Oct 1, 2007

Dawn of the Dead (2004): C+

Zack Snyder's zombies are like his stylistic flourishes: big, dumb, and obvious. Which isn't to say that either is totally lacking in fun or worth. This Dawn of the Dead is, at least theoretically, a more preferable kind of remake than one that simply regurgitates the storyline of the original, superficially updating it technologically while failing to add to the texts that have come beforehand. Rather than attempting to one-up or simply duplicate the 1978 film - an impossibility and a futility, respectively - Dawn 2004 reinvents its source material, here channeling Romero's satirical, restrained gore into a full-fledged action film. Whereas the elder zombies lurched, these fellows sprint like trained athletes - an illogical attribute, given they're supposed to be dead and rotting, but one we can grant given the generally fantastic nature of the genre (one could endlessly quibble over the physical makeup of the zombie - are they actually dead, or simply infected a la 28 Days Later's rage virus? - but let's focus on aesthetics).

Unfortunately, even unto its own newfound set of completely different standards, this Dawn is heavily lacking, and - ironically enough - may have been a better film had there been less effort put forth on the part of its creative forces. Snyder's intentions are of the inoffensive and purely entertaining sort, but his style is nothing short of fascistic; this Dawn of the Dead almost literally force feeds its fun to the audience, dishing its characterization and exposition out with an matter-of-fact attitude totally free of irony, jumping from visceral peak to peak in hopes of wearing out the audience like a nonstop roller coaster. It isn't enough that you could be entertained, you must be, and Dawn of the Dead is absolutely terrified of letting the attention of the audience wander for even a second. Truly, it is film manifest as industry over art, but at least it is honest enough to not pose as anything more than the slick piece of production it proudly lays claim to.

In this regard, this Dawn of the Dead is sporadically entertaining but also disappointingly fleeting; the characters are emotional vacuoles and the undead but Olympic sprinters with bloody makeup on, lacking not only personality, but conviction. The unfolding carnage is often arresting but it strikes only in the moment (as noisy spectacle often does), the film's establishment of locations and moods too scant to leave any lasting impression; we never truly feel that this is the end of the world, and thus the undead become not an overwhelming force to be reckoned with but a pesky special effect that a few cardboard characters succumb to every now and then. Snyder's style alternates between jittery camera work and static, slow-motion shots of Really Cool Things Happening, a distancing approach that reveals his total lack of investment or concern for the events being portrayed. But hey, it looks cool, right?

Dawn of the Dead isn't so much a movie than a cinematic model kit assembled step by step, line by line, and while James Gunn's reworked screenplay follows the core of Romero's storyline verbatim, the film only effectively reworks its predecessor once, in a hilarious mid-act montage that plays up the film's witty pop culture awareness. This sequence - which employs a lounge act cover of Disturbed's "Down With the Sickness", a clashing musical choice that effectively underscores the nasty wittiness of the images on screen - truly gets at the film's superficial would-be appeal, but it's also one largely lost on the its smarmy callousness. Only one human death is meant to convey any sense of sorrow - a father, infected and soon to be undead, says goodbye to his daughter - but Snyder's attitude is mandated and disingenuous. How are we supposed to care about who lives and dies if the film we're watching clearly doesn't in the first place?

This sense of sleek nastiness might have been something, though, had it grown beyond mere posing, the many shocks and twists to the plot but simple button-pushing given the general transparency of the film's human components. Parallels are drawn between its own unfolding destruction and the theological ravings that 9/11 was brought about by immorality in America, but like so much else in the film, it's an empty shout-out lacking a sense of inquisitiveness or weighty morality (truly a disappointment, given what Romero could have done with the idea). Its machine lacks ferocity, and while Snyder's advertising aesthetics don't lack for immediacy, they look and feel (or rather, don't feel) less like a movie made by human hands and more like a feature length advertisement endlessly tweaked for mass appeal.

Feature: 31 Days of Zombie!


  1. What a better way to kick of the month with the original flesh-eating ghoul film! Feel free to link to my post for Night of the Living Dead.

  2. Anonymous11:20 AM

    Oh, baloney. This is a typical rip at Zack Snyder rather than a legitimate review of, oh, the actual FILM, which was probably the best zombie movie not directed by Romero or Boyle. If you lack empathy with the characters in the movie, that's your fault, not the filmmakers'. This was a damned good remake, and a damned good movie on its own, and as for not conveying the worldwide terror involved -- it did that better than any zombie movie ever, Romero's included, with that opening montage of news footage, an attack at the White House, etc., etc. -- OmarSnake

  3. Anonymous12:17 PM

    I do not understand how you did not like this movie, but seemed to really give "Planet Terror" a good review. It seems if this movie were done up like a teenagers dumb wet dream you would have liked it a lot better. IMO the dawn remake did a rare thing, it was a remake that did not totally suck. That puts this movie on a very short list, as opposed to Grindhouse, which is on a huge list of crappy schlock.

  4. Anonymous3:09 PM

    I'd have to agree--you appear to be bashing the film and the filmmakers for having the audacity to remake a "classic." Dawn of the Dead (2004) does a better job of showing the end of the world than just about any film I can think of--the opening 20 minutes are truly apocalyptic. The characters and setting are much more well-realized than you let on. And the film's need to force-feed entertainment? Ridiculous. I'm tempted to say this is a better film than Romero's original, but this is probably not the place to make that claim.

  5. I have to agree with earlier posts here. Nothing can compare to Romero in my book and i must admit I don't believe Boyle's 28 Days and Weeks Later movies are actually zombie films in their own right. Still, Snyder's 2004 remake is an excellent horror-movie. Simon Pegg (from Shaun of The Dead-fame) made an eloquent point in the slow zombie/fast zombie discussion and I concur that slow zombies are somehow more threathening because they're so relentless. There is also the feeling that with a slow zombie, you've got at least a fighting chance - I find that strangely comforting as I remove Romero's original Dawn of the Dead from my DVD player at 1 in the morning :-).
    I'm sorry... I digress... I thought Dawn 2004 was plenty scary. It had a lot of drive and I felt that the character development was quite adequate for a horror flick. It occurs to me that comparing zombie films to Romero's work isn't always fair. On every reviewing of Romero's original three (I'm still contemplating Land) I get the impressions that for him horro is a means to an end. Snyder's version is just action packed horror and that's okay too - he doesn't pretend to do anything else.

  6. anonymous 8:20: And this is a typical comment that reinforces my notion that most Snyder fans are as fascist as the director himself. I don't know what kind of worthwhile film criticism you read that doesn't take into account the fact that whatever's on the screen is the work of human hands, but if I dislike Snyder as a director (which I do) then it's probably because I think he makes crappy films in the first place. I suppose it was foolhardy to even mention the fact that it was a remake, because people like you who get off on anyone with different taste than your own tend to exploit these technical details for all they're worth. Remake or not, I think it's a petty action movie that doesn't give a shit about its empty characters (hence my not caring about them, i.e. Snyder's fault in the first place - this isn't that hard) - fun at times, but it evaporates almost instantly. If my comments about it being "a more preferable kind of remake" aren't indicative enough of my treating as separate film from Romero's, then that's just too bad for you.

    anonymous 9:17: Teenage wet dream or not, I thought "Planet Terror" was pretty radical, and it did a much better job approximating the goofy nuances of its genre. This struck me (all three times I watched it, so don't say I haven't given it a fair shot) as an action flick that was polished to a fault (among other things). Just because they're both meant to "entertain" doesn't put them on the same plane of existence, in nature or quality.

    anonymous 12:09: How is my "force-feeding" claim ridiculous? "Dawn of the Dead" is scared to death of letting the audience get bored, assuming, that is, that a lot of noise is enough to keep one's attention. If you think it a better film, don't be a chickenshit in saying so, unless you can tell me at which point on my blog I stated that all who disagree with be attacked with a hatchet. Plenty of my colleagues have thought this a better film with an original, but they didn't resort to this kindergarten talk to express their perspective. If I thought it sucked for simply being a remake in the first place, I (1) probably wouldn't have bothered to see it in the first place - let alone three times - and (2) would have said so outright. It's a gutsy movie for simply existing and I respect that tremendously. Same goes for Rob Zombie's "Halloween," another film I thought wanting for not being a good movie. Wow, how revolutionary.

    fabel31577: Yes, Snyder's film is just an action packed horror film, which I pre-emptively agreed with when stating that "it is honest enough to not pose as anything more than the slick piece of production it proudly lays claim to." And, in the realm of slick pieces of production, there are good films, okay films, and bad films. In my book this one was #2. To not acknowledge that it's a remake is simply ignorant, but that doesn't mean your cementing its inferiority as a matter of principle. Unto its own standards (something I already detailed in the review itself but everyone here seems to have been blind to it, unless they think I spend hours writing away, unpaid, about opinions I don't really hold), it strikes me as empty. Anyhow who has a problem with that can address their comments to the nearest brick wall.

  7. Gotta agree with the reviewer and not the other posts here... and perhaps it's a generational thing (post-MTV vacuousness notwithstanding), but I found Synder's DotD to be lacking (sorely) in the character and plot development departments, but exceptional in its handling of the cinematic visual medium to convey chaos and the technical achievement of its effects work. That said, the first 10 minutes of this film including the credit sequence are brilliant at evoking the last gasp of society and the uniquely grim tone the film carries to the end. But without characters to actually care about and root for (even Day of the Dead has Sarah, John and Bill to get behind as your surrogates into the mineshaft and beyond) the film fails to truly involve the viewer. Sarah Polley is good in her role, but her character never gets beyond the tough-as-nails approach to post-Ripley (or Fran) feminism evident in today's action movies. The rest of the cast, even Ving Rhames cop character are never truly invested with anything beyond simple and very broad strokes of character backstory to motivate them into behaving certain ways. The film has a budget that's far beyond what Romero got for his "Land of the Dead" (also produced/distributed by Universal) and that's a shame... Snyder does less with more whereas Romero often does more with less and still manages to produce good, gory and engaging entertainment. I'm a fan of Snyder's "300" but feel that he owes a lot to the pre-arranged boards from Frank Miller's brilliant graphic novel. But that's precisely how Snyder treats "Dawn of the Dead"... as a throwaway comic that will get you some bang for your buck, but not much else beyond that. The film's almost gleefully critic proof, and I assure you that long after the film fades into the film history vault, it's Romero's film that will remain open to contemporary critiques and analysis. Synder indulges fans of the original with some cute touches of throwaway homage and a few blink and you'll miss 'em cameos, but Simon Pegg did this to much better effect in a more heartfelt film ("Shaun of the Dead") and it seems to me that Synder added these touches to appease fans of the original and get them off his back so the film would open well and put the maximum number of fanboy butts in the seats on the first weekend. In any case, I've seen the film several times and find it lacking... a good case for remakes that work perhaps (or reimaginings), but let's face it... the more remakes the studios offer, the more vapid and uninteresting movies tend to get. There's no thought process here other than how to separate money from moviegoers. Still, that darned credit sequence is brilliant and completely rewatchable (Johnny Cash's "Man Comes Around" is used to amazing effect and offer glimpses of the world falling apart in music video fashion). Still, it has not a darned thing to say about the human condition that Romero (and others) haven't already indulged in ad nauseum. As fun as it can be to watch, it's as empty as the stores in the mall where it was shot.

  8. Damn, acedian, you oughta link that post to the IMDb external reviews section. Very nice articulation. Still, I would like to see an intelligent defense of the film that doesn't resort to knee-jerk defensiveness (same goes for "300").

  9. Anonymous3:05 PM

    A gore fest? This movie had one scene, one scene of guts (when the custodian is encountered in the sports store.) It had two maybe three scenes of deep deep bitting, in the begining only, it had one truely disturbing scene, the baby scene, and had one really over the top head explosion, i think everyont knows what im talking about. Romero is a god and his movies are legend, but to say this is a gorey update is absurd. Romero's Dawn, had a zombie being killed by a screw driver, bikers being disembowled pretty much everywhere (with the use of real animal guts btw.) It had a montage of driving a 1970's pacer car around a mall while picking off zombies (Synders Hollywood Squares scene was very tasteful i thought.) Synder modernized a movie that, lets be honest, would seem corny today. Show romeros dawn to a teenager and well, he will laugh. Romero himself took a que from synder in Land of the Dead in its modernized feel. Tom Savini, with romeros permission wrote and directed a remake of NOTLD in 1991 and he himself used one of the movies final scenes to poke fun at the fact that walking zombies are ridiculous and really, how do people get eaten by them? look up the scene. Eitherway, zombies needed a revamp and well they got a good one, and i support the change. its still a very well done movie, conveyed world chaos alot better than other movies that seem to stay isolated. The chaos of an infection was captured here in full force.