So I finally watched Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. It was interesting to watch Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead after having recently watched all of Romero’s films, as well as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later…. I enjoyed the latter, though I admit it didn’t really feel like a zombie film, and the same could be said for Dawn of the Dead ’04. Other than the fact that the “Infected” of 28 Days Later… can be killed like any human while the zombies of Dawn have to have their brain destroyed, there’s hardly any difference between the portrayal of the monsters—they’re fast-moving, violent, cannibalistic savages.
While I’m a fan of the original Dawn of the Dead, I don’t think it’s the best of Romero’s films. That’s Night of the Living Dead, a movie that I think, through sheer serendipity of production as much as artistic skill, is the most compelling film of the whole zombie genre. I’m not even talking about the “social commentary” that everyone gives lip service to when discussing Romero’s films; Night‘s real assets are its characterization, character interaction, and intensity.
I didn’t find Dawn of the Dead ’04 as compelling as Night or perhaps even the original Dawn, but it’s certainly moreso than Day of the Dead or Land of the Dead. But it’s also more of an action flick than a horror film, with makeshift Mad Max-style vehicles and propane-tank bombs that beg to be tested on Mythbusters.
I suppose fast zombies were an inevitable development in horror cinema. It’s just hard for modern audiences to be frightened by the slow-moving Romero zombies—to the point where they’ve become laughable . But I think fast-moving zombies remove some of the zombie’s appeal as a monster. 28 Days Later… and Dawn of the Dead are apocalypse-survival films that happen to feature a zombie infestation as the catalyst for the apocalypse. You could make a similar film with aliens (Signs), vampires (Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, which is arguably the progenitor of all these zombie flicks), or mutants (The Omega Man, also based on I Am Legend). Over the course of his films, Romero delved into the zombie condition and gave the monsters some pathos. In Dawn of the Dead ’04, the zombies are something to be fled or slain.
But I don’t want to give the impression I’m a Romero purist who’s trying to find a way to negatively review the remake. I enjoyed the film and will probably even buy it on DVD. It’s a slick, entertaining, MTV-style blend of action and horror—they basically built a better Resident Evil. There’s a lot of clever material here, such as the binocular exchanges with Andy, a man trapped on a building a quarter of a mile from the mall, and an intriguing (if horrific) look at what happens when a pregnant woman becomes a zombie.
If anything bothered me about the film (other than the action film clichés that creep into the second half of the film, particularly the incredible number of headshots made under pressure by untrained shooters), it was the rapid cutting. The film seems afraid to linger on the gore, as if afraid the audience can’t handle it. Say what you will about the original Dawn of the Dead, it featured a man’s stomach being torn out and his intestines eaten in front of him. Dawn ’04 has scenes that might be that awful if Snyder would let us see them for more than half a second. On the other hand, too much gore might have tipped the scales too far from action to horror, and I’m not entirely convinced Snyder wasn’t trying to make more of an action film than a horror film (oddly, Romero did much the same with Land of the Dead a year later). I think this may be part of the reason why the remake had a broader appeal than most zombie films.
One final note—I enjoyed Ving Rhames’s performance as Kenneth, as well as Sarah Polley’s as Ana, but I thought most of the other characters are forgettable. Ana’s romance with Michael (Jake Weber) felt forced and lacked emotional punch. I thought the characters were far less realized than those in the original, but that’s par for the course for big-budget action and horror films these days (28 Days Later… has some great characters, though). Between the original Dawn and the remake, Ken Foree’s performance as Peter in the original film still stands as my favorite, and my second favorite performance in all zombie flicks after Duane Jones as Ben in Night of the Living Dead.