Beyond the Return of the Mid-Afternoon of the Walking Zombie Part 3
by Nick Pinkerton

Dawn of the Dead
Dir. Zack Snyder, U.S., Universal

Horror cultists, willfully clandestine and fiercely territorial, will doubtless be appalled by this latest multiplex spin-off of George A. Romero’s Dead series, something of a sacred text for the gorehound crowd. Any indignation toward this Romero-unapproved revamp of the second Dead film probably comes a little late, however; the director’s zombie trilogy has already been subjected to as rigorous a raping as any ever received by an intellectual property. The filmmaker’s inexplicable, insatiable army of the dead has weathered re-cuts, re-scoring, re-makes, fourth-rate Goodtimes video releases, and tireless tampering by depressing Horror Convention refuse like Night of the Living Dead co-writer John Russo and Bill “Cemetery Ghoul #1” Hinzman. Righteous indignation at this point is a little absurd; this stuff is, after all, called exploitation for a reason, and at least when working from material as potent as Dawn of the Dead, any film produced has to be more essential than most of Hollywood’s diarrheic output.

Hell, even Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead wasn’t strictly an original. Its mall-as-post-humanity-Alamo premise markedly recalls J.G. Cozzen’s 1934 book Castaway, whose protagonist, the seeming sole survivor of some ambiguous Armageddon, holes up in a multi-level department store, his simpering attempts at self-preservation highlighting the state of man mollycoddled into emasculation by pampering capitalism (Not surprisingly, the book was a Peckinpah dream project). The consumer culture critique of Cozzen’s novella carries over into Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which ambivalently explores a premise that’s all queasy game-show wish fulfillment: the shopping spree at the end of history. That satirical foundation was a custom fit for the trappings of the zombie movie as Night of the Living Dead had defined it, with its primally affecting images of individuals set Rhinoceros and the various incarnations of Body Snatchers. But these zombie films found the most indelible visual manifestation for our fear of violent absorption: the mass of extending arms and snapping teeth stretching out, unified, like the enthralled audience at a rock concert, in ravenous idolatry of living flesh. Or, as Romero would have it, like the ideal focus group, truly and madly insatiable, eternally hungry for more.

The sardonic line explored by the original Dawn is mostly dispensed with in this newest addition to the franchise family; it’s pared-down, in fact, to a single line from protagonist Ving Rhames, who suggests that it’s force of habit drawing the undead back to their old commercial Mecca. By and large the film’s setting provides nothing more thereafter than a handy background for its various set pieces, but the new Dawn of the Dead does show an early-on ambition to plug Romero’s conceits into our own, very contemporary sense of crisis. This is director Zack Snyder’s first feature, and his overnight end of the world intro feels like the work of somebody who’s been spoiling for the opportunity. Ana (Sarah Polley) comes back from her hospital job for a stay-in “date night” with her significant other, and the two obliviously screw and sleep their way through the beginning of the apocalypse. By the time Ana wakes up, the dead are already walking, and the world is already irrevocably changed. This rude jerk from the private cocoon of conjugal intimacy into the sprawl of mass crisis makes for a great, resonant sucker punch of an opening; I thought of my night of September 10th, 2001, spent in the peaceful microcosm of a campground tent with a girlfriend, and of the following morning’s massive tectonic shifts of global tragedy. Unannounced, horror now invades Ana’s day-to-day in a rapid torrent of brutality: Her half-asleep lover is transformed into an rampaging cannibal in just one bite, a knocked-down girl ghoul gets back to her feet with one unsettling, marionette-like jerk, a pistol-waving priest gets bent in two by a runaway ambulance, and a cracked-up Polley glides away from the neighborhood’s melee, the camera locked steadily to her car’s hood while sprinting, tooled-up zombies set about the task of gobbling up civilization.

After veering her ride through a guardrail, Ana finds herself defenseless and on foot, but she quickly joins a cache of survival-minded morning-after exiles. There’s monolithically hard-assed über-cop, Kenneth (Rhames), the sweetly hangdog every-loser, Mike (Jake Weber), tough street dude Andre (Mekhi Phifer), and his extremely pregnant Russian wife Luda (Inna Korobkina). This mixed bag of refugees decide to take shelter in a nearby shopping mall, where they run across a trio of mall security guards turned power mad by their leap to martial law authority. The leader of these rednecks-cum-SS is C.J. (Michael Kelly), a racist bully whose back windshield, one suspects, must sport a Dale Earnhardt ‘3’ sticker, complete with halo and angel wings. One of Dawn’s best surprises comes from how the film deals with the tense shuffling of pecking order between C.J. and Alpha brother Rhames or, more accurately, how it doesn’t deal with it. Rather than unifying after a valuable lesson in color-blind co-operation, replete with a human beatbox-and-banjo duet, the two agree to disagree, hate each other in silence, and concentrate on perforating undead brains with a superhumanly accurate string of headshots. If nothing else, though, I’m glad to report that Snyder’s movie keeps alive the darkly ironic truth that’s implicit in Romero’s Dead movies: come the inevitable zombie holocaust, the only strata of society with the necessary set of survival skills will be black men and white trash.

As the film progresses, Dawn-redux is increasingly content to aim at a lower bar of sociological relevance than its 1978 antecedent, despite giving the old zombie-as-metaphor-for-groupthink-conformity a few cursory shakes for old times’ sake. In an opening montage of news footage we see a kneeling crowd falling worshipfully prostrate in unison (a mosque-ful of Mohammedans?), and the establishing extreme long shot of heroine Ana’s suburban block highlights the neighborhood’s uniform, honeycomb-like geometry. But these nudges of meaning express more obligatory debt-paying tribute—like the cameos from original Dawn veterans Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, and Tom Savini-—than real conviction, and so Dawn 2004 is less about the zombie-as-metaphor than, well, the zombie-as-dead-person-who-has-crawled-out-of-his-grave-and-wants-to-eat-some-damn-brains. Romero’s premise becomes the raw material for a fairly straightforward splatter-actioneer in Troma veteran James Gunn’s script, which tools along pretty efficiently on these scaled-back terms. Bargain-basement CGI drapery aside, the production even manages a little of the fleet meanness and inventive brutality of prime exploitation action, right down to the mall shuttles that the castaways convert into a battle-ready convoy of steel-plated juggernauts, which look like they’ve been driven off the set of an Italian-lensed piece of post-apocalyptica. Despite some genuinely inventive and funny flourishes, like the long-distance dry-erase board exchanges between Rhames and a survivalist gun store owner which extend into matches of spotting and sniping celebrity look-alike zombies, the movie doesn’t take long to arrive at repetitive shoot-‘em-up territory. But if Dawn 2004’s seems pretty unambitious in comparison to its precursor, shouldn’t Gunn and Snyder at least be congratulated for showing decorum enough not to aim at pseudo-philosophy, and to so avoid the callow, macho sociology that paralyzes the latter half of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later?

But, pretenses aside, Boyle’s movie at least gave us an unforgettable yellow husk of London topped with violent sunsets, like something imagined by Blake; I have to wonder how much, if anything, will resonate long past the opening weekend from this new Dawn of the Dead. Though Snyder’s movie rounds all expected bases with reasonable competence, one’s left wanting some revelation, some something beyond a new revved-up model of living corpses who can run the four-minute mile. So it’s not only the comparison to Romero that this Dawn suffers from, but also from the memory of the jagged woodcut, homemade cruelty of Lucio Fulci’s weird, widescreen zombie flicks, or even the E.C. Comics punk schlock of Return of the Living Dead, a movie about as scary as listening to Danzig with the lights off. Against such ancestors this Dawn, unmistakably part of a new film culture that’s assimilated and made synthetic the grubby disrepute of the old low-budget shockers, is as clean and buffed of idiosyncrasy as the fictional chain stores (Bookmark or, my favorite, the coffee stand Hallowed Grounds) that populate the film’s mall fortress; call it Zombies R’ Us. And it finally winds up being that one thing that a zombie movie, above all, shouldn’t be: curiously indistinguishable from the shambling mass, another blank face in the genre crowd.