Above all, Dawn of the Dead is true to itself. Without irony, cheek, or a gentle nudge to the ribs, it manages to exist as a pure experience — watching the dead rise from the earth, begin their flesh-feast, and eventually take over the world. There is no explanation, no resolution, and no political subtext; only a refreshingly straightforward story that attempts thrills and chills without poking fun at its obvious flaws. There are genuine laughs to be had, but they are real, rather than the result of camp or mockery. In fact, this might be one of the first films in years to be the essence of horror without the Scream-inspired self-awareness. Yes, it’s a re-make (complete with the shopping mall setting), but it’s not trying to comment on the Romero classic. It’s not trying to be better than that film by showing it can be more clever and knowing. It is an update in that it has better effects and much more realistic carnage, but I would argue that it is aiming lower than the earlier film. Romero constructed a merciless satire of American consumerism, while Snyder’s film would rather we witness the end of the world without comment. Those who survive the holocaust may have secured a boat and the possibility of an island escape, but there is little hope for a turnaround. Mankind has reached its end; simply and without mourning.
The cast is as we would expect — a tough black cop who ends up as the leader; a pregnant chick with a loving boyfriend; a sassy, no-nonsense nurse who ends up quite the marksman; a racist security guard who exists only to be unsympathetic and solicit easy boos, etc. As soon as the few survivors barricade themselves inside a mall, a few more folks show up, but they only hang around long enough to die horribly. It’s one of the most effective aspects of the film that it presents these people without — here I go again — a sense of ironic detachment. Yes, these people are one-dimensional and cliched, but so what? Who they are isn’t the point. Spending any amount of time deconstructing their silliness would be a waste of time. A lesser film would spend much of its time providing sly jabs at the hokey nature of horror films (including the characters), but the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead is only after a helluva good time at the movies. A little thought on the matter reveals that yes, this film is “depressing” in that humanity spits out its final breath, but I for one accept that message as hopeful and upbeat. Nothing could be finer.
A lot has been said about the “updated” nature of the zombies in that they are limber and quick on their feet. There is no doubt that the stumbling heaps of Romero’s vision were more pathetic, but I accept Snyder’s touch. Because the undead cannot be outrun, it is more likely that they will have to be engaged in hand-to-hand combat, making their presence much more of a threat. If they are able to keep pace with our automobiles, what real hope do we have? And once inside the mall, the survivors pass the time as most would in similar circumstances — contemplating escape, bickering, keeping watch — but there are also delightful side trips, as when they head to the roof and pick off the zombies below according to their physical similarity to celebrities (one, who does look like Burt Reynolds, has most of his skull blown apart). The roof-dwellers also communicate with a loner across the way, using signs to offer messages and even moves in an impromptu chess match. Against all odds, these moments seem to stem from the story rather than for easy laughs. Yes, we say, we too would play sharpshooter. Why the hell not?
As I said, I won’t delve into any subtexts or hidden meanings because I simply do not think they exist. Dawn of the Dead 2004 is not a parable, or a metaphor, or an allegory, or even a mere discussion. The film might as well take place in 1935 or 2120, as there is no context to what we are watching. I was glad that the film didn’t see fit to haul in the old standby radiation, or a savaged environment as cause. The most effective way to present the worldwide phenomenon was how it was in fact done — the opening credits showing clips of destruction, madness, and hysteria with a soundtrack of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” The song seems so appropriate and is so infectious in itself that I was content to sit back and listen. There are two other songs in the film that might at first listen seem silly, but they are just as suitable for the accompanying images. Again, I think the music reveals the central truth about this film — people are going to die, heads will explode, zombies will get hit by trucks (these scenes were among the best), and flesh will tear, and that will be all. The carnage is the “meaning.” Without any unnecessary pretension, I was ever so appreciative. I’m sure the film will be dismissed in more conservative corners as an exercise in depravity and gratuitous violence, but hey, for once they will be right. Only they’re wrong in terms of how we should feel about it.
Now, my friends, for the crowd. Setting a new record that may never be broken unless I see that new DMX film in some shell of a theater in South Central, this film experience was the loudest ever. Not the film itself, mind you, but the members of the audience. Call me a bigot, or an unfeeling racist if you choose, but black people have actually earned one stereotype — they talk during movies. A lot. In fact, I don’t recall anyone lowering their voice to a whisper. Sitting in front of a group of ten, I heard shouts, numerous “Ahh, helllll no’s,” and enough profanity to fill a 50 Cent record. Which was fine since the dialogue on screen was irrelevant most of the time. I didn’t mind the extra show behind me. I chuckled quite often at the comments I heard, partly due to the words themselves but just as much for the sheer gall of what they were doing. Fine, I wasn’t watching Merchant/Ivory, but this is a movie theater after all, not the 50-yard line of the Super Bowl. There was everything but a numbers runner making his way through the aisles. But why not implore characters to open doors or not walk through a darkened room alone? And I thought I was past all this when I left Thornton behind.