It has been 17 years since the 2004 release of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, a movie that I saw in theaters several times as a 16-year-old who would find various ways of getting into R-rated movies. Like George A. Romero’s 1978 horror classic, I was obsessed with Snyder’s version that spring and would talk on and on about it until my parents, friends, and theater employees grew tired of it. But something happened in the years following my first dance with Dawn of the Dead, and over the years I found myself approaching the movie with an unearned elitism and purist mentality on account of my love of the classic mall-based zombie movie.
Recently, as I have started to prepare for the arrival of Army of the Dead and Zack Snyder’s Justice League, I’ve started to think about where it all started for Snyder and really my love of zombie movies in the spring of 2004.
For Starters, The Dawn Of The Dead Credit Sequence Is Still One Of The Best
Okay, my love of the Dawn of the Dead title sequence is an aspect of the 2004 remake that I loved ever since I first saw it, but like a bottle of wine, I have a greater appreciation of it now than ever before. At the time it was released, I had never seen anything like the shots of riots combined with zombie attacks and other horror elements that were all set to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” and there are few title sequences that have the same effect.
The title sequence doesn’t come in until about 10 minutes into Dawn of the Dead, further establishing the tone of the movie set up in the first chapter that ends with Ana (Sarah Polley) waking up to a world gone mad. The idea of having a song about the end of times sung by “The Man in Black” to help the film better differentiate itself from the original pays off huge here.
Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead Uses The Original’s Premise But Is Not Restricted By It
Unlike the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead (which is amazing, by the way), Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is a new version of the classic opposed to a shot-for-shot remake of the original. Yeah, the movie has the same basic premise of 'there’s a zombie outbreak, survivors take refuge in mall, things get hectic and survivors (or what’s left) make an escape,' but at the same time, it doesn’t follow the 1978 version beat-for-beat.
In my college days when I became an insufferable purist, I would go on about how the original is a better movie and that the remake is Hollywood garbage because of the changes (and running zombies, which aren’t that bad). But like a man who visits his childhood home and becomes obsessed with baseball cards from his youth, I too came around and realized that I used to love Zack Snyder and James Gunn’s approach to the story and way that it finds a balance of drawing from the original source material while also doing its own thing.
Still, There Are A Ton Of Great Callbacks To George A. Romero’s Horror Classic
I have always been obsessed with the callbacks to the original Dawn of the Dead (even in my worst of days), but the more I watch the 2004 remake the more I notice, which makes me want to watch it again (and again). I mean, Zack Snyder and company included everything from Ken Foree saying his classic “When there’s no more room in Hell…” line, but this time as a doomsday preacher on TV, Tom Savini in a Monroeville Sheriff’s uniform (the location of the original), the WGON TV helicopter, Scott Reiniger (Roger from the original) appearing as a general, and even the Gaylen Ross department store.
But one callback to the original Dawn of the Dead that I only noticed recently is Wooley’s Diner in Zack Snyder’s zombie movie. For those not aware or who don’t remember, Wooley (Jim Baffico) was the SWAT team leader from the raid in the beginning of the original movie. He’s the foul-mouthed and unapologetic racist character who gets taken out by one of his own men after going on a little one-man rampage ending with the headshot heard around the world.
The ‘Down With The Sickness’ Montage Is Cheesy But Still Amazing
I’m not trying to take anything away from Richard Cheese’s lounge singer version of the Disturbed song “Down with the Sickness,” or movie montages (I’m a major proponent of all things montage), but this section of the movie is cheesy and silly so much so that it once took me out of the movie. I’ve since changed my tune (more Cheese, please) and learned to accept the levity this lighthearted scene adds before shit goes south for the survivors of the zombie apocalypse.
And despite the silly nature of the montage, it accomplishes a great deal in under two minutes: it further establishes the bond between Ken (Ving Rhames) and Andy (Bruce Bohne), shows that Steve (Ty Burrell) likes to film himself in the act, and gives the crowded cast much needed character development.
Sarah Polley And Ving Rhames Are Near Perfect In Their Roles
The Dawn of the Dead cast is filled with people who would go on to become major stars, with Michael Kelly and Ty Burrell, who appeared as CJ and Steve respectively, being at the top of that list. But the movie also had its share of established stars seen in its two leads, Sarah Polley as Ana, and Ving Rhames as Kenneth. I used to go either way when it came to my feelings on the leads, but they are seriously the glue that keeps the movie together with their command of the screen.
You have Ana not taking shit from anyone. ANYONE. Even with a gun pointed at her face, she’s like “My husband was killed by the kid next door and then tried to eat me” and is just not having any of it. Even when facing death in the form of a horde of zombies, she doesn’t back down. Then there’s Kenneth, who somehow comes off as a badass and an all-around great dude with not much effort. You can feel the emotion in his eyes each time he talks about going to rescue his brother. And then when he wants to get the show on the road. Sign me up!
The Fake-Out Ending With Its False Sense Of Hope Is Grim As All Hell
I absolutely love the fake-out ending at the conclusion of Dawn of the Dead, but there was a time when I thought it was a little too happy-go-lucky, especially with what follows. That has changed, however, and I have learned to appreciate that falls sense of hope and just how grim it is when you remember what comes next.
At the end of the movie (following the true ending), everyone is presumably dead or “deadish” after meeting the undead welcoming party. But even before that with the quick cuts of handheld footage of the survivors’ mood slowly changing prepares you for what is about to happen. The foreshadowing, albeit brief, really drives the message home that no one is going to survive this.
All these things being said, Dawn of the Dead is not a perfect movie. It has weird tonal flaws, is overly-sentimental at times, and has the terrible zombie baby subplot, but I’ll be damned if I don’t love it and get a little nostalgic for my high school years.
Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.
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