s “cool.” It’s the Man in Black; how couldn’t it be? But some zombie movies manage to impress me without a famous country western singer playing over the credits.

Publicists made sure we knew this was no mere remake months before it came out. No, this was to be a “reimagining.” Some critics quite rightly questioned what that even meant at the time. Well, far as my personal Critic’s Dictionary’s concerned, the entry for “reimagining” reads:

reimagining: (n) see remake-in-name-only

remake-in-name-only (RINO): (n) a marketing gimmick used by studios desperate to make their silly, sub-par, mediocre films profitable through the shameless use of name recognition.

"It's got zombies! And a mall! Might as well call it 'Dawn of the Dead' or peope'll just call it a 'Dawn of the Dead rip-off.' "
“It’s got zombies! And a mall! Might as well call it ‘Dawn of the Dead’ or peope’ll just call it a ‘Dawn of the Dead rip-off.’ “

Of the titles, you understand. These days, titles sell movies the way actors used to. Hell, Ving Rhames is the biggest name in this cast and we don’t even meet him until after the credits. He plays Kenneth, the cop who couldn’t be further from Peter if he tried. After hooking up with Ana, the two in turn hook up with Michael (Jake Weber), Andre (Mekhi Phifer, having escaped 8 Mile) and Andre’s very pregnant wife, Luda (Inna Korobkina).

Finding their way out of town blocked by the running (scrambling, snarling) dead, Our…um…characters break into the Crossroads Mall…only to find it occupied by three rent-a-pigs and their prize penis extensions. Led by the Napoleonic CJ (Michael Kelly), Crossroads’ truncated security force locks Our Characters into an empty store rather than treat them like humans beings, the better to watch the apocalypse unfold on TV and mouth empty platitudes about how, “America always sorts its shit out.”

This lasts for all of a day before security trainee Terry (Kevin Zergers) switches sides. “That’s real good, man,” CJ says as he’s led off to the holding cells at gunpoint. “You’re gonna get us all killed.” And he’s right. James (Tromeo and Juliet) Gunn’s script is smart enough to know basic human empathy will always doom zombie movie protagonists. By putting this line in CJ’s mouth, Gunn (unwittingly…? I’m not sure…) told his audience to start The Final Countdown. Who will live and who will die? We’re not supposed to be sure. But if you’ve watched anywhere near as many Slasher movies as I have, you will be. You will be…

Like any good remake, Dawn of the Dead wastes its middle third covering ground better movies stamped flat twenty years prior. CJ’s deposed thanks to a truck full of other survivors that suddenly barrels across the mall parking lot, depositing even more characters (including Matt “Max Headroom” Frewer) so the body count can rise and our…um…Initial Characters…can learn the Rules of Zombification. Die and you’ll rise again as a zombie. Get bitten and you’ll die from the infection, only to rise again as a zombie.

Lies! Lies!
Lies! Lies! There’s nothing alive in here at all!

Continuing one of the genre’s worst habits, the amount of time it takes a corpse to rise is entirely dependent on the amount of cheap jump scares Snyder wanted in a given sequence. Take Luda (please): bitten not twenty minutes in, she conceals the bite from everyone but her husband, who in turn conceals Luda from the rest of the group for half this movie’s ten hour running time. Eventually Luda dies, giving her husband just enough time to tie her down to the nursery store’s display bed before she reanimates…and gives birth.

Yeah, zombie baby. Big deal. You only wish you were Larry Cohen, Zack. Which brings up another pet-peeve: even the people who claim to like this movie don’t really like this movie. They like elements of this movie, fragments of an idea this flick shattered in the name of “reimagining” it…i.e., “blinging it up for the assholes who used to sneer at us for watching horror films that didn’t star a guy in a mask.” This is a movie made to be played in the background at parties, secure that nothing important will happen between those few Key Scenes. Then, thanks to Snyder’s fetish for slow motion, you’ll have plenty of time to elbow your dude-bro and say something like,

“Dude…bro…it’s that scene. Aww, man…dude…bro…here it comes, dude…bro, here it comes…DUDE!…bro…man, that was awesome! Awww, man…now, what were you saying?”

I was saying, good movies should make you forget whatever it was you were saying. They should sit you down and shut you right the fuck up, not just because of their “awesome” special effects, but because of their likeable, well-developed, non-bickering characters, their engaging stories and their gradual build towards a climactic resolution that feels earned. That fits.

Fuck yeah!
Fuck yeah!

Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead drops all those balls. Years directing car commercials (one of which plays during the cold open, as Ana and Louis enjoy the Last Shower of Their Lives) taught Snyder to value one thing above all else: the Slow-motion Money Shot. You know the one where the car suddenly banks into a power slide, back tires spraying gravel in a meant-to-be-impressive fantail as the camera glides over its flank. Well, guns replace cars here but the aesthetic remains, making this Dawn of the Dead the worlds longest gun commercial. Somebody call Guinness.

I stopped counting the number of portentous slow-mo shots once I realized they didn’t portend anything. Here, as in all Snyder’s films, they’re pointless padding inserted to increase the number of cuts per minute and because Snyder thought they looked “cool.” The Rule of Cool is the only one in his book. If something “looks cool” it’ll wind up in his film, full stop. That’s why all of Snyder’s movies feel so damn juvenile. It’s not just the hot chicks in fetish outfits, or the fetishistic love of weaponry. Like the fourteen-year-old with the mustache that hasn’t quite grown in yet, Snyder tries too damn hard at everything he does. It’s cute, but it gets old real fast.

He tries to make this into an action movie by creating plenty of scenes where Our Characters to stand off against the zombie hordes, all of which go a little somethin’ like this: shot of zombie, running toward someone. Shot of that someone firing a gun. Shot of zombie falling back from an insta-kill headshot. Repeat ad nauseum. If that doesn’t make you nauseous, the character-defining monologues James Gunn gave these actors will certainly move you. Matt Frewer gets his three minutes before his (un)death and I’m supposed to…care? Why? Because he has a daughter? Well, she just got here, too, movie! And now she’s gonna have an excuse to do something stupid and bring the hordes down on everyone else.

Matt contemplates the fact he's going to die in every movie he's in from now on.
Matt contemplates the fact he’s going to die in every movie he’s in from now on.

But first: a shopping montage.  The original Dawn of the Dead used this to show its heroes settling into what Francine rightly identified as “a trap.” Romero’s Dawn of the Dead occupied itself with the conquest of that trap and the way it gradually ensnared the characters in a post-apocalyptic consumer paradise. But that’s all boring, stupid stuff  people used to do in old movies. Why go to all that trouble when you can throw in an Obligatory Tit Shot and paper over Andre’s betrayal?

Why not just stand Mekhi Phifer and Jake Weber outside a door and let them rack up headshots? That’s all people want from their movies, right, Zack? Hell, no one watches movies anymore. They just leave them running at parties until someone gets bored enough to suggest they use the Xbox for its intended purpose and pop in a video game. Like Resident Evil.

I must say, this is better Resident Evil movie than any of Paul W.S. Anderson’s. For whatever that’s worth…(not bloody much). Because the cast’s so large, characters are given their one note and told to hit it until further notice. Most receive that notice after the shopping montage (which is more of a Killing Time Until the Next Action Sequence montage). That’s when CJ shifts from Acerbic Dick to Acerbic But Useful Dick. It’s when Ving Rhames goes from “Fuck ya’all” to playing chess with the poor dude trapped in the gun store across the parking lot (Bruce Bohne). It’s when Andre disappears to go birth his baby. And its when I finally gave up hope, checked out and said, “Fuck this movie.”

Entrails are actually quite tasty if they're cooked right.
Entrails are actually quite tasty if they’re cooked right.

Not just because Romero used his setting as an excuse to satirize consumer culture. The differences between remake and original go deeper than a complete lack of subtext. There’s barely any text here because actual character exploration wouldn’t be “cool” enough. Snyder’s eyes would glaze over at the mere thought of slowing down to let something happen, or deal with the consequences of what just happened. The Zombie Birth scene’s the best example, a great idea shoved off screen once it’s shock value’s worn off and three more underwritten characters have met their reward. All this does is justify Ving Rhames turn from rooftop chess master to, “There are somethings worse than death. And one of them is sitting around here, waiting to die.”

The last thirty minutes devolve into all the worst video game cliches, with the worst Big Dumb Summer Action Movie screenwriting cliches thrown in for good measure. We get the Light Bulb Moment, where some character makes an off-hand comment and someone else goes, “Hey, that’s not a bad idea. We should consider that plan seriously!” We get Ving’s stirring speech, which made me long to hear him take a crack at Henry V. (“For he that sheds his blood with me this day will be my motherfucking brother!”) And CJ gets the sad duty of restating the plot for anyone who might’ve fallen asleep.

All the supposedly hair-raising action scenes (including the climax) bored me for the same reason watching someone else play a video game bores me: I wasn’t involved. This movie didn’t need my involvement. It preferred to bludgeon me with loud noises, CGI fire, sloppy shot composition and enthusiastic fountains of perforated zombie brains, created by armies of very talented special effects artists who’s work Zack Snyder would go on to claim credit for. My hats off to all of them. I wish they’d turned their talents towards a better film.

Dawn of the Gun Porn
Dawn of the Gun Porn

This one’s such a shameless video game movie it even has its own vehicle section. Every modern action game needs one. Some damn rule Halo came up with, I don’t know: I let my Xbox stay broken. I finally reached the edge of my seat as Our Characters armored shuttle buses plowed into the zombie mob…because I’d finally slouched down in defeat.

Robbed of everything that made them unique or special, the dead became interchangeable cannon fodder, devoid of menace because I can’t be scared of things I can barely make out between ADD edits. I realized George Lucus could digitally replace them all with Ewoks and wondered what difference that would really make to the film? There’d be less gore…probably…which means the MPAA could knock our hypothetical Ewok “re-imagining” of Dawn of the Dead down to a PG-13, easy. Ka-ching!

For lack of a better word, I found this Dawn of the Dead deadening for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact its zombies run. I’m going to say this over and over again until it sinks in: I don’t give a shit if they run, walk, swim or fly, so long as they’re chasing something I can recognize as a character.

Dawn of the Dead might look pretty to digital film enthusiasts, but its characters are so plastic and boring they fade into their plastic, boring mall backdrop. I had to watch this movie twice before I even remembered their names. I look forward to forgetting about them again quite soon, just like every single one of this movie’s so-called fans.

"FREEBIRD!"
“FREEBIRD!”

That’s a shame because Polley, Rhames, Weber, Phifer, Ty Burnell and Michael Kelly do wonderful jobs with absolutely nothing. They deserve every word of praise they’ve ever gotten for working with what they had. They just couldn’t save the movie for me. I knew they were all gonna die and an hour of watching them act like a Slasher cast didn’t change that one bit.

Ultimately, as is so often the case, Zack Snyder sunk this movie. His style annoyed me here for the same reasons it would go on to annoy me in 300 and Watchmen: he grinds things to halt whenever something “cool” enough (like a spent cartridge) flits along. For an hour and forty-four minutes, he ground Dawn of the Dead down to a tasteless paste and, thanks to his slow-mo fetish, it felt like it lasted twenty hours. Stay away from this mindless, drooling brute of a remake. And if you’re one of the apparent millions who actually like it, please enter your death threats and Voodoo curses below.

GHalf-G

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7 thoughts on “Dawn of the Dead (2004)”

  1. yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes you’re right you’re right you’re right you’re right you intelligent and fantastic person you. The only place I would debate is that zombies need to be slow. To represent something and to work as a metaphor they need to be slow but in large numbers. They’re walking corpses, speed does not strike me as something they would technically have. Apart from that thank you so much for hating this film as much as I do. Glad to know I’m not the only one!

  2. The first time I saw this, I had a second movie theater job to make ends meet and they had an employee appreciation night. We could see one of two movies that night; I forget what the other (was it Honey or something like that?) was now, but each wasn’t in general release yet and I picked this one, knowing I could get the scoop on everyone else at the BMMB. You could bring a friend, so my then roommate who I was educating in the ways of horror came with. We had free food. Anyhow, I saw it under ideal conditions to enjoy it, and I did. Is it remotely as good as the original? No. In light of Snyder’s later work, the flaws are far more obvious now, I’m sure, than they were to me then.

    I will say this though, I can’t really disagree with anything you say here (other than one: if I recall from the times I’ve seen it, you can die and not get reanimated if you weren’t “infected”, which never sat well with me). I watched it at least one more time, and it might have been twice, and it definitely did not reward further viewings. I find it disappointing it codified the 28 Days Later virus infected living humans rules as the new zombie rules. One thing it can never do: invoke a sense of dread, nihilism and bone chilling mortality the way Romero can. Even watching the trailer for the original when I wrote my MotD post for it creeped me the fuck out. Like you, I find it disappointing that most of my johnny-come-lately horror fan friends can’t get behind the original, but love this one. The aforementioned former roommate, who is one of those computer science types that can’t understand why people in movies do illogical things, gets hung up on how the original’s leads don’t have a better door blocking plan, and how Roger gets bitten because he acts dumb. How this film’s asinine dog plan gets by him I’ll never know, but it does.

  3. Another good observation on what is wrong with Modern Horror and the slew of remakes/sequels we’re getting suffocated in. I’ll take some cheap Italian zombie movie (even the Fregasso and Bianchi ones) over this any day of the week. This remake completely missed the point of the original movie. Alas, there’s plenty of evidence before us that all these unnecessary remakes tend to miss the point. Refer to juvenile trash remakes as Death Race, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.

  4. In the last week 3 online critics I respect (yourself, Spoony, and Cinema Snob) have more than vilified movies that I have come to love; this one and The Thing prequel. And I begin to ask myself what is wrong with this picture? How can 3 voices that I have consistently agreed with on the good, the bad and the ugly in film be diametrically opposed to my tastes? I think I have an answer, but let me preface it by saying that I love the originals of both films and I saw them in my early teens (yes I am north of 40 now) when they left a deep and lasting love for all things horror.

    The answer is simply that I have kids. They never felt the wonder and magic I felt when I discovered those gems. It was the pre-Internet Age and at best you could only find out about these through Famous Monsters/Fangoria or word-of-mouth. There are no longer hidden surprises today. If you hear about a title you can google it and find out all you want about the movie to your heart’s content. The only way to rekindle that magic is to see a movie in the theatre before too much slips onto the Internet. I introduced my oldest son to all the classics from my youth at home when I felt he could handle it (Alien trilogy, Evil Dead II, Predator I & II, The Howling, etc etc) as well as the rare hidden gem from today (i.e. Dog Soldiers). He has yet to see the original DotD but he loved to bits both 28 Days Later (despite the water drinking plot-hole) and this film. This may not be the original but its the one that my 17-year old has experience like new, and most importantly with his Dad.

    And The Thing prequel was the very first 18A (R rating here in Canada) movie he has ever seen in theaters. It has also left a lasting impression on him, and me as well since it was an intense and constant tension-building movie. And yet people are railing against it like its sacrilegious! FFS the original was a remake AND it came out 29 years ago! I have never understood why there is so much hatred for remakes, a new audience has to be introduced to these classics and since Hollywood never re-releases the originals in first-run cinemas because they wouldn’t make any money this is how they solve the problem. As easy as it is to be cynical about Hollywood there is something to be said for remaking for a new generation.

    And one last comment, character development? I know that there are living breathing characters in the original DotD but they are no deeper than the ones in the remake. What little you learn about them is mostly their shopping habits. Its not like we get to know their hopes and dreams, their family history, or their emotional make-up. Characters in horror movies are there for 2 reasons; to die or to persevere. We are only told enough about them to give their deaths or their triumphs poignancy and nothing more. This isn’t Citizen Kane after all (Schindler’s List for all you young whipper-snappers).

    So in conclusion, having kids and showing them all the horrors and wonders of these movies really changes one’s perspective on movies like this. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest and hope I didn’t piss you off too much.

    P.S Yeah 300 blew chunks but its perfect with the Rifftrax.

  5. Jon: You’re welcome. In my experience there are quite a few of us…though I expected us to be the internet majority (comparable to Christopher Nolan’s hatedom). In this, I was sadly disappointed. So I did what the Business Majors tell me I’m supposed to do and filled the niche I discovered in our Marketplace of Ideas.

    Mortis: I managed to avoid this until Fall ’05, when I found it playing in the background of some random person’s house. I came in during the Garage Level and the distaste was instantaneous. It reminded me of a first person shooter I’d just slogged my way through and I thought what I always think , Great: now I get to watch it instead of playing through it.

    The impression’s stuck with me through all of Snyder’s subsequent films. I’m absolutely serious: Snyder should stage a coup and take over the Resident Evil franchise. Let Anderson fuck up classic literary action heroes or however else he wants to show off his wife.

    Choronzon: I’ll be referring to the The Day the Earth Stood Still sometime after I review the first one.

    CthulhuBob: You make a good case, and those never piss me off. I enjoyed quite a few of the mid to late 80s remake wave myself, with The Thing, The Blob, and The Fly standing out in particular. These early twenty-first century…things…just get my goat…for so many reasons, I have to address them all individually. It’s not about remakes being shit in themselves; I just thought this one was shit. Which does nothing to invalidate your experience, obviously…

    …film’s still shit, though.

  6. Oh – you are so right! someone put this piece of crap on the TV in the family room during a wake this weekend and people watched scenes, ate & drank & talked all around it. I would have preferred Mozart’s Requiem in the background but got DOTD instead. No accounting for taste. Ug.

    1. That’s the best proof anyone could’ve possibly offered. If the movie were any good at all, no one would be thinking about watching it with anything less than their full attention…and certainly not at a wake, of all things. Jesus Christ…

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