George Romero’s original, taboo-breaking Dawn of the Dead, the wildly gory 1978 sequel to his culture-quaking Night of the Living Dead, brought vivid color and a satirical edge to the zombie apocalypse as the survivors turn a suburban mall into a bunker. Romero was a sly satirist—once the survivors locked themselves into the womb of consumerism, they become numb in lives of meaningless distraction—but no action director.
The 21st century remake Dawn of the Dead (2004) has little of that cutting edge, but the screenplay by James Gunn has its own survivalist drive, and first time feature director Zack Snyder delivers something what Romero didn’t: he turns it into a high octane zombie action film.
It opens in the midst of chaos: a sleepy suburban neighborhood overrun with ferocious, flesh-eating monsters that once were neighbors, friends, and family. With society all but gone and humans now the prey of a world gone wild, a wary collection of survivors have a plan: “We’re going to the mall.”
There are more survivors this time, including a fearlessly sensible nurse (Sarah Polley), a distrustful loner cop (Ving Rhames), and a protective young husband (Mekhi Phifer) with a 9-months pregnant wife. The clash between survival of the species and self-preservation doesn’t bring out the best in everybody. Almost as dangerous as the zombies is a drawling mall security guard (Michael Kelly) whose ignorance is matched by his power trip.
Snyder and Gunn keep many of Romero’s best ideas, from the useless television broadcasts that only serve to remind them how alone they are to the droning Muzak in the luxury prison of the mall, and add a few of their own. And where Romero’s undead were slow, shuffling juggernauts, the zombies of this 21st century makeover are fleet and feral and the gore, though toned down from the original, comes as fast and furious as the hungry dead.
Well played God’s-eye shots continually reframes the immediate horror with an even bigger one of survivors are adrift in a sea of savagery, and there’s no lifeboat in sight. Their most obvious addition, however, is the nitrous boost of a down-and-dirty action thriller, and Snyder’s execution of visceral set pieces is impressive. Romero’s satire is largely replaced by a sardonic gallows humor (the zombie-shooting contest is as perversely funny as it is grotesque), but otherwise it’s a bloody entertaining zombie apocalypse.
Jake Weber, Ty Burrell, and Kevin Zegers costar, and it became an unexpected launching pad for its two central creators: both Snyder and Gunn went on to become architects of the comic book movie juggernauts of the modern era.
Streams for a limited time on Netflix
Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Dawn of the Dead (Collector’s Edition) [Blu-ray]
Dawn of the Dead (Unrated Director’s Cut) [Blu-ray]
Dawn of the Dead [DVD]
Don’t miss a single recommendation. Subscribe to the Stream On Demand weekly newsletter (your E-mail address will not be shared) and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
The special edition Blu-ray and DVD releases include commentary by director Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman, deleted scenes with optional commentary, and featurettes.