Ten years ago, almost to the day, the current zombie apocalypse started in earnest. On March 19, 2004, patient zero hit theaters with the release of Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead. The world of the walking dead hasn't been the same since.
You can point to 28 Days Later, released a full two years prior, as the opening salvo in the current zombie wars, but even to this day, purists will argue that it isn't really a zombie movie.(Note: it is totally a zombie movie.) You could also point to Shaun of the Dead, released just a short time later, as both a superior film (undoubtedly true) and a driver of the current zombie fad, but its relatively modest box office and cult status keep it from ascending the throne of the zombie king. No, it was the gore-splattered, big-studio, blockbuster remake of George Romero's "zombie apocalypse at the mall" classic that pushed zombies from fringe player to pop-culture phenomenon.
Watching the film today, it's not hard to understand why. The first thirteen minutes of the movie, from the mundane opening at the hospital to the end of the opening credits, are among the best and most intense in zombie movie history. You'd be hard-pressed to find fifteen minutes in any other film that so adroitly depicts both the intimate trauma of loved ones becoming flesh-hungry ghouls and the chaos and insanity that a full-scale zombie outbreak would cause.
The rest of the movie is a brilliant update on the classic zombie-movie formula. A group of strangers are thrown together by circumstance. They fight and make the situation worse before settling into an uneasy, if relatively safe, existence while the world finishes falling apart around them. Then they do something incredibly, painfully stupid and end up dead. Where Romero's original looked to comment on the death of '60s idealism as it was eaten alive by rampant materialism and unhinged consumerism, Snyder is simply content to point out the awkward truth that most people are profoundly stupid and, no matter what the intent, that stupidity is fatal in a true emergency.
Snyder implemented this basic blueprint with a gleeful nihilism, allowing his characters to act in ways that are basically believable, even admirable when taken in isolation, but that push them all toward their inexorable, inevitable doom. Whether they try to do right by themselves or for the greater good, their decisions and actions only serve to push them closer and closer to their final destination. By the end, when faced with a world that's literally collapsed around them, his characters abandon the only measure of safety they have left because they're basically bored by being stuck in a mall. Fucking dumb, but also painfully believable.
While we all plot and plan our zombie apocalypse survival scenarios, deep down we all know that all those plans will be unraveled by something stupid, like a girl who will not let her dog go, or some numb fuck who absolutely refuses to believe that his girlfriend is becoming a zombie, despite all evidence to the contrary. Snyder's Dawn embraces that, packaging it neatly in a movie that allows the watcher to feel smugly superior to its idiot characters, even as you realize on some level that you wouldn't be any different.
In many ways, his movie is as fundamentally dumb as its characters, but it works despite that, by packaging a timeworn set of zombie tropes in a shiny new package -- look, they run! And the gore looks fucking sweet! -- that was irresistible to millenials and post-millenials who'd never seen a single "classic" zombie movie in their life. Plus, it was still able to appeal to old-school zombie fans by virtue of its omnipresent but never overbearing nods to classic zombie movies, most especially the movie it was ostensibly remaking. (In truth, apart from the name, zombies and a mall, the two have nothing in common.) The result was a box-office hit that proved to Hollywood that zombies had legs in the new millennium, kicking off an orgy of undead exploitation that persists unabated to this day. The movie itself still holds up well, too, so if you haven't seen it in a while -- or, god forbid, haven't seen it all -- take this tenth-anniversary opportunity to watch it, and remember that without Dawn of the Dead, zombies wouldn't be where they are today.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.
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