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Before Zack Snyder was "the visionary director of Watchmen," the guy handed Comic Con-tested projects and instructed to rally the fanboys, he took a bunch of actors to a Canadian mall and filmed them getting attacked by zombies. This wasn't exactly Sam Raimi trekking off into the wilderness to make his low-budget Evil Dead--Snyder was remaking George A. Romero's original zombie classic at the behest of Universal Pictures-- but it was a mid-budgeted, R-rated movie starring actors you'd barely heard of, directed by some guy who had only worked in commercials.
The movie was a hit, dethroning The Passion of the Christ to become #1 at the box office, and sending Snyder on a trajectory toward higher and higher movie budgets that's now landed us with Sucker Punch, not the most expensive movie Snyder has ever made but quite possibly the most indulgent to his own specific tastes. While Dawn of the Dead forced Snyder to work within his limitations, every movie he's made since then has been about expanding them-- the garish blood of 300, the sprawling narrative of Watchmen, the sheer shiny audacity of that 3D movie about owls, the gonzo and nonsensical action scenes in Sucker Punch. And not any of them put together added up to the sick thrill of even the pre-credits sequence in Dawn of the Dead.
It's not just that Snyder's speed-ramping and candy-colored action were novel and unique in Dawn of the Dead, but that the movie doesn't barrage us with so goddamn much of it. Working on a limited budget and schedule and with actors who hadn't been told he was the "visionary" director of anything, Snyder had to keep his flourishes in check, using his impressive visual skills to liven up the story, not stand in for it entirely. Yes, he owes a lot to Romero for the movie's plot and many of the gags, but in all the ways Snyder's personal jazz weighs down Sucker Punch, it makes Dawn of the Dead a remake with a reason to exist. We liked the visual punch and dark humor that Snyder brought to Dawn of the Dead, and as our punishment he's been bludgeoning us to death with it ever since.
All of his movies, Dawn of the Dead included, have been financial successes, which of course entitles Snyder to the larger budgets and greater directorial control that have come since. And who knows, maybe Superman will scale Snyder back the way I'm hoping-- on that movie he's working with a studio and a producer, Christopher Nolan, who may have plans that don't involve CGI-aided extreme closeups and constant slow motion. But once he's done with the Man of Steel, I'm dying to see him handed $30 million and a shopping mall again, to prove he's still a director who knows how to get out of his own way, who knows his great talents are sometimes even better when we don't see quite so much of them.