Zach Snyders 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead changed the genre again and launched Zach Snyder as a director to be reckoned with. This was also the movie that gave us fast zombies as a genre staple so it has a lot to answer for.
Spoilers abound. I’m going to be describing all the major plot points of the entire movie. If you don’t want it spoiled stop reading now. I will say that this movie doesn’t rely on plot twists and the experience isn’t diminished on subsequent watches.
We open in a hospital. Ana is a nurse who has clearly been on shift far too long. She is trying to leave and it’s clear that things are too busy. There are some mentions of patients being bitten by other people. As she drives home through the suburbs the tone is ominous. She greets a girl from the neighbourhood and then talks to her husband. It was supposed to be date night. They go to sleep together.
In the morning the neighbour girl comes in. Her face is destroyed. She bites Ana’s husband. He dies quickly and then reanimates as a zombie. Ana gets away from him, grabbing her car keys as she goes.
Ana flees through the neighbourhood as her now dead husband gives chase. The intensity is turned up to ten. Chaos and death surround her as she flees.
Ana crashes her car and runs into some other living people. First a cop named Kenneth, then a small group of survivors. They immediately mistrust each other. The small group of survivors consists of Michael, Andre who carries a gun and seems to be a gangster and his girlfriend Luda who is quite pregnant. Michael warns them not to go the way they are trying to go and says that they are going to the mall.
The group makes it to the mall and makes their way past some zombies. Once in the mall, they discover it is mostly zombie free, although there are a few. They deal with the few zombies present and then they run into mall security. There is a standoff. They see some footage of the zombies, including Tom Savini (the FX supervisor for the original version) as a police officer. They start to explore the mall and discover that the gun shop across the street has someone alive. The zombies are starting to surround the mall.
There is a scene with Andre and Luda where it becomes clear that Luda has a bite on her arm.
The mall security guys are holding the outside group as semi-prisoners. Another group of survivors shows up driving a truck. The security guards don’t want to let the new people in, but the outside group manages to get their guns and lets the people from the truck inside. Michael and Andre end up going outside to get the survivors in. They manage to get all of them in. There is a woman who is clearly late in the stages of zombification.
The one who is the most important to the plot is an obvious asshole named Steve who wears a suit and is generally sarcastic. It’s really, really obvious that he’s going to be an antagonist.
The bitten woman comes back to life and Ana destroys her. They discuss the bites causing zombies and Andre wanders off on his own. Another one of the survivors, Frank (played by genre mainstay Matt Frewer), has a bite. They debate shooting him but end up deciding to let him live until he actually turns. As he turns they shoot him.
Andre and Luda are in a baby store and have a moment together.
There is a great sequence where the group goes a little bit crazy. Terry, the guy in the gun store across the street and Ken the cop play chess using whiteboards to tell each other their moves. They start killing zombies that look like celebrities using a long range rifle. There is sex, looting, all the things you can imagine people might do. The whole thing has a lounge music version of the song Down with the Sickness playing throughout.
They bond over time. There is a clear connection between Ana and Michael.
The power goes out and the group decides to start the generators. They convince the guards to join them in the effort since the guards know the systems. Meanwhile, Luda is giving birth. Andre has her chained down. They are far from the rest of the group.
Zombies get in as the group starts the power. One of the security guards dies but Michael pours gasoline on the zombies and they burn them all.
Luda dies giving birth, the baby is born, however. It is already a zombie. This sequence is as gratuitous as anything I have ever seen and has no narrative purpose beyond shock value. Andre ends up shooting one of the other survivors as the shoots him. The group puts the zombie baby down.
They decide to make their way to Steve’s boat but they want to get Andy, the guy from the gun store first. They reinforce a couple of buses from the parking garage into Mad Max style battle vehicles.
Also, there is a dog in the mall. This becomes important to the effort to save Andy. He’s starving so they send the dog across with some food. Andy gets bit as the dog makes its way in. One of the survivors, a young woman, goes to get the dog and. At the same time, Andy turns. The group makes their way through the sewer system and come out of a manhole almost at the gun store. Steve stays behind watching the door for them. This sequence doesn’t make a lot of sense or really work, but it’s tense as hell. They manage to rescue the girl and make it back to the mall with zombies giving chase. Steve locks the door and doesn’t let them in. Ana lets them in but because of Steve’s cowardice the zombies are too close and they end up getting in.
The group makes their way into battle shuttles and heads for the marina and the boat.
There is a long sequence of battling zombies in battle buses. One of the buses gets overturned but they manage to get some of the people off. Steve however gets eaten. Nobody is upset over this. Ana gets the keys to the boat. Michael gets bitten in the chaos.
The remaining bus makes it to the marina. CJ, the head of the security guards, blows up the bus with himself inside taking out most of the zombies. Michael stays behind as the rest of them board the boat. Roll credits.
There is a post-credits sequence that’s found footage. They are clearly ill-equipped for the voyage but they do make it to an island which is obviously full of zombies.
At the time this was the biggest budget zombie movie ever to come out. It’s exceptionally well made. They hired top-notch actors, a great FX crew, spent money on music, it is really well made.
The soundtrack is incredible. They made some unusual musical choices but they are great choices and the whole thing works brilliantly. One of my top ten movie soundtracks of all time.
Sarah Polley plays Ana. This movie was her breakout role. She is so good!
Vin Rhames is Ken, Jake Weber is Michael, Mekhi Pfifer is Andre. The cast is all top notch and even all the smaller roles are brilliantly cast and acted. Everything about this cast works. Even Matt Frewer who can be distracting due to his large quantity of genre roles and his instant recognizability works here.
There’s a hollowness to this movie. It’s exciting, thrilling, scary, gross, well made and acted, but it feels exploitative pretty often. There are set pieces that are there purely to gross the audience out, and there are characters that are only there to pull off those set pieces. The character of Luda has no narrative purpose at all. If Andre had an arc then maybe, but as is it’s pure exploitation.
Somehow it’s like somebody ripped the soul out of a zombie movie.
Until this movie zombies were slow. Objectively fast zombies work better as a world ender, but they kill the tension. Zach Snyder has traded slow burn tension of the kind that used to characterize zombie movies for adrenaline. This compromises the feel of the movie. It leaves it feeling more like action than horror a lot of the time. Other movies have navigated fast zombies better, but overall they tend to present the wrong tone.
As I mentioned, the production values are top notch. The cast is amazing. The soundtrack is amazing. The special effects are amazing. Zach Snyder knows how to make a pretty movie! There are also a few amazing set pieces and the sequence where they go crazy in the mall is brilliant.
This is not a well-written movie. The plot, what little of it there is, still somehow manages to be overblown. The characters are mostly very thinly sketched, although both Ana and Michael do seem to have actual personalities.
The fast zombies kill the tension. It’s too much too often. Basically a Zach Snyder movie. He doesn’t know how to let the story breathe. Zach Snyder isn’t quite Michael Bay, but they are more similar than different.
The level of emotional exploitation reaches a point where it’s hard not to notice. That emotional exploitation loses its impact because you know it’s going on. The worst of it is the bit with Luda and the baby, but come on, he makes sure that there is a dog to worry about, that we see a father saying a final, noble goodbye to his daughter, a bunch of other stuff on that level. Even Steve is a problem. He’s a character put into the movie so we can hate him. There is nothing about him but selfishness. Even Cooper in the original Night of the Living Dead at least cared about his family, even if he was somewhat abusive. Steve has no redeeming qualities.
The ending is also terrible. It was almost good. If they had left out the stuff with the video camera and had the courage to leave it ambiguous it would have been interesting, but they didn’t do that. Instead, they added on all that post-credits stuff and robbed the movie of any kind of meaning. If we know that it didn’t work and they all died then why do we bother to care?
This movie brought zombie movies further into the mainstream than they had ever been and was largely responsible for the current zombie resurgence. It’s a great watch, but unlike the Romero movies, there isn’t anything that sticks with you. It’s there and then gone. Enjoy it for what it is, but don’t expect more from it. A fun ride without a soul.