After watching the new version of Dawn of the Dead movie last night (director Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s classic 1978 film), I felt it is a redefinition of the zombie genre as well as a new take on how people deal with a crisis post 9/11. After an undefined disaster causes people to turn into zombies with one bite from another infected person, the world of suburban Wisconsin (and everywhere else, judging from snippets of television footage showing similar problems in countries across the globe) turns into literal hell for Ana, a young nurse played by Sarah Polley. She escapes the clutches of her murdered husband-turned-zombie who chases her away from the burning ruins of their once idyllic neighborhood. Avoiding burning trucks in the streets and other obstacles, Ana eventually plows her car into a tree.
The opening minutes set the tone for the rest of the film, a frenzied sequence of death and havoc that is reminiscent of the hours after the attacks of 9/11. The world seems to be coming to an abrupt end with little notice or explanation, but Ana survives the crash and meets up with Kenneth, a policeman played by Ving Rhames. Kenneth brings an immediate change for the better to Ana‘s situation, considering he obviously works out and is armed with a shotgun. Soon they are joined by Michael, a soft-spoken engineer (Jake Webber), a possible hoodlum named Andre (Mekhi Phifer), and his pregnant wife Luda (Inna Korobkina). Knowing that everything has been consumed by this phantom pestilence, the group decides to take shelter in the local mall.
This setting mirrors the one in Romero’s original film, and by placing the characters in such a viscerally familiar place, Snyder immediately comforts the audience with a false sense of security. More living characters join this group, and, after ridding the mall of the remaining zombies, they barricade themselves inside and use the stores as individual living quarters to promote a semblance of normalcy. While partaking of the food, drink, clothing, and other amenities available in their rather comfortable but confined quarters, the characters create a new micro-society that is defined by what they did in their former lives. In essence, the disaster has not eradicated their individual histories but helped to define them. Ana provides medical care as necessary, Kenneth security, and Michael brings a technical savvy that assists the group members in their efforts to survive.
This group of people has no choice but to move forward, even though they have lost friends and loved ones. Ana sees her husband die and become a zombie; Michael loses his wife and children, and Andre must cope with getting his wife through delivery of their baby without letting others know that she has been bitten by a zombie (determined as a certain death sentence in the beginning of the film). There is little time for mourning in this world because to survive one must be strong, and these diverse people actually form a cohesive unit that in one way or another gets the job done despite overwhelming odds.
Obviously, comparisons can, and must, be made to the original film. The immediately noticeable thing is that Romero’s film is more humorous. While it’s hard to imagine a situation in which zombies are funny, Romero pulls it off almost effortlessly. There was a lightheartedness in the original film, an almost extended inside zombie joke fest, including scenes of bikers slapping zombies in the faces with pies a la the Three Stooges. I suppose that was easier to do back in 1978, but since 9/11 people’s perceptions and understandings of crises have changed significantly.
Snyder’s film is much more serious and cynical from the very first moments, and there is little comic relief (except for one hilarious sequence where the survivors pick off zombies that they believe resemble celebrities like Jay Leno, Burt Reynolds and Rosie O’Donnell). Cameos by Tom Savini as a police chief (he played a biker in the original) and Ken Foree (who was Peter the SWAT cop) give a tenuous connection to what came before. Foree even gets to repeat his famous line from that film: “When there is no room left in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” It just seems a good deal more chilling in Snyder’s hands.
While zombies are usually depicted as slow-moving freaks in the movies, Snyder has them running the two-minute mile faster than an Olympic athlete. This kind of almost super zombie changes the way the survivors fight their battles and gives the viewer a feeling of uneasiness throughout the film. These zombies seem much more menacing and are definitely a force to be reckoned with, and there is no difficulty envisioning their taking over the world because they are nothing like the hapless lot previously depicted in this genre. Production designer Andrew Neskoromny and makeup artist David LeRoy Anderson have given the living dead a hideous but realistic appearance, creating a palpable sense of their being animated dead things, and it is gruesomely effective.
There is much to admire about the remake, especially a rather capable cast of likeable people whom we don’t want to see die (or worse yet become zombies). Sarah Polley’s Ana is a powerful heroine, in some ways reminiscent of the blonde Gaylen Ross in the original, but Ana is more of an ass-kicking zombie killer. Rhames is quite convincing as the cop, and Webber always brings a sense of believability to his roles and continues that here. Snyder’s direction is fast-paced and hip, while emphasizing a strong awareness of human weakness and vulnerability that is required in this kind of film.
Of course, the apocalyptic message is chilling in these times. The film 28 Days Later handles the situation in a similar manner, but the extended metaphor of a killer virus or plague seems terribly apropos in 2005 (with so much talk about a possible bird flu epidemic). Certain moments in Snyder’s film tend to remind me of many other good ones, including Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In dealing with death and disease, there is certainly cinematic precedence to both acknowledge and emulate, and Snyder has borrowed from the genre while remaining faithful to it.
In the end the zombies seem to have dominion over the earth, except for a few remaining survivors. One may make connections of the unknown disease to bio-terrorism as he or she sees fit, for it appears to be connotatively obvious that the disease may just be something someone started for such purposes that raged out of control beyond the perpetrator‘s wildest imagination. No matter how the viewer feels about such things, the film has the ability to rise above current social and political considerations and scare him or her silly.
In the last scene a boat moves across the water with a few living characters aboard; however, stay and watch the credits until the end to find out what happens to them after they sail off into the deceptively hopeful sunrise. Snyder’s unrelentingly bleak vision seems to tell us that this dawn truly is of and for the dead. After 9/11, we probably cannot have it any other way.