The most noticeable thing about 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, Zack Snyder’s feature debut is how much it feels not like what we’ll come to think of as a Snyder film, but like a James Gunn film. There’s none of Snyder’s high-gloss operatics, no slow-motion action shots, no CGI-mayhem. For a movie whose plot is largely first-person shooter, Dawn of the Dead feels more down to earth and human than a lot of Snyder fare.
The movie’s two most memorable set pieces have a dark edgelord humor I don’t generally associate with Snyder. Being honest, I don’t associate any sense of humor with Snyder. But zombie baby and the rooftop celebrity look-a-like shootout are clearly Gunn’s jokes, delivered with a kind of flat affect that keeps them from being properly either funny or horrifying.
I said two set pieces, but the film pulls off three really memorable bits. The last is the mid-credits sequence: grainy handheld footage of the survivors arriving on the island they thought would hold salvation, but which actually just holds more zombies. It’s oddly effective after the audience has been given a moment to breathe. It’s possibly the only bit that properly delivers stakes in the film.
I should admit that I’m not zombie expert, nor zombie enthusiast. Dawn of the Dead sits, from what I can tell, as an early adopter of the “fast zombies” phenomenon, following Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later from 2002. Unlike that film, Dawn of the Dead doesn’t give its zombies much room to run, preferring generally to cram them into closed quarters. It doesn’t have the breathless kinetics of Boyle’s movie, and its major chase scene is more of a “plowing-through” scene.
Overall, it’s a pretty good zombie movie. It carries the sine qua non moral of all zombie flicks, that being that the living are the true monsters (which I think The Walking Dead has officially shot on the nose with Rick’s “We…are the walking dead” speech). It has Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames, always a plus. The opening sequence is tense and makes solid use of the quick-changing zombie trope. It sags in the middle, with a little more cast than the script or the director knows what to do with. It’s journeyman work, and if it looks a little pale in the shadow of Boyle’s go at the genre, it stands solid against a lot of more recent attempts.
I want to talk a little about two of the movie’s protagonists, because I think they end up informing some of Snyder’s choices in later films. First there’s Michael, who the movie ends up serving us as the main protagonist. At least I think so? Michael is a man with no qualities. His main heroic virtue is that he’s not a bad guy. He even gives a speech about being not a bad guy. The film seems to think this is enough to have him get the girl, despite zero romantic chemistry, and make the final heroic sacrifice in the film’s last moments. We’re going to see Snyder’s version of Dan Dreiberg/Night Owl in Watchmen hit a lot of the same notes. In fact, I had to check to make sure they weren’t played by the same actor.
Maybe more important is CJ, a character best described as a pragmatic asshole, or a useful monster. The film gives us Ty Burrell’s loathsome Steve to contrast CJ with: Steve is a useless monster and dies in ignominy. CJ is the threat that eventually must be let out of the cage if the others are to survive. He’s horrible, but in the film’s moral terms, he’s also right. There’s something Snyder seems to think of as quintessentially American about this character type, and we’ll see him at least twice again in ways that I think are complete misreadings of their sources.
The first and most obvious is Rorschach, who Snyder saddles with the hero role in a narrative that arguably shouldn’t have one. Like a college freshman who sees Taxi Driver and tacks a poster of Travis Bickle on his wall, Snyder falls for Rorschach in a way that might have horrified Alan Moore, and to the extent Snyder’s film has a moral center, Rorschach seems to hold it.
Less obvious but maybe more troubling, Snyder casts Superman’s dad Jonathan Kent as an All-American Pragmatic Asshole. Some day we’ll get to Kevin Costner’s “Maybe you shouldna saved that busload ‘a kids” speech, but I think with CJ, we see the first instance of Snyder buying into this kind of pragmatism as something “real Americans” have. Real Americans, notably, are from the middle states, which Snyder’s already shown a yankee’s fascination for in his music video work.
So yeah, it’s not a bad movie. There’s an argument to be made that the world view of Romero’s of the Dead films is a good fit for Snyder (he’s apparently going back to the franchise with Army of the Dead, currently in pre-production along with The Fountainhead), but, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, one almost wonders what a zombie film with Snyder’s operatic sweep would look like. Or possibly that’s what World War Z was? I’m not sure, and finding out would require me to watch World War Z, so.