George A. Romero and John Russo more or less single-handedly invented the zombie movie genre with their unforgettable classic, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. It was followed up by several other films, all connected by the premise of humans surviving amid a worldwide zombie apocalypse, and by the use of that premise to direct social commentary on racism, consumerism, class struggle, and more. Since Russo and Romero parted ways to each develop their own visions of zombie cinema, and since Night of the Living Dead was in public domain (!), the series, and the premise, has been open to re-interpretation over the years, though few have dared to directly remake the core films themselves. After all, how do you improve upon a classic? Well, in 2004, James Gunn and Zack Snyder—who were both relatively unknown talents at the time—did just that, creating an updated and thoroughly re-imagined version of the second of Romero’s zombie movies, Dawn of the Dead. The result is a highly charged, fast-paced action survival movie that is light on the commentary but heavy on the viscera. Its success largely kicked off the modern zombie revival and has, in its own way, been as influential as its predecessors. There would be no Walking Dead without Dawn of the Dead (2004), that’s for sure.
Dawn of the Dead takes place in Milwaukee, as a weary nurse named Ana returns home from her night shift. She is only home a brief while before a young girl from next door wanders in, biting Ana’s boyfriend Luis on the neck, and killing him. Luis promptly re-animates and goes after Ana, who runs outside to see that her entire neighborhood is overrun by undead cannibals sprinting across lawns and eating her neighbors as chaos reigns. She gets in her car and narrowly escapes Luis, but soon crashes and is knocked out. So ends the first seven minutes or so of the movie, and there is more excitement in that than in most other movies in their entirety. When Ana awakes, she joins a small group of survivors who head to a nearby mall and secure it, turning it into a well-stocked fortress where they might ride out the end of the world. But tensions among the survivors, boredom, dwindling supplies, the stress of an ever-growing horde of zombies outside, deaths within the mall, and the need to rescue another survivor isolated in a separate building across the street all take their toll. Ana and the survivors can’t stay in this mall forever. Sooner or later, they have to make a break for it. And as they make their preparations, they do so knowing that no matter how good their plan is, it’s probably not going to be good enough. And it isn’t. In movies like this, it never is.
In previous movies, zombies moved slowly, a shuffling, inexorable force that cornered you if you were too stupid to know better, too frightened to stay on the go, or too acrimonious to cooperate with fellow survivors. In a slow-zombie movie, if the zombies got you, it was your fault. This version of Dawn of the Dead dispenses with all of that, and makes the zombies fast. They sprint all the time, have seemingly limitless energy, and will run down almost anybody they happen to see. In such a scenario, finding a safe place to bunker down isn’t just a smart survival plan, it’s the only one that is likely to work. Pretty early on, we get the feeling that anybody who hasn’t found a good place to hide has quickly joined the ranks of the dead.
This removes a lot of room for social commentary, really; when the zombies seem almost manageable, you can give yourself room to use them as a way of jabbing at real life. If there is any real-life analog to be had in this version of Dawn of the Dead, though, it is how savagely people will turn on each other under the right circumstances. This movie doesn’t use zombies to criticize aspects of modern society. It uses them to criticize society itself. There is a brief moment of truth from the movie’s introduction, as Ana is trying to drive to a safe place. She spots a metro bus abandoned on the road, and in the back are the silhouettes of two zombies attacking and eating a woman who is kicking and screaming and doing everything she can to survive. We know that woman is not going to make it, but just seeing their outlines during that struggle takes the murder out of the realm of zombie horror. How many times has a scene just like that one played out without the help of zombies to make it so? Any war, and period of anarchy, any kind of human predation; it happens every day. It happens all over the world. It is far more normal than we care to admit. And that is what makes this movie so chilling; despite its speed and high-octane action horror, there is the nagging notion that you don’t need an undead apocalypse for a scenario like this to play out. You just need enough bad days in a row.
A final thought: this movie remains a favorite of mine for many reasons, one of which is because it provided me with a moment when art and reality crossed over. I saw this in San Diego, late at night. When I exited the theater (which had only myself and two other people in it), the downtown area had emptied out, and I walked through several blocks of dark, silent city before I saw any signs of activity. Now, I knew the zombie apocalypse didn’t happen while I was watching a movie about the zombie apocalypse, but for a moment there, I wasn’t so sure. Only movies can make you question your reality like that. A moment of truth, indeed.