In Defense of Zach Snyder and 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead”

I can’t help but feel badly for Zack Snyder these days. The backlash he’s already receiving over Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is staggering. The goddamn movie’s not...

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I can’t help but feel badly for Zack Snyder these days. The backlash he’s already receiving over Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is staggering. The goddamn movie’s not even out for close to two years and already hordes of self-entitled, internet savages are tearing it apart. To put it another way: announce that there’s going to be a new movie starring both Batman and Superman and nobody bats an eye; show one picture of Ben Affleck’s chin under the Dark Knight’s cowl and everyone loses their minds.

The most recurring argument I hear aimed at Mr. Snyder is that “he ruined Watchmen.” Bullshit. The man literally recreated panels from the comic onscreen. He went to painstaking lengths to imbue the property with an air of realism and he treated those characters with the respect they so richly deserved. Zack Snyder did not ruin Watchmen. He gave it new life. He took one of the most complex, compelling, and nigh-impossible-to-film stories, executed it masterfully on the big screen, and all we had to do was pay $9 to sit and watch it. Is it a 100% perfect movie? No. And neither is The Dark Knight and I saw that in the theater five times. So yeah, I fucking loved Watchmen.

In fact I’ve enjoyed all of Zack Snyder’s movies (minus The Guardians of Ga’Hoole which I’ve never gotten around to seeing). Watchmen, 300, Man of Steel, and even Sucker Punch. No, I won’t argue with you that Sucker Punch‘s plot was sort of ridiculous and very hard to follow (it was), but on sheer spectacle alone, it entertained my ass right off. It was like being inside the craziest video game ever conceived. I thoroughly enjoyed it for what it was: a fun, colorful, over-the-top sci-fi action flick.

Quick sidebar: I bought Sucker Punch in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart one night. As I’m standing in the check-out line, this goon in a Molly Hatchet tee-shirt (I live in Daytona Beach) turns to me and says, “Man that movie sucks. You seen’t it?” And I said, “Yeah,” and then he ignored me. But what I should’ve said was, “Listen here, backwoods Siskel and Ebert: if I wanted advice from an obvious meth distributor, I would’ve asked you. But seeing as how my brain isn’t a screeching vacuum, I didn’t.”

Anyway, I digress.

I enjoy Zack Snyder’s visual flair and the way he has the guts to tackle the most revered licensed properties. Which is why I want to talk about his first full-length feature film: his 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.

George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead is a masterpiece – no question about it. He managed to top one of the most classic and genre-defining horror films of all time, his own Night of the Living Dead (1968). The characters were likable (especially a young Ken Foree), the shopping mall setting was great, and even the walking dead themselves were memorable (i.e. the Hare Krishna zombie). Unless you count Dawn‘s 1985 sequel Day of the Dead, there really isn’t another zombie film that comes close in terms of quality and sheer fun.

In 2004, Zack Snyder’s list of credits consisted of a documentary short about Michael Jordan (why) and a music video for that most irritating of man children, Morrissey. How was this greenhorn director supposed to step into Romero’s shoes? How could he possibly recreate one of the most beloved horror films of all time?

Right out of the gate Snyder nails it by showing that his Dawn of the Dead is not Romero’s. These zombies don’t lurch and stumble. They run fast as shit and dive-tackle their victims when they get hungry. And as a plot device, the speed and aggression works perfectly. The characters experience a real sense of danger as they try to survive because Snyder’s undead strike so quickly and without warning. A lot of horror purists hate the idea of a fast zombie. I think they’re much more terrifying than the dim-witted, badly-coordinated, shambling corpses of yesteryear. Sure, Walkers suck, but how screwed would Rick and the rest of his crew be if some of the zombies from World War Z showed up and started stage-diving on them? Not even Daryl Dixon and his crossbow would be fast enough to bring down one of those guys.

“Well if the zombies are fast now and it’s not even the same characters, why even call it Dawn of the Dead?” Okay. That I don’t know. Aside from sharing the shopping mall setting and a few tips of the proverbial hat to the original, Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead has little in common with its source material. It’s just one of those things viewers have to look past. And don’t act like that’s a new concept: horror fans are required to do it all the time.

One of the main things I enjoy so much about this version of Dawn of the Dead is that it just looks great. Snyder has such a keen eye for what will grab his viewers’ attention. He could frame even the most mundane conversation in such a way that would compel me not to look away. His Dawn is colorful and detailed, with an engaging and unique vision. It’s one one of the most modern and realistic-looking horror films I’ve ever seen.

Snyder’s changes and vision aside, the cast performs their job quite admirably. Ving Rhames – in all his badassery – is great in his role as Kenneth, the pissed off, shotgun-toting cop. Mekhi Phifer portrays a displaced gang banger, Ty Burrell a quick-witted, wisecracking yuppie, and Michael Kelly an instantly unlikable mall security guard. The rest of the cast rounds out their characters nicely and there really aren’t any weak links among them to spoil the flow of the dialogue or story. Which, considering the revered source material this film is pulled from, is quite good. Though liberties are taken, (pre-Guardians of the Galaxy) James Gunn crafted a screenplay that treats the overall concept with a lot of reverence.

As with most of Snyder’s films, music is used to great effect throughout. Dawn of the Dead‘s credit sequence treats viewers to a smorgasbord of disturbing footage to the tune of “The Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash. Later on, we’re treated to a montage of the characters becoming accustomed to their new surroundings in the shopping mall, while funny man Richard Cheese performs a hilarious lounge rendition of Disturbed’s awful single “Down With the Sickness.” And over the final credits, the Jim Carroll Band’s early proto-punk classic, “People Who Died” is heard.

I know this film was subjected to a lot of negativity when it was released. I’ve always been a huge fan of the original, but even so, I saw Snyder’s Dawn on opening day and I loved it. I just think it’s a good movie. Sure, you can’t replace Romero and what he’s done. Who would want to? But as far as remakes go, Dawn of the Dead is a more-than-worthy entry in the zombie genre. Zack Snyder had enough vision and (I’ll say it) balls to make the film his own. He didn’t just rehash what came before. In a way, this film is a remake in title and general idea only. I think it’s unfortunate that so many movie snobs still write it off because they can’t imagine a young director doing anything interesting with an idea that’s already gotten its due.

Did we need another Dawn of the Dead? No. But I think credit is due to Zack Snyder for going all out and making the movie he did. And I think it’s time for all of us fans to stop being such a bunch of judgmental curmudgeons. Very few of us know how things work behind-the-scenes of the movie world. If you were a first-time director and you knew that properly executing something like a Dawn of the Dead remake could launch your career into new heights, well shit… wouldn’t you try it too? It’s not like Zack Snyder climbed in your sister’s window and had sex with her. This movie opened the way for him to do 300 and Watchmen and now he’s helming one of the biggest films of the decade: Batman V Superman. And Justice League after that. And you know what? After seeing what he did with Man of Steel, I have the utmost confidence that he will knock both of those movies out of the goddamn park.

So maybe just give the guy a break. How good do you think your Dawn of the Dead remake would’ve been?

See? That’s what I thought.


There’s no way you can’t be excited to see this.


One Comment

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  • Mishyana
    24 February 2016 at 3:17 am - Reply

    Know it’s a bit behind, but I just found this and largely agree with you about the flick (if perhaps not the rest of the Zach Snyder oeuvre quite so much.) If only it hadn’t been for the damn zombie baby, it might’ve been pretty close to perfect…