The idea of remaking Dawn of the Dead is audacious in a way, and Zack Snyder’s 2004 “remake” manages to be shockingly effective, if somewhat missing some of the charm of the original. The original film is no romp by any means, but as I’ve previously remarked upon, there’s a definite sense of levity, with the mall setting providing a chance for lighter character beats. The cheap low-budget nature of the original, with its shabby, shambling zombies, is endearing in a way. Though not an expensive film by modern standards, the 2004 Zack Snyder adaptation looks and feels like it takes full advantage of its $26 million budget, bringing a high level of technical craft to the proceedings. The zombies here are incredibly active and quick beasts, fueling an almost unrelentingly violent film.
Though Dawn of the Dead contains many of the elements of the original film, it seems almost disingenuous to call it a remake. None of the original plot or characters appear here, and even some of the themes from the original are less recycled than reimagined. The main similarity shared is that a bunch of survivors take refuge in a mall during a zombie apocalypse, but not much else stays the same. The original Dawn of the Dead took full advantage of the mall setting to tell us something about the characters, about the zombies, and to show the various strategic advantages of a mall that might have made it an ideal location to take refuge in during a zombie apocalypse. The original gave us zombies in a mall as a not-so-subtle wink to social satire that this film simply has no interest in – this is not a friendly or welcoming mall, but rather a death trap in disguise.
This is not a complaint on its own – I don’t think the original is, or should be, sacred, and if you’re going to make a new version of something, you should be considering different elements. It’s interesting to consider this film in the context of Zack Snyder’s career arc as a “dark and gritty” filmmaker. But I think it’s highly effective here, even if it results in a quite different film.
This Dawn of the Dead is closer to an ensemble cast, which allows a number of faces to show up here in different roles; most well-known are Sarah Polley, Michael Kelly, Ty Burrell, and Ving Rhames.
Polley here plays a nurse, our presumptive point-of-view character for an early stretch of the film that depicts the earliest moments of the zombie apocalypse taking hold. She’s so good, so shell-shocked, but able to eventually gain composure. It’s a remarkable performance by Polley. And the opening of this film that she pilots is perhaps the most memorable part of the film; it throws the audience into the deep water with no anchor, simply letting events come at you without giving you a chance to breath. There’s a brief moment where the camera pulls out just enough to reveal the sheer scale of the death and destruction, and it’s honestly shocking even if you know what a zombie apocalypse is meant to look like in this kind of movie.
Michael Kelly, now most well known for his role on House of Cards, here plays a selfish jackass of a security guard. Kelly delivers a charismatic performance, but what makes his character most effective is the fact that it’s easy to project upon his actions an obvious logic – it’s hard to dispute anything he does even if it makes him something of the antagonist. He’s taking actions with concern for his own survival, and in a similar situation it’s not hard to imagine coming to the same decisions as he comes to. The story gives him a turn late in the film that seems out of character, but I’ll let it slide because Kelly is so convincing.
Ving Rhames plays a vet-turned-police sergeant; this is every bit a Ving Rhames role, the kind of role he’s meant to play, could play in his sleep. That this is nothing new from Rhames doesn’t take away from how compelling he is as a grizzled action cliche, how fun it is to watch him kicking zombie ass. Here’s an actor who knows exactly how to play in an action movie! When he gets his moments to chew scenery, he feasts on it.
One of the most effective subplots of the film is one in which the gang refuged in the mall communicates with, and forms a bond with, a local gun store owner who has taken shelter on the roof of his store across the street. They communicate through whiteboard signs and binoculars, and play games with him to pass the time, eventually resulting in him shooting at celebrity lookalike zombies; this is the one moment of lightness in this otherwise incredibly dark film, and if it stands at contrast with the rest of the film, it’s to the film’s benefit – those small moments of levity allow us to form a connection with the gun store owner even more personal than with almost any of the main characters of the film, rendering his eventual fate all the more tragic.
At 100 minutes, Dawn of the Dead is also shockingly short. This is a stripped down, economical film. And yet, Snyder still leaves time for some grotesque, mind-scarring imagery – a zombie pregnancy that will surely be difficult to erase from memory, an attempt to use a chainsaw to mow down some zombies that goes horribly awry. This version of Dawn of the Dead makes the original feel tame and subdued; this level of grotesque, graphic violence verges on over-the-top in ways that feel uncomfortable, but just right for modern horror audiences.
Some of the decisions here are questionable (the color saturation being first and foremost among them), but overall this is a highly effective update on a zombie classic. Certainly much more of an action film, much darker, much grimmer, and presaging the “dark and gritty remake” movement. If the 2004 Dawn of the Dead fails to achieve the heights of the original, it certainly, in the process, creates something entirely new and devastating. This is not a film I can wholly recommend as enjoyable – it’s almost distasteful to watch – but for all the world of possibilities of what a Dawn of the Dead remake could be, and what we’ve come to expect out of Zack Snyder later in his career, this is one of the better imaginable outcomes.