The Dawn of the Dead remake and Shaun of the Dead both came out around the same time, and along with the earlier 28 Days Later sparked a resurgence of zombie movies that continued well into the current decade – something you may either thank or blame them for. It also gave us Zack Snyder: Hollywood movie director, and again, you choose whether to thank or blame. At any rate, this being October and “Top XX Best Horror Movies of All Time” lists are popping up on all manner of pop culture websites, I’ve been seeing this Dawn show up on most of them. And if you’d asked me 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have disagreed at all at that inclusion. But I’ve watched the movie recently, and I’m just not so sure how well it holds up now…
The thing is, Zack Snyder comes from the world of music video, and like most music video directors making the leap to movies, he can’t help but stylize every scene to within an inch of its life. And in 2004 that meant a few things that didn’t end up ageing well… I’m talking about numerous slo-mo shots of bullet shells hitting the ground, over-saturated, over-contrasted digital photography, and unforgivable use of Disturbed’s hit song Down With the Sickness (both the original and the cheeky lounge cover). Zack Snyder is notorious for needle drops so obvious they border on parody, and it all started here… I don’t remember these things bothering me when I saw the film in theaters, and I don’t remember being bothered by them when I took home the DVD later that year. But now it all comes off as a little cringe-y.
The characters don’t fare much better. They’re almost all comic book-y archetypes delivering overwritten dialogue. The biggest offender by far is Ty Burrell, a vector of weaponized snarkiness begging for comeuppance with every line, but whose ultimate reward is sleeping with the hottest character and surviving the movie. He’s the most obnoxious character, but really all of them walk somewhere on the line of unlikeability. A few manage to redeem themselves before being eaten up.
Also, maybe this is just me, but I can’t watch this movie without dwelling on the fact that Sarah Polley is not Uma Thurman, and Jake Weber is not Tim Roth.
Anyway, now that I’ve aired my petty complaints, I must give credit where credit is due. From a purely meat-and-potatoes standpoint, Dawn of the Dead 2004 succeeds as a fun, kinetic zombie horror film, and it does so with very little help from the original. Besides the presence of zombies, and the mall setting, everything else is brand new. None of the characters or story beats are carried over from the ’78 original. I commend that, as it injects a dose of originality and unpredictability that remakes typically lack by design.
Zombies that sprint was also a relatively new concept when this movie came out, and the opening sequence is so batshit chaotic and sudden that it leaves you feeling unsafe from that point on. It’s really an all-timer. Gruesome zombie carnage and gore are present and accounted for, though not all that much more impressive than the Tom Savini work of the original.
Dawn of the Dead 1978 broke ground in several ways, nearly as many as its predecessor. The undercurrent of consumer satire, and the insane practical gore effects, and the depiction of people gradually learning how to go on living a semi-peaceful life in the midst of a zombie apocalypse all secured its status as a classic. Dawn of the Dead 2004 is no classic by any stretch, and it shows its age 13 years on. But hell, I’m not so cynical I can’t still enjoy it on some level. How about you?