'Dawn of the Dead' (2004)

'Dawn of the Dead' (2004)

George A. Romero’s seminal horror film Dawn of the Dead, a classic of the genre since its release in 1978, has been imitated countless times in the past three decades – from The Evil Dead and Re-Animator to Return of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later…. As Adam Rockoff writes for the DVD, “Immediately after Dawn‘s 1978 release, its bastard offspring began to claw their way through the fresh earth and onto screens all around the world.” However, most of these films ignored the subtexts of racism, media cynicism, societal decay, and perhaps most importantly, the scathing attack on consumerism that were so integral to Romero’s vision.

Dawn of the Dead begins where Romero’s Night of the Living Dead ended ten years earlier (albeit allowing for the advancements in technology, filmmaking techniques and societal progression in the ensuing decade). Zombies have continued to multiply and feed on the living, and while they may have not completely taken over, the stage is set for a final showdown between the living and the undead. Four of the remaining survivors fly a helicopter until they find shelter in a Pennsylvania shopping mall, where they make themselves at home and struggle to defend themselves from the constant siege of zombies.

Romero’s zombie movie was not overtly remade until 2004, when director Zack Snyder added a significantly larger budget, sophisticated special effects and a few Hollywood stars to the gory recipe to shift Dawn of the Dead out of B-movie territory and into the mainstream. The result is a film that somehow makes zombies seem more realistic, and which also includes much of the social commentary – in a somewhat subtler execution – that made the original such an influential work in the first place. In this essay, I will discuss the evolution of horror and the sub-genre of the zombie film, in terms of the divergence between the original Dawn of the Dead and its recent remake.

In updating Dawn of the Dead for a 21st century audience, Snyder has contributed to the update of the zombie movie as a whole. Zombies have evolved since their earliest incarnations. Unlike the slow-moving masses with the trademark “zombie shuffle” in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Snyder’s zombies move quickly, with almost animal-like reflexes and reactions. Their rotting corpses look far more gruesome, and also more realistic, than the white-face-painted monsters of earlier versions. Therefore, whereas in Romero’s film the zombie threat arises almost entirely from their ever-increasing numbers, each of Snyder’s monsters is just as lethal individually.

The 2004 retelling of Dawn of the Dead also utilizes modern camera and editing techniques to create a fast-paced thriller that holds the attention of contemporary audiences better than Romero’s now-dated 1978 film. The frenetic pacing, quick camera movement and music-video-style fast editing add a greater sense of urgency to each scene.

The role of the zombies in both of these films is complex and goes beyond the simple yet horrific acts of destruction and murder that are readily apparent. Romero employs his zombies and the setting of the film to explicitly attack not only their human victims but also our consumer culture as a whole. The zombies (read: shoppers) have swarmed to the mall because of some unexplained impulse. When Fran asks her boyfriend Stephen, a fellow survivor, why the zombies have congregated at the mall, he responds: “Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

Many critics have praised the original Dawn of the Dead as an ingenious allegory that subtly attacks consumerism, but even Romero himself scoffs at this analysis. After all, a horde of mindless zombies descending upon a shopping mall because it appeals to something in their collective memory is about as subtle as a machete to the face. Nevertheless, Romero made a socially conscious horror film about the fleeting security of consumer culture, the recognition of a new society both literally and figuratively devouring the old, and a grim warning that mankind will be responsible for its ultimate demise.

Snyder carries this message into his remake, but in a slightly more subtle way. The survivors of the zombie plague defend themselves in a shopping mall, like in the original, but they are busy figuring out how to survive instead of speaking in expository dialogue about why the zombies have chased them there. Rather than constantly reflect on the symbolic relevance of being stuck inside a mall, the characters accept their situation and take it for granted that they are now equipped with everything they need to survive. The department store provides a comfortable place to sleep and relax; the security station allows the survivors to watch television and the news, until the broadcast goes off the air; and there’s even a coffee shop for some caffeinated refreshment (even though nobody can figure out how to make a soy mocha latte with foam). Overall, Snyder makes a more thorough use of the mall setting than Romero had previously. The only thing missing is the gun shop, which has largely disappeared from malls across America. Snyder makes up for this loss by introducing a lonely character across the street from the mall who owns a gun shop, although he is nearly impossible to reach through the crowd of flesh-eating undead.

There are several possible reasons for the refined subtlety of what had previously been such a central element of Romero’s vision. Firstly, Romero already made the statement himself; it would have been unnecessary for Snyder to simply reshoot the same script that had already been produced three decades before (like Gus Van Sant’s misguided shot for shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho). Perhaps more importantly, many other writers, directors and artists have commented on the same social concerns that Romero warned against long ago. It would be redundant to modern audiences to be fed the same message from a horror film today. Snyder lets his characters speak for themselves, in a much more naturalistic manner than Romero’s script allowed, and also lets their actions speak for them.

The new Dawn features a larger cast than the original, expanding from four survivors to more than a dozen. Their roles are also somewhat less defined. Whereas Romero’s film has only two SWAT team members, a television reporter and his television-executive girlfriend, each with certain skills (or lack thereof), Snyder’s updated version is stocked with a variety of characters: a strong-willed female nurse who’s husband has become a zombie, a bad-ass police officer searching for any surviving family members, a young interracial married and pregnant couple, a trio of mall security guards, and a slew of other civilians just hoping for even a slim chance of survival. There are no clear leaders, and nobody can be sure of who to trust or who might become a flesh-hungry monster next.

Thus the central theme of Dawn of the Dead is shifted from the evils of consumerism to the issues of trust and goodwill between men. The newly arrived survivors clash with the mall security guards who had been controlling the mall; these two groups collide in a struggle for leadership and command. Each time new survivors enter the mall, there are arguments over whether the risk is too great to allow them inside – whether or not it would be better to just let them fend for themselves out there and probably die. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead painted the portrait of a happy, albeit unconventional, family living the best they could within their confined space. The psychological ramifications of a horrific plague of zombies attacking the living are more fully explored in the remake. Snyder’s characters curse each other, threaten each other and even kill each other, due mostly to the enormous stress of the situation.

It should not be forgotten that much of what makes Romero’s and Snyder’s zombie movies so popular is the blend of humor and horror throughout. In between scenes of gruesome violence and seemingly hopeless circumstances, both directors milk many scenes for laughs. Romero lets his characters have fun with the zombies, teasing them and making fun of their stupidity. Snyder has the living humans let out their frustrations by playing a sick version of “Hollywood Squares” – shooting celebrity look-alike zombies from the rooftops – and also poking fun at each other while they form a familial bond.

This light tone is complemented by the fact that most of the action takes place during the daylight, which is an unusual choice for a horror film. The audience’s tension is somewhat relieved by the bright, overly saturated colors and fluorescent lights. In addition, the use of music in the new Dawn of the Dead adds a strong satiric element to the film. Romero’s film featured an original score by The Goblins, known primarily for their musical compositions for Italian horror films such as Profondo Rosso. The haunting orchestral score is more traditional to the horror film genre than is the remake’s soundtrack, made up of pop songs and cleverly inserted elevator music. From the opening credits’ evocative use of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” – in which lyrics about death are juxtaposed with shots of news coverage and zombie crowd control leading up to the events in the film – to the ironic insertion of muzak recordings of such upbeat songs as “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” music provides a winking accompaniment to the action onscreen.

Both Romero’s original and Snyder’s remake end on an ambiguous note. In 1978, the only two living survivors, Fran and Peter, escape on the helicopter, with no determined destination and no real expectations for their future. Beneath their smiling facades and a triumphant musical score, the film’s closing aerial shots of open fields swarming with the undead reinforce the hopelessness of the situation. An alternate ending reportedly included the grisly suicides of Fran and Peter; even though audiences in 1978 did not see this version, the knowledge of its existence underscores the pessimism of their ultimate defeat.

In 2004, a busload of survivors manages to escape the mall and reach the pier in a bloody trek, only to find that zombies have taken over even the most remote islands and their boat trip has led them back into the hands of death. As the film’s closing credits flash onscreen, interspersed with what appears to be home video footage of the few survivors on the sailboat, both the audience and the characters realize that the zombie threat has become so widespread that there is no chance of survival. The last shot of the film infers that someone has dropped the camera while running in terror, and the ensuing screams suggest that there will soon be no more living souls on an island with no escape routes and no visible signs of life.

Horror critic Robin Wood would consider these films to be progressive, rather than conservative, due to the final victory of the monsters over the human protagonists, or at the very least the ambiguity and uncertainty that such an ending breeds. In his article “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” Wood describes his categorization of modern horror films into two distinct, politically charged categories. Wood claims that horror films are either progressive or reactionary, depending on their treatment of the monster and, even more importantly, the way in which each film reaches its conclusion. He bases his argument on the theory that the monster in horror films represents the repressions of the audience and the filmmakers.

Referencing Freudian psychoanalysis, Wood says that the monster is a metaphor for the repression of sexual and creative energy within us. The outward expression of these repressed desires, deemed taboo by societal norms, manifests itself as a violent and horrific object – that is, a monster. Translated to the genre of the horror film, the ways in which the monster succeeds or fails in its destruction of “morality” determines, for Wood, whether the film is progressive or reactionary.

A film is labeled reactionary by Wood if, in the end, normality (defined simply as the accepted societal norms) is restored and the monster is destroyed. In this way, repression is also restored. On the other hand, Wood considers progressive those films in which the monster remains victorious. Therefore the taboo desires it represents remain outwardly visible and expressed, rather than repressed. The audience cannot be reassured that normality will succeed; rather, fear arises from the expression on film of repressed desires and taboos that contradict societal norms. In the case of Dawn of the Dead, the zombies have taken over and, as far as we can tell, have defeated the only humans we know to have survived their initial onslaught. The monster therefore has become dominant over “normal” society and can no longer be repressed – hence, Wood’s likely “progressive” label.

To knowledgeable horror audiences, Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is a reverential yet tongue-in-cheek homage to the zombie flicks that came before it – specifically those of Romero himself. Snyder inserts multiple references to his predecessor throughout the film. The WGON traffic helicopter, which was the main source of transportation for the survivors in the original Dawn of the Dead, appears briefly in Snyder’s remake, as do several trucks belonging to B.P. Trucking, the same company whose trucks were used in Romero’s original. In addition, one of the clothing stores in the mall is named “Gaylen Ross” – the name of the actress who played Fran in the original film – and the name of Ving Rhames’ character (Kenneth) is an obvious nod to actor Ken Foree, who played a very similar role in the original Dawn of the Dead, and who also appears as a televangelist in Snyder’s version to deliver the same line that he made famous thirty years ago: “When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” And in a subtle nod to Night of the Living Dead, the opening sequence of Snyder’s remake features an aerial shot in which a truck can be seen crashing into a diner and gas station. This is a reference to Ben’s account in Night of the Living Dead of listening to the radio in his truck in a diner parking lot, when another truck was besieged by zombies and crashed into the gas pumps.

While these reference points have only a small impact on the audience’s experience in watching the remade Dawn of the Dead, they do allow the film to in some ways surpass its origins by repeating them. Similar to Sergio Leone’s revolutionary “Spaghetti Westerns” and the ensuing transformation of the American western genre, Romero and Snyder have both contributed to the continued evolution of the zombie film. Overall, Snyder’s homage to Romero’s masterpiece is both reverential and ironic.

Dawn of the Dead is popular, both in its original form and as a freshly produced remake, not so much because of its socially conscious message or its influential filmmaking techniques. It is, after all, an old-fashioned monster movie. Any deeper cerebral significance is only an addendum to violence, gore and terrific horror. We like to be terrified, and Dawn of the Dead offers some of the best shocks and scares on screen.

This essay was written May 2006 for the NYU Cinema Studies course “Monsters and Horror.”