The Day of the Dead (or Dia de los Muertos) is a traditional Latin American holiday on which, every November 1st, the lives of deceased loved ones are celebrated with food, drink, parties, and a great deal of masquerade involving the calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls). For me, this seems like the perfect excuse to look back on the long-running and ever-changing zombie genre that was largely popularised by director George A. Romero, which I devoted a great deal of my PhD thesis towards and which has often been used as a parallel to various aspects of society and culture.
Released: 25 October 2004
Originally Released: 19 March 2004
Director: Zack Snyder
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Budget: $26 million
Stars: Sarah Polley, Jake Weber, Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell, Lindy Booth, and Michael Kelly
When the world inexplicably descends into chaos and bloodshed following a sudden zombie outbreak, a handful of survivors are driven into the local shopping mall but, as the living dead furiously try to enter from the outside, it’s the distrust and dissension within the group that is the true threat to their survival.
Ever since White Zombie (Halperin, 1932), zombies have long been a staple of horror cinema but their status as reanimated corpses who incessantly feed on the flesh of the living was popularised by director George A. Romero (despite Romero’s films avoiding the term “zombie”) in Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968). Not only did Night of the Living Dead inspire a vast sub-genre of horror works, the first of its five sequels, Dawn of the Dead (ibid, 1978), is largely considered one of the best and most influential zombie films of all time.
Plans for a remake of Romero’s classic allegory for consumerism began with producer Eric Newman, who acquired the rights to the film and aimed to reimagine it for a younger, modern audience. The remake was written by James Gunn and marked Zack Snyder’s directorial debut, and separated itself from the original by increasing the speed and ferocity of its flesh-eating ghouls. While many often decry remakes, many of the most popular and iconic films are remakes and Dawn of the Dead proved to be a commercial success by grossing over $100 million at the box office. Though some regarded the film unfavourably upon release, an extended director’s cut was released on DVD later that same year and the remake earned some notable cult success and is often regarded as being just as good as the original.
Like any good, self-respecting zombie film, Dawn of the Dead offers the merest glimpse of life before the outbreak before everything mysteriously and hideously goes to hell. Ana Clark (Polley) is an underappreciated and overworked nurse who, fatigued by her long hours, is more concerned with going home to her husband, Louis (Louis Ferreira), and her nice, normal suburban life than worrying about bite victims being admitted to the intensive care unit and emergency news bulletins.
As a result, when she awakens the next day, Ana is horrified to find that a local neighbourhood girl, Vivian (Hannah Lochner) has become a rabid, animalistic cannibal; she viciously attacks Louis, taking a chunk out of his neck and, though Ana tries to stop the geyser of blood, she’s unable to get through to the hospital and Louis chokes to death on his own blood…only to immediately return to life and attack her! Distraught and running on pure adrenaline, Ana is able to scramble her way out of the house…only to find her peaceful little neighbourhood has descended into violence and anarchy; fires rage all over the area, car crashes, explosions, and wrecks are everywhere, and the equally desperate and terrified victims of these animalistic zombies pose just as much of a threat as the undead.
Stunned by a car crash and overwhelmed by shock and fear, Ana is little more than a zombie herself when she comes across the shotgun-toting Kenneth Hall (Rhames); a big, sombre man who is just looking to reunite with his brother. Although he joins up with the main group of survivors, Michael (Weber), Andre (Phifer), and his pregnant wife, Luda (Inna Korobkina), and accompanies them to the nearby mall (which offers a modicum of protection from the rabid undead and a whole host of creature comforts to sustain them), he initially wishes only to check on his brother but quickly realises that no one is coming to help them and that they must work together to survive. Of all the characters in the film, Kenneth is easily my favourite; an intimidating figure with a no-nonsense attitude and a deep, gravelly voice, Rhames is great in the role and is much more than mere muscle as his character has a real depth of emotion and a significant arc where he comes to view his fellow survivors as his surrogate family.
However, the mall is currently claimed as sanctuary by three security guards – C.J. (Kelly), Bart (Michael Barry), and Terry (Kevin Zegers) – who aggressive oppose the taking in of additional bodies and a reluctant, frosty truce is force between the two groups Michael, a former television salesman, attempts to keep the peace and bring some kind of organisation to the group; he’s not looking to give orders or be a leader but merely comes up with logical suggestions for the others, which are generally adhered to for their practicality. Kenneth, at first, stoically rebukes him and he’s able to appeal to C.J.’s ego and sway him into helping them by coming up with good ideas and attributing them to him, thus positioning him as a paper leader. Constantly adaptable and something of a father figure, Michael becomes close with Ana but their attempts at romance are hampered by the greater problems facing the group. Though lacking in formal training and physical stature, Michael is pretty handy in a tight spot and, thanks to his will to survive and adaptability, is able to kill his fair share of zombies when the moment calls for it and is the first to actively stand up to C.J. during a tense confrontation on the roof.
C.J. is, initially, the film’s secondary antagonist after the zombies; ruled by his fear of the undead and paranoia, he stubbornly holds on to his fragile authority and begrudgingly assists the other survivors on the understanding that they will leave the mall as soon as possible, even locking them up to keep them from stealing stuff. While Bart has a perverse fascination with the undead and follows C.J.’s orders to the letter, Terry is far more reluctant but, while C.J. is a hard-ass when the others first encounter him, he eventually becomes a trusted and valuable ally, covering their escape, putting himself at risk to save others, and even sacrificing himself so that the others can escape. While an obnoxious and detestable character when he’s first introduced, C.J. became another favourite of mine through his redemptive arc; after being decked my Michael and humbled by being locked up with Bart, his attitude shifts noticeably and he becomes a pivotal ally in the film’s chaotic third act.
Soon, the group is joined by a number of other survivors: Andy (Bruce Bohne) is trapped on the roof of his gun shop across the road and slowly starving to death and communicates with the main protagonists using writing, leading to a brief bit of entertainment amidst the chaos where he plays chess with Kenneth and they shoot zombies who resemble celebrities. A truckload of other survivors upset C.J. when they crash into the mall, which brings a diverse quasi-society to the mall and, with the zombies kept at bay, the survivors begin to bond, with Terry and Nicole (Booth) sparking up a mutual attraction and Steve Markus (Burrell) acting as a tertiary antagonist with his pessimistic and cynical attitude. The others are little more than shellshocked cannon fodder who exist to share stories of their lives before the world fell apart, stories of their experiences of the outbreak, and fall victim to zombie bites and attacks.
As in Romero’s original films, there is no explanation given for the zombie outbreak and the word “zombie” is never used; newscasters and governmental and scientific minds are baffled by the sudden outbreak and the closest we get to an explanation for the horrific events that unfold is from a televangelist (Ken Foree in a welcome cameo) who believes that “when there is no more room in Hell, the dead shall walk the Earth”. Like most zombie films, the cause and prevention of the outbreak takes a backseat as the survivors concentrate mainly on just that: survival.
Like the Infected in 28 Days Later (Boyle, 2002), the undead in Dawn of the Dead are fast-moving, aggressive, and animalistic creatures; although the source of the outbreak is unknown, the virus is transmitted through bites: a single bite will kill the victim and then almost immediately reanimate them into a near-mindless cannibals. The only way to stop the zombies is to shoot them in or otherwise destroy their head; anything less results in them relentlessly pursuing their prey or becoming what is known as a “Twitcher” (where they simply thrash around in manic spasms). The zombies work purely on instinct, seeking out warm, fresh meat and guided by vestiges of memory to places they frequented in life, such as the mall, though they show no signs of intelligence or problem solving and simply throw themselves ceaselessly at their victims until they succeed or fall down. Even a single zombie poses a significant threat thanks to their incredible speed, strength, and ferocity but they are even more dangerous in large groups, where they resemble little more than a sea of blood-stained, mangled corpses bent on feasting on living flesh.
The inevitability of death from a zombie bite is a source of great tension and tragedy in the film; when Ana first theorises on the bite being the source of the infection, Michael pragmatically decides that it is best for any amongst them who have been bitten to be immediately executed, which brings him into brief conflict with Ana. Ultimately, he chooses not to kill Frank (Matt Frewer) in cold blood and instead allows him to die peacefully and be put out of his undead misery by Kenneth. Similarly, the revelation and horror of the bite’s potency drives Andre into a deep denial; he starts to brush off offers for help from Ana and the others and his obsessive desire to keep Luda safe, even when she’s succumbed to her infection, leads to his death when he desperately tries to keep his little monster baby from harm.
While the original film was largely an allegory for consumerism and greed and held a mirror up to a society that was already a form of brainwashed zombies thanks to advertising and excess, the remake is more concerned with the survivors indulging in excess once they establish a delicate, makeshift society. Tensions, paranoia, and fear are high because of the gruesome events unfolding around them but, with C.J. and Bart locked up and isolated from the group, the remaining survivors quickly bond and share their life stories and experiences. Eventually, C.J. becomes a part of the group when Bart is attacked and helps them to fortify a couple of buses to take them away from the mall when they realise that it’s just a matter of time before more of the zombies breach their defences.
This is, primarily, where Dawn of the Dead separates itself from the original (for the better, in my opinion): it’s much more action-packed, the pace is much faster, and the gore is far more ghastly (Bart, for example, is attacked by a zombie that’s missing its legs and scrambles along an overhead pipe!) Nowhere is this seen more in their desperate escape from the mall in their spruced-up vehicles, which, for all their efforts, are nearly toppled over by the zombie hoards and one is easily overturned by the presence of a single zombie. Tension definitely ramps up when the group leaves the safety of the mall as, exposed out in the open, they are constantly at risk even when no zombies are around and, in the film’s last frantic minutes, they lose more of their group in their escape than they arguably would have if they had stayed put and tried to fortify the mall.
I’ve watched a lot of zombie films in my time; I’ve seen all of George A. Romero’s movies and researched the genre, and the concept, extensively for my PhD. However, as much as I respect and admire his influence on the genre, I can’t say that I’m really that big a fan of his films; yet, while I feel that they haven’t really aged all that well, the allegorical messages and subliminal horror of his zombie films remains as relevant as ever (if not more so given the state of the world these days), it’s just let down a bit by the pacing. As a result, I am a big fan of the Dawn of the Dead remake; it’s grittier, much more action-packed, and the effects are far more convincing and horrific. While zombie purists may decry the faster, more aggressive zombies, I actually much prefer it since it makes for a much more frightening and formidable creature; plus, they do shamble and shuffle along when converging on the mall and only explode in a burst of speed and ferocity when flesh is nearby. Best of all, the film retains Romero’s trademark bleak undertones not just in Andre’s macabre fate but also the conclusion of the film, which sees characters both beloved and obnoxious giving their lives so that the few that remain can survive only for them to meet what appears to be a horrific end during the end credits.
Are you a fan of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead? How do you think it compares to the original and other zombie movies? Do you like fast-moving, aggressive zombies or do you prefer the traditional, shambling, more allegorical depiction of the undead? What do you think caused the zombie outbreak and how do you think you would react in such a scenario? Which of the characters was your favourite and which death affected you the most, if any? What is your favourite zombie film and what do you think of the genre in general? How are you celebrating the Day of the Dead today? Whatever your thoughts on Dawn of the Dead, and zombie films in general, feel free to leave a comment down below.