“Dawn Of The Dead”

You could learn a lot from a zombie.  They are, after all, not fanged creatures that leap out of dark closets or eight-legged thingums from the bowels of hell.  They’re us.  Slightly more anti-social versions, perhaps, but the resemblance is unnerving.  They’re your neighbor mowing his lawn in his quiet little patch of suburbia, they’re your uncle, the one who’s taken that Atkins diet a little too far, they’re your best friend, who maybe shouldn’t have taken that desk job at Globochem, and so on.  Because the poor things are mirrors for the society that created them, the zombies’ dogged proliferation somehow implicates all of us in a shared guilt.  Think about that the next time you watch a beer commercial.

Almost thirty years ago, George Romero found his zombies among the shoppers in a suburban Pittsburgh mall in the seminal midnight movie Dawn of the Dead. The film played up the sci-fi/horror genre’s greatest strength, exhilarating allegory.  In a pop tradition perfected by Rod Serling, the supernatural in sci-fi/horror stories is merely a pretext to explore man’s darker nature.  If two octogenarian nuns lock themselves in a remote mountain cabin to escape the Bog Monster From The Eighth Dimension, you can bet your TiVO that within half an hour the true threat will emerge and they’ll be going for each other’s throats like crazed pit bulls.  The genre is made for this sort of thing, and zombies in particular allow for sharp social commentary.  Unlike solitary baddies, zombies attack in hordes, like a swarm of locusts or Girl Scouts.  They tap into the darkest fear of any democratic society: fear of the mob and its inscrutable appetite. Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead is fascinating in the ways it both honors and departs from the original film and the genre which Romero single-handedly launched with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.  (Dawn of the Dead is the sequel to ‘Night’, and was followed up by Day of the Dead, which may soon be followed by a sequel that will presumably be called Tea Time of the Dead.)

Certainly the new film is hugely entertaining: smart, funny, well paced, and though the twists and turns of its plot are familiar to anyone who’s seen, say, the Aliens franchise, the action is handled so expertly it does feel like a much-needed overhaul. This is no small achievement, as Romero’s Dawn of the Dead raised the bar for gore factor.  Tom Savini, the effects pioneer who went on to a string of bloody triumphs beginning with Friday The 13th, burst onto the scene (literally) as the Michelangelo of bloodpacks.  Although the flesh-eating is drop-your-nachos gross, what stands out most are the rifle shots to the head.  With so many popping craniums, the movie feels like a two-hour loop of the Zapruder film.

Snyder’s “reimagining” brings out some of Romero’s cartoonish paint-flecked gore, but his zombies are quicker on their feet and considerably more vicious.  Although there are disappointingly quick shots of zombies sinking their teeth into human flesh, we do get a few grisly moments involving chainsaws and a fire poker.  Formerly a director of commercials, Snyder brings a fast-cutting, efficient, stylized punch to the material.  With CGI and skillful editing, the movie fills out into the epic scale that Romero’s budget couldn’t pull off.  It’s not only bigger and nastier than its predecessor, it races along in a higher gear than last year’s frenetic genre transfusion 28 Days Later. It's a worthy entry into the pantheon of Universal’s horror movies.

Something funny happened on the way to a home-run horror flick, however.  I don’t recall a single moment in Dawn of the Dead where I wasn’t either laughing or cringing with mirthful revulsion, but afterwards I realized I couldn’t decipher what it was Snyder’s zombies had to teach me. The allegory, the social commentary: where was it?  The material seemed present. The movie toyed with different points of view about the zombies, using them as mirrors of ourselves, without settling on any of them.  What were the possible readings?

Initially the zombies seem to represent the insatiable hunger of the disenfranchised, the poor, dispossessed, migrant masses who have nothing left to lose. The plight of the healthy holed up in a shopping mall gives the story a ‘Haves v. Have-nots’ feel.  This might be the reactionary view: barbarians at the gates. It plays off of fears both global (post-9/11 slum-world) and local (the inner city).  For instance, watching Andy, owner of a gun shop across the street from the mall, protect his property by picking off zombies one by one will surely conjure memories of shopkeepers during the L.A. riots.

That doesn’t hold for long, though.  With some bad luck any of the survivors might find themselves with a sudden hankering to chow down on their pals.  The distinction between “them” and “us” breaks down fairly quickly. The divide between the living and the dead seems flimsy and accidental.

An interpretation from the “liberal” side of the spectrum might be that the movie shows how we must put aside petty differences and unite against a common foe.  The fact that “they” are “us” is the point.  Human weakness is universal and must be deal with using compassion rather than cruelty.  Hence the typical demographic-spanning gallery of characters.

However, the discord among the humans rules out this position as well.  The filmmakers have a grand time exposing the weakness of the human condition as their heroes fight the undead.  The living are undone by the usual vices (vanity and greed), but more pointedly the compassion shown by Ana (a tough Sarah Polley) is also seen as a threat.  Anything that opens up a chink in the armor protecting them from the zombies is mortally dangerous.

The zombies may be seen to have a religious dimension, too.  The end-of-days apocalyptic reading is perhaps the most obvious one in Dawn of the Dead.  As one of the characters states, repeating a line from the original film, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

But the believers die as quickly as the non-believers.  There’s even an amusing subtext—the mall’s coffee shop is called “Hallowed Grounds”, its restaurant “Metropolis”—but these are bitterly ironic names because the characters are all God-forsaken.  No deity or superhero is coming to save these people.  There is no higher meaning, just disease and death. Armageddon is still just an Aerosmith video down at the video store.

The only “hell” that stands up thematically is the hell of other people.  This is the sole position Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead really takes.  It’s the modern hatred of other people expressed as a violation of “personal space”: wherever you go, there they are. This effectively renders zombies a problem for the individual rather than the community, a perfect translation into the neoliberal frame of mind.

Romero’s film was clearer about what its zombies meant.  The legions of attacking undead allowed him to create an arena in which to play out a satiric farce.  The satire was not an afterthought but the driving inspiration.  Romero reveals in the DVD commentary on the film that the entire idea for his Dawn of the Dead was suggested by a visit to a mall in Pittsburgh.  The location, with its crowds of dazed shoppers, suggested a vision of consumer culture that proved irresistible to him.  The desire to out-gore his Night of the Living Dead was certainly important but, at least at the beginning, a secondary consideration.

This makes the idea of a remake mouth-watering.  What better timing than now for a broad satire of consumer culture?  Shopping malls were so new in 1978 that one of the characters has to ask “What is this place?”  How much sharper the satire might be—how many more opportunities to hit us where it hurts—now that three decades later our entire country is one big mall governed by a President who, responding to one of the greatest tragedies ever to befall it, urged us all to go shopping?

Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead refuses this opportunity.  Clearly Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn were aware of it, as there are plenty of satirical elements in the film.  There’s the overhead shot of the sleepy suburb where Sarah lives, Wellesian end-of-the-world opening credits playing out over a Johnny Cash tune, humorous parallels to Survivor, the “shopping instinct” which brings the zombies to the mall (taken from Romero’s original), and, in one of the most gleefully twisted scenes you’ll ever see in a movie, a game of celebrity target practice.  These and other moments like them are strong, occasionally brilliant fragments of commentary aimed at the same target Romero had in his sights: the vapid consumerism of brain-dead automatons (and we’re not talking the ghouls here).

However, these elements fail to cohere because Snyder and Gunn apparently missed Romero’s central conceit in the original, which is that the four survivors can leave at any time.  The zombies are so unthreatening that they actually laugh at them (some bikers actually throw pies in their faces), and there are numerous opportunities to escape the mall.  The living in Romero's film choose to remain where they are, as if they can somehow wait out the attack and perhaps score some loot. Their wilful misperception of the problem gives the movie its knife-edged satire.

The humans in Snyder’s version, meanwhile, are trapped in the mall, surrounded by quick predators, and thus face instant death if they try to leave.  The superhuman dexterity of the zombies eliminates any choices the characters might have, simplifying the situation. It's a siege, full stop. Kill or be killed.  There's only one possible trajectory: order breaks down and the story flattens into a breathless struggle for survival.  Brutality replaces nuanced humor in a home-stretch that raises the pulse even as it lulls the brain to sleep.  This is a good payoff for an action/horror movie, but dissolves any thematic links to Romero’s original.  Remaking it as Snyder has done is like revising 2001: A Space Odyssey by taking out that boring computer and adding in hundreds of, like, kickass aliens.

Ironically, for all its sound and fury, Dawn of the Dead becomes a lot like the show Ana watches at the very moment when the world is collapsing around her.  Like American Idol, the movie is little more than a light distraction before bed-time. Is this being too hard on a popcorn movie?  Hardly.  As I’ve argued, not only is this the genre for social commentary, this is the film to remake.  Where else can we look for biting satire if not movies like Dawn of the Dead?  The key differences between the original and the remake point to the decadence and muddle of the sci-fi/horror genre and, really, American cinema in general.  The brand of half-assed nihilism in the new Dawn of the Dead only serves to make us more comfortable with the idea that our corrupted world is beyond our capacity to save and redeem it.

Romero's version explicitly underscores the potential of a different path. More importantly he poses it as an open question which should be addressed with urgency. One of the scientists in the original, who vaguely resembles Francis Ford Coppola and in his rhetoric anticipates Colonel Kurtz, lays it out with stark clarity.  Feed the zombies or kill them, but decide on a course of action.  Learning to coexist with the apocalypse outside your door isn't living, it’s just a short postponement of death.

Such a viewpoint is absent from Snyder's film, but surely the same question faces us today. Either the world is worth fighting for or it isn’t.  In the last few years some have already come up with their answer; across the world we’ve seen a handful of fundamentalists make their decision, in turn polarizing the rest of us.  In American theaters right now is an unlikely answer to Dawn of the Dead.  Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, whatever else can be said of it, is a film of unwavering commitment and unflinching vision.  Its box office take has already passed the mighty Return of the King and will place it among the top-grossing films of all time. 

Meanwhile, the audience that watches the sleek but philosophically muddled “Dawn of the Dead”—and makes films like this, because it’s the product of its own subculture—seems unable to answer the aforementioned question, or, more worryingly, even realize they’re facing that question in the first place. But their enemies are clear about the situation. Like Romero’s zombies, they demand a response. They're single-minded. They’re clear about what they need to do. They act. And that’s why they’re going to win.

  Back to Essays page.