Program Notes: Dawn of the Dead (2004)

The best zombie movie of all time? For my money it’s Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004).

It is a remake (of sorts) of George Romero’s classic 1979 Dawn of the Dead. Both films share the same premise: In the wake of a zombie apocalypse a handful of human survivors hole up in a shopping mall where they have all the consumer goods they could want...providing they can keep the undead horde from overrunning the place.

But Snyder’s film is an improvement on Romero’s in several key departments. Acting, for starters.

Romero’s films are notorious for their indifferent (or inept) performances. But Snyder assembled a terrific cast: Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter), Jake Webber (TV’s Medium), Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction), Mekhi Phifer (E.R.), Ty Burrell (he’s the bumbling dad on TV’s Modern Family)...in other words, good actors.

Film Screening:
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Saturday, Oct. 8 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

The film has terrific stunts and “kills” and some truly epic moments (like the overhead shot of the survivors’ shuttle bus surrounded by a sea of the undead).

Best of all, it nails the nexus of horror and humor that marks the greatest zombie movies. You’ll find yourself laughing at the over-the-top violence even as your skin crawls from the genuinely disturbing situation presented here and the deaths of characters we’ve come to like.

Snyder’s earned both praise and brickbats for reworking some key elements of the zombie mythology originated by Romero in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.

No controversy was greater than that over slow zombies vs. fast zombies.

Romero’s zombies are slow and shuffling. Snyder’s zombies may shuffle when there’s no prey in sight, but upon seeing a living human they begin running to attack.

Another tweak: In Romero films, anyone who dies for any reason is resurrected as a zombie. In Snyder’s world you only become a zombie after being bitten by one.

Small points, perhaps...unless you’re a real zombie afficianado.

Director Snyder, a native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, made his feature debut with Dawn of the Dead after several years of making commercials.

His second effort was 300 (2006), the story of the ancient battle of Thermopylae in which human actors emoted against computer-generated backgrounds. It was the perfect approach to a comic book adaptation.

Watchmen (2009) was his monumental take on a much-revered graphic novel about a band of masked vigilantes in an alternative history version of America where Richard Nixon is still president in the mid-1980s. The film wasn’t the huge box office success some predicted, but frame for frame I consider the best “superhero” film ever.

Alas, Snyder’s last two productions have shown an erosion of his talents. The computer-animated Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was visually splendid but dramatically moribund.

The same could be said of Sucker Punch (2001), a kitchen-sink fantasy (samurais, dragons, World War I battlefields, nubile young women) that unfolds in the mind of a girl wrongly confined to a mental institution.

Currently Snyder is working on Man of Steel, a reboot of the Superman franchise. At this point his career could use an across-the-board hit.

Check out Bob's general introduction to Zombiemania!

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.

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