Dawn of the Dead (2004)

This review was originally written as part of my USA Road Trip series for French Toast Sunday.

I normally use the first paragraph or so of my reviews to outline the plot of the film. However, in terms of Zack Snyder’s semi-remake of George A. Romero’s 70s horror movie, that plot can be summed up in one word: Zombies. Ok, maybe two words: Zombies attack. Or ten: Zombies attack a town, survivors hole up in a mall. Yeah, that’ll do it. Either way, it doesn’t really need an entire paragraph to talk about it, because as set-ups go it’s a fairly rudimentary one.

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Back in the early 2000s, zombie movies received something of a revival. First up was this month’s Director of Choice Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. You can debate all day as to whether it’s technically a zombie movie or not, but you can’t question the zombie-like nature of the primary antagonists, and the general message that it’s not just the zombies you need to be afraid of, a message which has cropped up in pretty much every zombie movie since. Boyle’s film is a very serious movie that threw fast “zombies” into the mix to make them even more terrifying, and to guarantee that if this kind of attack ever did take place, I’d die within seconds (cardio isn’t exactly my speciality). Two years later came this effort from Snyder – his first feature no less – which retained the zombie’s speed from 28 Days Later, but also kept the more traditional unexplained zombie origin and method of infection. It was soon followed just a month or so later with Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, which at heart kept all the original rules – slow, lumbering gait; quest for brains – but made it a London-set comedy instead. Since then, the world has become almost inundated with zombie culture, which has opened the door for other fantastical mythical creatures – vampires, werewolves, witches – to take over as well. Every other television show seems to be devoted to some such nonsense, and fortunately I’ve only clung to one, The Walking Dead, because it’s about zombies, which I love.

The only problem is, there’s only so much you can do with them. Romero, often cited as the godfather of the zombie genre, has himself played out pretty much every possible scenario in the zombie handbook, and his more recent films have taken a gentle but evident decline in terms of quality and enjoyability, so much so that I gave up on the series after Diary of the Dead. It seems the only way to reinvigorate the genre is to mash it up with something else. Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland both worked so well because they had heavily comedic aspects to them and killer scripts. The Walking Deadhas more time to focus on the characters and give them proper arcs, and 28 Days Lateris, at times, fucking terrifying. Snyder, and screenwriter James Gunn, fleshed out theirDawn of the Dead with a mixed bag of genres, adding horror elements (the first zombie encounter), comedy (any scenes with Ty Burrell), drama (a man has a heavily pregnant wife with a bite on her hand) and some balls-to-the-wall action (Ving mother-fuckin’ Rhames).

The first zombie we’re properly introduced to in this film, on the morning after nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) comes home from the hospital in which many people have been admitted for bites or rabid behaviour, is not your usual stumbling, groaning man with a bite on his arm and the inability to walk around knee-level obstacles. It’s a little girl, maybe 7 years old (I’m a horrible judge of child-age, she could be anywhere from 3 to 15 for all I know), with a bloodied, lip-less mouth that leaves her permanently snarling. This film may be the reason I don’t like children. It’s terrifying, and it doesn’t get any better when she starts running around at full speed trying to devour Sarah and her husband. It’s a gripping scene that doesn’t let up even once Sarah has escaped her house, as then another zombie proves how dangerous they can be by forcefully punching through her windscreen, and keeping up with her car as she drives away at full speed. This is a world where I would have died hours, if not days ago. The film relies a little too heavily on jump scares – generally considered the lowest form of horror and the easiest to pull off – but they aren’t too overused, and are for the most part effective.

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Some aspects of the film are a little predictable, but in a way that you can’t wait to see how they turn out. The first time I ever saw it (this review was written after my third viewing), the moment we were introduced to the heavily pregnant and zombie-scratched Luda (Inna Korobkina) I immediately started a countdown until the moment I’d see a zombie baby. Zombie children are all well and good, but I wanted some newborn zombie carnage (which I’ve since also seen in the potentially superior Dead Alive from Peter Jackson). Unfortunately the zom-baby that arrived was something of a disappointment, as it’s barely used and rapidly dispatched – off screen, a wise decision ratings-wise. Elsewhere, the characters you know will die – ones that barely get introduced or are utter dicks to everyone else – get dispatched in an orderly fashion, and it’s really not much of a surprise as to who makes it to the closing credits.

Along with the pregnant zombie there are other aspects to this film that took it in different directions from the pre-existing zombie movies. The large number of characters certainly helped, allowing more relationships – both good and bad – to build. Also, I was particularly taken with the idea of a member of their group being in a secluded location away from the majority, but still in contact. Across the road from the shopping mall where the bulk of the action takes place there’s a gun store, whose owner Andy (Bruce Bohne, Lou from the original Fargo) interacts with the group via dry-erase boards and binoculars. When the time comes for a plan to be initiated, he’s just as integral a part as everyone else, so poses a problem of how he can become involved and saved as well. However, this did set up a number of occasions where the thought “Well why didn’t they do that earlier?” crept into my mind, but that happens so often in movies that holding it specifically against this one is pointless.

As this is a Zack Snyder joint, a lot of attention has been paid to things like glossy visuals, explosions and slow motion. All of this is done well but not over-used, so if you thought the likes of 300 or Man of Steel suffered from stylistic overkill then rest assured because that isn’t the case here. Also, the soundtrack is flat out awesome, and it introduced me to Richard Cheese at a young age, so thanks must be awarded for that. Lastly, and by no means leastly, Ving Rhames is a badass in this movie. He’s never exactly not been a badass in films, but here he takes it to a new level, and I love everything he does. To conclude, this is a fun update to the zombie genre. For better or worse, it was an integral stepping stone to the zombie-filled culture we live in today, but more than that it’s just a really enjoyable experience. It shouldn’t scare off horror-phobes, but there’s enough to keep the gore hounds pleased too. Also, a zombie baby!

Choose film 8/10

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