Well before they became major players in the superhero genre, Zack Snyder and James Gunn teamed up to remake George A. Romero’s zombie cult classic “Dawn of the Dead”. Their stylish 2004 action-horror flick set out to pay homage to the 1978 original while also appealing to a new generation of moviegoers. For the most part Snyder and Gunn succeed. Their spin on “Dawn of the Dead” lacks the sly humor and satirical bite that was a pivotal part of Romero’s movie. But it’s far from humorless and the big action, creepy setting, and snappy pacing keeps things engaging.
Director Snyder and screenwriter Gunn basically take the general idea of the ’78 movie and build their own world around it. They fill it in with their own unique cast of characters, all caught in a sudden viral outbreak that reanimates the dead, turning them into rabid flesh-eating ghouls. It drives a host of survivors from different walks of life to a Milwaukee shopping mall where they hole up inside and wait to be rescued. As with most of the better zombie movies, the story revolves around the people – their virtues and their vices; the clashing personalities and the interpersonal conflicts.
But make no mistake, this is more of an ‘ode to the genre’ than some deeper social study and the film has a ton of fun playing around in some familiar zombie territory. Over the years Snyder has shown himself to be a visionary director and a visual storyteller. “Dawn of the Dead” was Snyder’s directorial debut and though not nearly as stylized as his sophomore effort “300”, you can clearly see the markings of the visual style that would become an integral part of his storytelling. In “Dawn” he delivers several memorable shots and some exciting high-energy action sequences. And while it’s certainly a horror film, I wouldn’t call his movie scary. Yet it can get under your skin on occasions and Snyder isn’t afraid to splash on a few coats of blood.
Gunn’s script introduces an interesting array of characters who fill out his story. Without question several are closer to archetypes who turn out to be little more than zombie fodder. But most bring their own something to the story, namely Sarah Polley as a nurse named Ana, Ving Rhames as a cop named Kenneth, Jake Weber’s Michael, an electronics salesman, and Michael Kelly’s abrasive mall security guard C.J. There’s also a particularly creepy storyline with a petty criminal named Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant wife Luda (Inna Korobkina). Characters who don’t fair as well, Ty Burrell’s Steve who is your prototypical, by-the-books scumbag and Kim Poirier’s Monica, exploited for her sex appeal rather than given anything meaningful to do.
It only takes a few minutes for the story’s survival elements to kick in and it quickly becomes a movie of who’s going to make it and who isn’t (which I admit, I’m a sucker for). But the ferocity Snyder brings visually and conceptually comes with a level of immersion I didn’t remember from when I first saw “Dawn” in 2004. It’s hard not to be caught up in the tension of the circumstances and the setting. Speaking of the setting, much of the film was shot in a completely renovated 45,000 square foot vacant shopping mall in Ontario, Canada. Production designer Andrew Neskoromny and his crew individually designed numerous stores and boutiques, developed underground parking areas, and even built a fountain at one of the entrances. It’s completely convincing down to the smallest details becoming the perfect horror movie playground.
While not as innovative or provocative as Romero’s highly revered original, this “Dawn of the Dead” remake is fueled by an admiration for the genre and a gritty visceral style that would become a Zack Snyder signature in the years that followed. It’s hardly subtle with its ambitions but in a kinetic and entertaining way that’s a real strength. Snyder and Gunn, notorious these days for their own individual and distinctly unique reasons, clearly have a ball making a zombie movie that honors its predecessors yet still plays by its own rules. It didn’t forever change the zombie horror landscape, but it did introduce us to an intriguing new filmmaker with some big projects on the horizon.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS