With Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel out in cinemas and zombies also once more rampaging their way across the screen in World War Z, I had a sudden desire to go back to see this 2004 horror remake which was Snyder’s feature directorial début and also (along with 28 Days Later) one of the first films to break the old ‘shuffling undead’ trope and cause ructions among the genre purists by suddenly having the zombies able to run at you at full tilt.
Snyder chose to step into some very big shoes with this reimagination of George A. Romero’s seminal 1978 horror classic, in which the zombie apocalypse maroons a bunch of survivors in the unlikely setting of a huge shopping mall in Milwaukee. For some reason the mall proves a Mecca for the undead who continue arriving by the thousands, perhaps driven by vestigial memories of this being somewhere they came when they were alive that was important to them.
Romero’s original was a sharp satire on modern consumer society, whereas the remake is a more out-and-out action horror. Pleasingly – and unlike so many other movies in the genre of the last decade – this film throws itself into that task with relish and aplomb, with full-on blood, guts and gore together with proper industrial-grade foul language and a dark, nihilistic view of the outcome for pretty much all concerned.
A sharp script from James Gunn keeps things moving at all times and there’s never a dull moment, although he’s also careful to insert quiet moments in the film to establish characters: considering how many people come in and out of the film in its slender 101 minute running time it’s amazing how well each of them sticks in the mind. That’s thanks to a cast which, to be entirely honest, is well beyond the calibre of talent you’d ever normally expect to see in this low-budget niche production: Ving Rhames was already a big star courtesy of the Mission: Impossible films and Mekhi Phifer was a regular in ER when it was the top show on TV, while Sarah Polley was the ‘indie queen’ of the day (and now a successful film director in her own right as the currently on release Stories We Tell proves). Add to that an early appearance for Kevin Zegers and excellent turns from the perennially under-appreciated Jake Webber and Michael Kelly plus brief cameos from Matt Frewer, Lindy Booth and Jayne Eastwood and you have a genuinely top-notch ensemble bringing their A games to the party and really excelling.
And then there’s Snyder. These days he’s more well known for being a Michael Bay-wannabe with the big, overblown explosive blockbusters such as 300, the divisive Watchmen, the disappointing Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, the really quite dreadful Sucker Punch and now of course the latest Superman franchise reboot, but for my money he’s never been better than he is right here in Dawn of the Dead. There’s something about having to make the most out of a severely constrained budget that brings out the best in Snyder in terms of some lovely camera work and composition, and he also takes time to pick up on the actors’ best and most subtle work while keeping things moving.
Any budgetary shortcomings are successfully hidden by the high-contrast, super-sharp ‘ultra-realism’ styling that Snyder brings to the picture which only gets more intense as the film goes on. That said, the best sequence of all as far as I’m concerned comes in the pre-titles sequence, in which exhausted nurse Ana finishes her shift at the local hospital oblivious to the early warning signs of what’s happening, and wakes up in the middle of a nightmare. It’s a terrific scene, still full of little black humour touches and naturalism even as the zombies waste no time taking hold on all sides.
As a 12-minute short in its own right this alone would get my recommendation; the fact that the rest of the film after this actually doesn’t disappoint is little short of miraculous in the circumstances.
Dawn of the Dead is available on DVD. Surprisingly it doesn’t seem to have been released on Blu-ray in the UK to date and the only high-resolution copies available are US imports