Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #86
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: March 19, 2004
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $102,356,381
Running Time: 100 minutes
Director: Zack Snyder
Producers: Richard P. Rubenstein, Marc Abraham, Eric Newman
Screenplay: James Gunn
Based on Dawn of the Dead by George A. Romero
Special Effects: Laird McMurray, Bill McShane
Visual Effects: Dennis Berardi, Aaron Weintraub
Cinematography: Matthew F Leonetti
Score: Tyler Bates
Editing: Niven Howie
Studio: Strike Entertainment, New Amsterdam Entertainment
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Michael Kelly, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell, Kevin Zegers, Michael Barry, Lindy Booth, Jayne Eastwood, Boyd Banks, Inna Korobkina, RD Reid, Kim Poirier, Matt Frewer, Louis Ferreira, Hannah Lochner, Bruce Bohne
Suggested Audio Candy
 Richard Cheese “Down With the Sickness”
 Tyler Bates “It’s Just a Matter of Time”
I can think of few more harrowing propositions than attempting to tackle the work of George A. Romero. Way back in 1978, he claimed the zombie template for his very own and it is fruitless arguing against a film as mercurial as Dawn of The Dead. In fact, he had already laid the tracks ten years prior with Night of The Living Dead and consolidated his claim to be the Godfather of the Dead in 1985 with the magnificent Day of The Dead but it was Dawn that had the most significant social impact. Shot for just $500k, the film pocketed him over $55m in box-office receipts and is commonly regarded as one of the most peerless cult movies of all time. In the history of shoes to fill, few are quite as elongated as Romero’s and anyone even contemplating laying hands on his magnum opus would need a fairly hefty set of cojones or a death wish.
So how in the name of all things decomposing do you approach such an unenviable task? Do you plump for a shot-for-shot remake when it has been proved time and time again as a bum steer? Or perhaps you just leave it well alone and instead have the courage of your own convictions? Sounds like a no-brainer to me and, mercifully, Zack Snyder resisted the urge to do the former, opting instead to craft a zombie flick that, despite bearing the same title and similar location, opts to walk, or more fittingly, sprint its own path. This was all well and good but, by tinkering with certain dynamics, he placed himself squarely in the firing line and encouraged the fiery wrath of his idol.
The undead of Snyder’s remake appeared to have been on the treadmill and guzzling whey protein shakes while dormant for almost thirty years, much to the initial bewilderment of Romero. Indeed, George was spitting feathers like an overstuffed fox when he first caught wind of this decidedly bold move and consequently refused to endorse Snyder’s vision on principle alone. Actually, he has since gone on record to state that he was quietly impressed by the interpretation although, the fact remains, this was his turf and all these athletic zombies fucked up his well-laid patch. I’m glad he gave credit where it was evidently due but, if quizzed as to whether he prefers this or Edgar Wright’s Shaun of The Dead, I’m fairly sure I would know his response.
Snyder’s treatment hits the ground running both figuratively and literally speaking. A pacy budget-sapping opening sequence introduces us to our damsel Ana (played by the eminently talented Sarah Polley) as she returns from a long shift to her quaint little suburban home and doting family, only to learn that the reality she knows is about to change for the decidedly worse. With everyone she holds dear being swiftly recruited to the rising ranks of the undead and absolutely no time for explanation, it appears the ideal time for a spot of good old-fashioned retail therapy. We’ve all been there right? You receive your extortionate quarterly gas bill, break a nail, spill a glass of Merlot on your favorite mink rug, and watch your husband and daughter get mauled by ravenous earth dwellers. Retail therapy was invented for these very moments.
Upon her arrival Ana is greeted in by an assortment of stragglers, all of whom appear to have had their days similarly compromised. All bases are covered here as we are presented with the following last-minute shoppers: surprisingly honorable salesman Michael (Jake Weber), no-shit taking badge wearing hench black dude Kenneth (Ving Rhames), petty thug Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his heavily pregnant wife Luda (Inna Korobkina). It would appear that Ana is late to the party as she soon rubs noses with a bouquet of fellow head scratchers, including the wonderfully sardonic quick-witted wise-cracking snake Steve (Ty Burrell) and a certain other indispensable treasure. Grueheads one and all, it is my distinct pleasure and honor to introduce you to the dude with the largest pair of titanium toed shit kickers in town – the one, the only C.J.
To me, the inclusion of C.J. (Michael Kelly) into the mix provides just the shake-up Snyder’s film needs to stand its ground. Romero would no doubt have remarked something along the lines of “the boy did good” as one thing the Godfather of The Dead takes great pride is creating multifaceted characters, some of whom may appear to offer mere worm meal and aren’t necessarily agreeable at the offset, but have their own personal journey of discovery and come good when stakes are at their uppermost. Basically, C.J. is a shit kicking, blood spitting, fire starting redneck security guard with no seconds left for time-wasters (or anything but C.J.) and possessing the marksman skills of crack-shot helicopter pilot John from Romero’s own Day of The Dead. This guy is both the dick and balls.
His safe passage becomes pivotal to our investment and, while he softens his stance towards his comrades as the film wears on, he never loses focus when all chips are downed and it appears that the only thing that will take this man down is a bullet from his own chamber. Snyder knows full well he has his ace card in C.J. and astutely resists any temptation to send him to his early bath, opting instead to utilize him to his fullest capability. Massive kudos to you for that one Zack and I’m convinced that George would share that sentiment.
There is also rather stellar implementation of the vast potential for black comedy and the unique time-passer devised by Kenneth and his new buddy Andy (played from some distance away by Bruce Bohne) is a full-on masterstroke. The pair while away the hours like old drinking buddies and develop a telepathic bromance that anchors the second act delightfully.
As for the whole zombie childbirth debate, I’ll let it go on around me. I have no real issues with this admittedly dicey endeavor as it is handled deftly enough, although it can’t help but feel somewhat trivial against other pressing issues. The characters of Andre and Luda feel a tad undernourished but, by this point, I’m splitting hairs and that’s considerably good news for Snyder.
His Dawn of The Dead wisely sidesteps social commentary as that’s been done already and the only true requisite is balls to the walls entertainment, something which Snyder’s film delivers in spades. Some protagonists are fleshed out sufficiently, others less so and, while this results in accelerated tempo, robs it of a little heart. It’s a fine balance and he opts for larger cast over intensive characterization, which is nothing much to quibble about when the set-pieces are so commendably turbo-charged. Indeed, there really isn’t a great deal negative for me to report here and that’s a bold font A for Effort on Snyder’s term card in my book.
In a time when every great horror has been celebrating its 30th anniversary with customary fresh licks, this stands taller than practically all comers. While altering both aesthetics and pace, Snyder ensures that all the vital components remain intact but his film does more than enough to stand on its own two feet, thus leaving the size elevens to George. Up against Steve Miner’s misguided and downright disrespectful 2008 reimagining of Day of The Dead (which will I always uphold as a guilty pleasure but seldom defend publicly), it’s the Mona Lisa. Sure it’s a knock off but, should you hang it over your log burner and dim the lights sufficiently, it can still pass off as the old girl (although I’m reasonably certain the Mona Lisa didn’t sport a handle bar mustache and baseball cap with the letters C & J emblazoned across it). Anyhoots, Dawn of The Dead is that painting and, in a world fast becoming overrun with breakneck zombies, that’ll do me just fine.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Factor: 4/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: One of the factors under intense scrutiny would be the splatter. This is of paramount importance in anything situating itself in the Dead universe and its rather fantastic news on that particular front. There is an effusion of schlocky goodness from the obligatory head popping antics to a suitably bone splintering case of chainsaw pratfall that positively begs for slow play. It’s all here as we would damn well expect and the only thing missing appears to be a dash of feasting. George would have had his gargantuan hands in some mid torsos, giving his festering shufflers tips on how to juggle a kidney or tie an enduring intestinal knot or two. Granted the undead have places to be and reasons to remain on the front foot but, once in a while, they still gotta eat right?
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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