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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.