'Dawn of the Dead' (2004) Movie Review
Dawn of the Remake
For anyone who may have read my recent analysis on the 1978 original Dawn of the Dead, you may have spotted my hint towards the end of the article on how I was going to be discussing the 2004 Zack Snyder remake very soon. With a subtle comment about how I may not be the biggest fan of this ‘reimagining’, if you will. Originally, I thought about making this article about comparing the Romero classic against the Snyder remake. But I realized that would have made for novel length writing and not worth that effort, so ultimately I decided on writing dedicated reviews on each film strictly on their own merits.
- 'Dawn of the Dead' (1978) Movie Review
I take a special look into the extended cut of the 1978 George A. Romero classic! Zombies and bikers and shopping. Oh my! *WARNING* This is a long, in-depth analysis. A.k.a. I got a lot to say.
I’m going to get this out of the way, screw subtlety now, I do not like Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. In some sense I rather despise the movie as I feel it is a cynical attempt to one-up the ’78 movie in every way, yet fails in nearly every way. I remember back at the time of the remake’s release; I had recently moved down to Texas that same year with my family. At that age, I was already familiar with George A. Romero’s ‘Living Dead’ trilogy. I wasn’t able to catch it in the cinema at the time, but I remember it spread like wildfire. Everyone was raving over how scary it was, how incredible it was, how much better it was than the original. At the time, I actually was pretty excited by this. Months later it finally aired on a channel like HBO or Cinemax, something like that and I watched it from beginning to end. I didn’t get it. I don’t mean the movie, the movie is beyond easy to get. I mean, I didn’t get the appeal that everyone had for the remake. At the time I rationalized it as the effects work, to this day I’m pretty convinced that’s probably what it was that captivated audiences so much. But I didn’t care for it, I found the film irritating and a slog to sit through. I may have revisited it once or twice after my first viewing, only when forced among friends and family, never on my own terms. Here we are now, fifteen years later. I have to say, my mind really hasn’t changed all that much.
A mass epidemic of the dead coming back to life and attacking the living has erupted out of nowhere, leading to a group of people taking refuge inside of a shopping mall to hide from the chaos. Hordes upon hordes of flesh-eating zombies surrounding the building that will stop at nothing until they tear every living thing they see apart.
Let’s Try to Be Nice… Shall We?
Seeing the remake for the first time in over a decade, there are some decent things that I can actually now say about the movie. In terms of its story, structurally speaking, it is ambitious. The film does try to have scope and not simply try to be a cookie-cutter rehash of the source material, which is something I truly admire with its writing of the narrative. I will say that the story itself does its own thing that is different from what was seen before in Romero’s film and it really isn’t all that badly written necessarily, there are just certain things with the character writing that result in the story’s flow suffering from it. James Gunn was the writer of the film, looking back at it now I can certainly see his touches struggling to make its way through the clutter. Little bits in the dialog here and there, one can hear that Gunn signature.
The special effects, practical and digital, do hold up pretty well. The practical effects are terrifically well done, all of the zombie makeup effects look wonderful in their creatively nightmarish designs. The gore effects are gruesome and I respect that the remake goes for the R rating. I feel that a remake of Dawn of the Dead nowadays would have settled for a pathetic PG-13 rating by releasing a neutered and inferior product that revolves around material that needs the R in order to succeed. So I’m glad that fifteen years ago in Hollywood, they still understood the significance of making a zombie film like this being rated R. The CGI isn’t terrible, like I said, it does hold up well enough. But it still sticks out a little bit. Not dreadfully, but enough to notice.
The visual aesthetic does take an approach all of its own with applying a higher contrast to the camera lens. Whether or not it really works, it’s hard to say. On one hand, it does create a pretty gritty look and feel to the film. Especially seeing how it was actually shot on film and not digitally, which was a touch I liked, seeing the film grain on an exploitation zombie flick always adds a little to the experience. On the other hand, there are times when it looks ugly. The high contrast washes out the entire frame at some points that I can barely comprehend what I am seeing. Not all the time, but enough times to bother me. Especially when you can tell that it is Zack Snyder ingraining his thumbprint into the film as much as possible.
There’s an opening credit sequence. Do you realize how rare that has become for all films currently? Not just horror films, all films in general simply don’t really do that anymore. I honestly cannot recall the last time I saw a film with an opening credit sequence. The original film doesn’t even have an opening credit sequence actually. Movies that I even love from the last ten years or so don’t contain one. Which is sad to think about how that has become a bit of a lost art. Granted, it is usually way more popular today for a movie to close on an end credit sequence. But I miss when a film would open and provide a sense of the tone we are about to behold, rather than reliving what we’ve already seen.
The cameos of the actors from the original film I thought were well handled and even a little entertaining. They are all literally shown through televised reports in reaction to the epidemic and I actually thought that they worked, even providing the few more intelligent moments in the film that is reminiscent of the social commentary seen from the original. Tom Savini’s cameo probably got the only legitimate laugh out of me from the whole movie.
Ving Rhames. That’s all I have to say on the matter. Ving Rhames is being Ving Rhames and Ving Rhames is cool. He doesn’t get a lot to work with, but what little he does he works well with. He’s a cool dude that is talented at being awesome. Nothing more to add to that. That’s the last of the positives.
Until It’s Time to Not Be Nice.
The biggest problem that I have with Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is that it is entirely ZACK SNYDER’s Dawn of the Dead. You can tell in every frame that he takes control of the film, he is determined to leave his stamp everywhere, leaving little room for anyone else, including the cast on screen. Zack Snyder is the star, everyone else takes the backseat and it is beyond obnoxious to sit through. For most of Snyder’s filmography, it has been overly apparent how much his focus tends to lean more on the side of style over substance. Sometimes he hits a decent balance, but most of the time he is dead set on making a movie look good rather than be good. That is completely evident in his directorial debut right here. That’s right, fifteen years ago Snyder became a film director with his remake of Dawn of the Dead. Cementing his signature of being front and center while the rest of the crew take a break behind the curtain until he’s done masturbating.
In terms of the original, the characters really shined in that film. The casting was tight with the majority of the film basically being a four man show. With that approach, we the audience, were able to truly get to know every one of these characters. We understood their personalities more and could justify in our own minds more easily as to what decisions the characters may make. In the remake, I don’t feel like I know anyone. Everyone is a blank slate with zero personality, aside from occasionally them being angry. That is the most depth we get from anyone shown onscreen. These people are as shallow as a kiddie pool. Ving Rhames out of everyone probably has the most detail fleshed out about his character and here is everything that I know about him; he’s a cop, he has an offscreen brother, and he’s angry… Ta-dah!! That is all of the knowledge you ever get about his character, and even less from the rest. It feels like everything about these people’s lives was stripped out in order to aid the plot along and be cattle for the slaughter, nothing more. I don’t know these people and I don’t care about these people. I don’t care if a single one of them live or die. Romero’s Dawn: I’ve seen that movie dozens of times and still cross my fingers that everyone makes it out alive. Snyder’s Dawn: I don’t care who gets killed, even Ving Rhames could bite it by the end and I wouldn’t have a thing to say about it.
It also doesn’t help when these people do something so obviously stupid only to create a hallow sense of suspense and it never works, it only makes me roll my eyes and wish they would just die. I should not be wishing that upon my protagonists, movie! That is the last thing a horror movie should ever do, make you dread your time so much from watching these plot-puppets moving around onscreen that you hope they get torn and ripped to shreds. It’s a depressing and aggravating experience to say the least. But I can’t help, but scoff whenever someone I barely know makes a decision that is so dumb that I wonder how on Earth they even function inside of society. Look down below to get an idea of what I’m talking about.
If you see here, this man seems to be in the market for a good solid weapon to use in order to defend himself. Let’s see, what shall we pick? The hard metal crowbar that is guaranteed to put the opponent down? Or the flimsy crocket mallet that literally breaks apart with one swing and does no physical damage at all? Hmm… decisions, decisions.
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The redhead shares 1.5 scenes with this dog and is completely willing to sacrifice her life to try to save it. We don’t even get to know anything about this woman, other than supposedly her whole family is dead and her father dies from this zombie plague, but even in terms of her father she spends no time mourning the loss of. At all. If her father were cut out of the movie entirely, there would be no difference with this woman’s behavior. That is how much of a blank slate these people are, resulting in my not understanding the questionable decisions they make like this or buy into any sort of relationships they supposedly possess with one another.
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For some reason these people get together. There is no form of leadup or romantic chemistry prior to them kissing, or even after they kiss. There’s nothing between them in the slightest. Yet, for some reason I am supposed to believe that they care for one another. For what seems like only a matter of days, maybe a couple weeks (hard to tell with the editing) after her husband died and became a zombie in the first act.
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Then everyone else is simply there to die or shoot things.
The tone, for the most part is consistent with a decent enough sense of dread. Then like a freight train bursting into the script, we are completely catapulted away from that feeling of doom and gloom to a much more silly and lighthearted scene, causing a severe case of tonal whiplash with one single edit. Never a constant move made within its editing, but the randomly rare times it occurs it always feels like a failed stylistic attempt on Snyder’s part. As though creating such a contrast in tone would emphasize the horror, but it doesn’t. It really doesn’t work when the song “Down with the Sickness” is being played in a ‘50s era pop style that’s edited over a lazy montage used in place of character development literally only a split second after an “emotionally dark” scene just happens. It’s just plain irritating and lame while causing severe neck pains.
My eyes roll the most when there are small, insignificant moments being extremely focused on by the camera and sound department for no reason other than Snyder wants to take charge. An extreme closeup will be shot within a scene that will all of the sudden be executed with a slow-motion effect while the sound editor blares the volume up of the tiniest audio detail to overwhelm the whole shot. None of this provides any sort of tension or add to any of the characters, it is 100% Zack Snyder saying, “I want everyone to know that I am the director, the director is here, I’m here. I am present in this shot that you are witnessing for no reason. Look at it. Look at me. Appreciate me. Love me.” And it sucks. If these shots were disposed of, nothing would feel left out. Someone needed to have reigned Snyder in during production, a lot, then maybe the characters and story could have been able to breathe a little more. But because of Zack Snyder’s giant ego taking on center stage before anything else, we have a ‘style over substance’ zombie movie on our hands.
That is really what it boils down to with this remake, Zack Snyder meddling into every single frame so that everyone notices his directing style over what should really be important. When the story plays out, I can see a version in my head that if handled with a far more understated approach in its direction and with more focus on fleshing out the characters, this exact same plot line can work. Even some of the dumber decisions made by the characters, if I were able to have gotten to know them more and was allowed to understand their mindset better then maybe I could wrap my head around as to why they make certain choices. But because I always feel like the director is practically hovering over the camera the entire runtime, I don’t feel like I know these people and it constantly feels like this is a director trying to make this overly stylized and gigantic horror film only to cynically try to be better than George A. Romero. The end result only winds up being a pretentious and misguided product with no real heart to it. Sorry, Zacky-Poo, you’re not better than George A. Romero. And I’m saying that with full knowledge of your fifteen years in film now.
Even the themes of greed, materialism, and prejudice are a mere footnote in the remake as they are all stripped down as well to make room for the ‘Snydering’. All of these strong aspects that added so much to the original film’s personality have now been replaced with the director’s vanity. Hell, it even feels like James Gunn’s writing is barely relevant to Snyder’s film. That is how much this feels like a vanity project being projected onscreen rather than a horror movie with actual intelligence being put behind it.
I mentioned briefly that I did like the makeup and effects work for the zombies, that is true… but I also have a problem with this type of zombie seen here. If you read my review of the ’78 movie then you may remember my stance on which type of zombie I find to be more scary in the debate between the slow moving zombie and the runners... I don’t like when they run. Yes, I get it. I’m nitpicking at this point, but this was a direction for zombie movies that was wildly popularized after the Dawn of the Dead remake was released. No, it wasn’t the first film to do it, but it was the biggest influence on making it a rather large trend in zombie movies for years to come and I am not the biggest fan of that interpretation of zombie. I can’t really pinpoint as to why it bothers me so much, but when the living dead are constantly sprinting and screeching I feel like the filmmakers are trying too hard to be scary. When a zombie slowly approaches our hero, I get an overwhelming sense of an impending doom closing in. I prefer the slow and intense buildup over the fast forward button. Sometimes the fast moving zombie version can work, for instance with 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later; both films are fantastic and use that type of fast running and screeching zombie with truly intense sequences. I don’t feel like Snyder achieved that intensity though in his movie. I suppose it is all in the physical performance and relies on the viewer’s personal preference on which supplies the chills, this one doesn’t do it for me.
It’s Simply Not Scary
I could forgive so much of this remake if it were one thing and one thing only… scary. Seriously, if Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead was legitimately scary or creepy in any way then I can forgive all of its flaws. I can forgive the lack of character development, the over abundance of style over substance, the idiotic choices, all of it! All it had to do was be scary, but it’s not. The suspense always feels forced and manufactured. The jump scares, the loud music que stingers, the running zombies, the people making dumb choices, everything added all up makes for an uneventful and boring sit. I didn’t buy into a single one of the “intense” moments because it always felt like they were happening when the filmmakers wanted it to happen. There’s no natural progression of a scene or scare to transpire, it just has to happen since it was written that way. It also doesn’t help that I had no investment in these characters, so any time they found themselves in a predicament, who the f*ck cares? I sure didn’t.
That’s where I come down hardest on the remake I think, because if Snyder were to have settled down on the ego train then maybe would could have had a scary flick here. Maybe nothing great, but at least it would have accomplished what it was originally set out to do. Spook us. A comedy with a flimsy story can be forgiven if it’s hilarious, a drama with lack of depth can still be captivating if performed and executed intelligently, and a horror film with no substantial character development can still redeem itself if it is thrilling. This one isn’t, so it’s one true goal was to be scary and it couldn’t even manage to do that. Tragic.
I’m All Done Now… Mostly.
In the long line of horror remakes, on a technical aspect, no this is far from being one of the worst remakes ever made. On a personal level, for myself alone, it is easily one of my most disliked remakes that I have seen. Visually speaking, the film is well made with solid special effects and the actors are trying their best. There’s just nothing to work with here for anyone. This was the first step in a long journey for Snyder and his ‘stylistic’ choices. I won’t even say that this is Zack Snyder’s worst movie, but if someone were to ask me if I would rather sit through his Dawn of the Dead or Sucker Punch then I’d probably go with Sucker Punch. By all accounts a worse movie, but it didn’t annoy me on the same level as his remake did. Although if that same person were to ask me if I would rather sit through this or Man of Steel… I’d begrudgingly be more inclined to sit through this again instead. Only because at least Dawn is shorter. Now if that person asks me to watch anymore bad movies then I’d be even more inclined to just punch him in the d*ck.
I do not like this remake. It’s pretentious, shallow, and cynically made. I don’t know what the popular opinion on Snyder’s film nowadays is like, but last I had heard anything about it, the remake was still highly regarded as a modern horror classic. Something I guess I will never get behind. Before anyone asks, this review is based on the theatrical cut, not the unrated and extended version. Is this a fair assessment when there is, what could be, an improved upon product of the same film out there? Maybe, although, the theatrical version is still the version that everyone fell for in its initial run so I think that it is a fair enough critique. I have no clue what the differences are between the theatrical and unrated cuts, for all I know, the unrated version makes all of the difference in the world and fixes everything I had a problem with. I have no clue, I couldn’t get a hold of that copy. So we’re stuck with this one instead. Sorry, I guess.
Which Is Better?
Which version of 'Dawn of the Dead' is your favorite?
That's All Folks...
If you are a fan of this particular remake, then do me a favor and comment down below to let me know your thoughts on the matter. Am I missing something? Is there more to the remake than I am able to see here? Or maybe does your opinion align with mine? Write it all down and share it with me! Also, if you liked my review then do me a little favor and share this article around the social media world. Thank you for reading and have yourselves a spooky day.
© 2019 John Plocar