Friday, October 29, 2010

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: Dawn of the Dead (2004)

In which Zack Snyder has the balls to remake the quintessential zombie movie, puts a different slant on things, delivers the goods in decent style and turns indie queen Sarah Polley into a gun-toting badass action heroine.

Yeah, baby!

This is why Snyder’s remake works: he pays his dues to Romero’s original, but doesn’t hold it as sacrosanct. He’s not afraid to do things differently.

But before we get to the differences, let’s consider the touchstones. We have a society fragmenting as a plague of zombies ravages urban America. We have small band of survivors holed up in a mall. We have a final reel escape attempt when continued existence at the mall becomes untenable. And that’s about it.

Snyder – working from a script by James Gunn (who went on to direct ‘Slither’), which was subject to uncredited redrafts by Michael Tolkin and Scott Frank – telegraphs his intent to rework the material from the off. The opening sequence is an attention-grabbing ten minute curtain-raiser. Overworked nurse Anna (Polley) comes off shift just the hospital seems to be gearing up for an inexplicable influx. She drives home, stopping to chat to her neighbour’s young daughter. Anna canoodles with her husband (their sex-in-the-shower interlude causes them to miss an emergency broadcast on TV) then they turn in for the night. Next morning, they’re awoken by the neighbour’s daughter who seems to have broken into their house. The child’s mouth is smeared with blood; she attacks Anna’s husband and turns him. Anna narrowly escapes the house, only to be faced with a vision of suburban apocalypse. Sirens, panic, explosions, houses burning. And zombies everywhere. But no shuffling pathetic flesh-munchers, these. Nope, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ version 2.0 has zombies that are also version 2.0. These fuckers move. Fast. Anna piles into her car and drives like hell, her now undead husband running after her like the T-1000 on steroids. Snyder pulls off a breathtaking overhead shot with a vehicle just in front of Anna sideswiped by a van that comes barrelling out of a side street, the two enmeshed vehicles ploughing across two lanes in slamming into a gas station forecourt, the whole place going up in a fireball. Someone attempts a carjack and Anna momentarily loses control, hurtling off the road and into a culvert. Her head impacts on the steering wheel and the lights go out.

Cue opening credits.

I’m telling you, it had my attention.

Anna soon teams up with Sergeant Kenneth Hall (Ving Rhames); along with the good-natured Michael (Jake Weber) and semi-reformed crim Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his heavily pregnant Russian girlfriend Luda (Inna Korobkina), they head for a nearby mall to seek shelter. As a cop, Sgt Hall’s the closest we get to the SWAT team duo of Romero’s film. Also there’s no helicopter, a fly-away-ex-machina Snyder gleefully undermines with a shot of a chopper gliding serenely over the roof of the mall as our motley band of survivors fail to attract the pilot’s attention.

Moreover, Hall’s badge-and-gun status is immediately challenged by a group of paranoid and itchy-trigger-fingered store security guards led by C.J. (Michael Kelly), the Mugabe of the mall, the Hitler of household goods, the Stalin of store detectives.

That’s right folks: Romero’s original had the safety of the mall threatened by a bunch of badass, hard-as-nails bikers who’d tear your head off and skull-fuck you sooner than look at you. Snyder has a bunch of security guards. And here’s the thing: it makes perfect sense. The America of Romero’s original was a country on the cusp of being subsumed by consumerism, but where free-living, hard-drinking, don’t-give-a-shit bikers were still an emblem of counter-culture badassery and anti-establishment fuckyouery. Snyder’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ takes place in an America where consumerism is almost beyond satire; where a guy who can escort you out of the menswear department thereby denying you that designer outfit is actually more threatening than the Harley-riding, bourbon-swilling, skull-fucking dude in the chairs and leather and never mind that he’s obliged to call you “sir” even as he’s seeing you off the premises.

This isn’t the only example of this essential difference between Romero’s ‘Dawn’ and Snyder’s.

Snyder throws in any number of post-modern, post-ironic, this-is-America moments. There’s the mall bunch and the occupant of the neighbouring retail rooftop (the proprietor of Andy’s Gun Store) whiling away their time watching the crowd of zombies congregating below, isolating those who resemble celebrities and betting on whether Andy can take them down with one shot to the head (I’m betting Jay Leno, Burt Reynolds and Rosie O’Donnell aren’t big fans of this movie.) There’s rich asshole Steve (Ty Burrell) happily making a sex tape with valley girl Monica (Kim Poirier) never mind that the exponential diminution of the human race means that he doesn’t stand to gain any notoriety from it. There’s the whiny Nicole (Lindy Booth) blandly accepting that her father has to get shot in the head after a bite wound turns him into a zombie, but who turns into a quivering lump of jelly at the thought of something happening to her dog.

And, in most spectacular fashion, there’s an hilarious ‘A-Team’-style montage where the gang customize a couple of old buses in order to bust out of the mall and make a break for freedom.

Naturally, it goes tits up for a good percentage of the cast. It says a lot for Snyder that he makes this sequence simultaneously as tense as the clenched sphincter of a man who’s eaten a dodgy curry and is still four stops from home and absurdly, almost stupidly funny. The arbitrary deaths-by-chainsaw of two characters whose identities I won’t reveal; the heroic act of self-sacrifice by a hitherto selfish bastard; the chutzpah of a final shot that gleefully rubs the audience’s nose in pure cliché – all are delivered with an acidic sense of humour.

Oh. That final shot I mentioned:

Stick around for the end credits and grin in malicious delight at how savagely Snyder subverts it, the film lurching from Romero remake into Ruggero Deodato territory.

When there are no more ideas in Hollywood, the remakes will walk the earth. Most of them don’t deserve to. This one does.

This is my unofficial entry for Aaron’s George A. Romero week over at The Death Rattle (yeah, I know: I’m an awkward bugger for reviewing the remake). Aaron has already featured some excellent guest articles from luminaries such as Richard from Doomed Moviethon, James from Behind The Couch, Carl from I Like Horror Movies, Becky from The Horror Effect and Venom5 from Cool Ass Cinema. Check it out.


J.D. said...

Yeah, for what it was, this was pretty good but I missed Romero's social commentary and the character development which seemed largely absent from Snyder's version. But that opening overhead shot of Polley's character trying to escape was pretty fantastic.

The Film Connoisseur said...

This movie is one of my favorite zombie movies ever. Some are quick dismiss it just because its a remake, but they fail to remember just how many good remakes are out there. The thing, The Fly, The Blog, Night of the Living Dead 1990, and now this one.

Im right there with you, the opening sequence for this movie is a grabber. It's so freaking apocalyptic! You actually feel the tension...and the last 40 minutes of it...non stop white knuckles...I mean, I dont think I've seen that many zombies on any movie!

That scene where they turn on the lights of the van and theres like thousands of zombies in the darkness!!! Zombie movie heaven!

My respects to Mr. Snyder, he succeeded in making a sequel thats freaking worthwhile. And my hats down to him and the crew for making a remake that goes its own way as well.

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Neil Fulwood said...

J.D. - I'm a sucker for iconic visuals, and that brilliantly executed overheard shot really sold the remake for me.

Francisco - yeah, you can't fault Snyder for this movie. The opening sequence is visceral and immediate, he ramps up the tension for the last third and just delivers the goods. He gives you exactly what you want in a zombie movie.

Alfred - thanks for visiting and for adding me to your blog roll. I'm more than happy to return the favour. I've just checked out your blog and I like your style of writing. Good post on Grace Kelly.

Thanks for commenting, guys.

Aaron said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Neil. I love this remake. I love both the original and this, but on any given day, honestly, I'd much rather watch this over Romero's film. The DAWN remake is so much fun. One of the best opening credits sequences ever, too. Love the use of Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around". Good stuff. Great review as always!

BRENT said...

How cool is this zombie flick!! Love it! I'm actually really partial to zombie movies. They are different from other horrors in that they are apocalylytic and films of that nature fascinte me. I am Legend (even though remake of The Omega Man, Resident Evil, 28 Days etc etc, are awesome!