So, I’ve been away for the last while because of some mental health trouble but I’m feeling just about healthy enough to write this.
It’s that time of year again; a special retro review for this Hallow’s Eve.
Looking back on the year, a lot of 2016 has been focused on Zack Snyder; or more specifically the hype surrounding ‘Batman v Superman’ and how it actually turned out to be a great big bin full of bums. Snyder, in recent memory, has rather fallen out of favour with mainstream audiences, inasmuch as his style and sensibility has become as fully recognisable as it has increasingly unbearable.
But the funny thing is, this wasn’t always the case; post-‘300’, Zack Snyder has as much geek cred as anyone else and excitement was in the air when his ‘Watchmen‘ adaptation was ready to hit theatres. Pretty much everyone within geek culture loved this guy and we all wanted to see what he was going to get up to next.
If you ask me, the first big blow to his credibility was most likely ‘Sucker Punch’ – the first film he’d made that wasn’t based on pre-existing material – but the final straw with a lot of people fell somewhere between ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘Batman v Superman’.
What I’m heading towards is the point that since ‘300’, Snyder has never quite lived up to the promise of that movie, and it’s most likely because too much is expected of him, given how much he wowed us that first time.
So what I’d like to do is revisit a time when Zack Snyder had absolutely zero audience expectations and see what Snyder’s style and sensibility looks like when working of his own accord, aiming to impress no-one but himself.
So, let’s talk about ‘Dawn of the Dead’.
George A. Romero’s 1978 ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is a rather scrappy and ragged independent production made at a time where large shopping centres were still a relatively unseen phenomena in the American midwest; so when Romero was invited by a college friend of his to visit the Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania – where the movie would eventually be shot – Romero hit upon an idea to set a zombie movie there, seeing as he had remarked upon how easy it would be to survive there, should such a sociological disaster strike; as well as making note of how passive and blissful the shoppers looked wandering aimlessly from store to store.
With a unique mix of gorey survival horror and subtle social commentary on consumerism, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ ended up as a cult classic amongst horror aficionados and is often fondly remembered amongst Romero’s body of work.
In retrospect, whilst the movie is still really good, it has more than a handful of technical issues; ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is still visually impressive, given the budget they made it for, and the production side of things is relatively sound for what is ostensibly a small schlock-y zombie movie, but what lets it down is in post-production; the editing is somewhat shoddy, which results in severe pacing issues, and the sound mixing is quite bad, leading to moments where the sound track is louder than what the dialogue should be – something which should never be the case.
That said, the fact that it has these technical issues does add to its lo-fi charm, somewhat.
It’s best taken for what it is; a rather serrated, though thoroughly entertaining, B-movie.
Remaking it seems like a bit of a weird premise at first, seeing as how much-loved Romero’s film is, but you know what they say – when there’s no more ideas in Hollywood, the remakes with fill up the multiplexes.
That said, Universal really did seem to make the best of a stupid idea back in 2004, with future ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ helmer James Gunn on screenplay duty and Zack Snyder, fresh of the commercial and music-video scene, as director.
Plus, the premise is so bloody simple that you can’t really do much wrong with it; a zombie virus of ill-defined origin is plaguing America and has caused mass hysteria. We follow a group of survivors, who all meet and band together as they travel towards finding a safe place to hole up in, and hopefully live long enough to see the end of the current disaster.
That’s basically the premise for every George A. Romero zombie movie, with the sticking point being the setting; in this case, a shopping mall.
Functionally speaking, the two films really are the same movie, so this very much is a case of watching two very different filmmakers tell the same story. Snyder’s film is certainly better made the Romero’s, but then again, we are talking about the difference between a film made independently for $500,000 versus a film made through a studio for $28 million. So there’s that.
Snyder’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ kicks off in chaotic fashion with a very ‘cut to the chase’ attitude towards story telling; our protagonist Ana (Sarah Polley) has come home tired from a days work as a nurse pulling a double and wakes up the next morning with all hell already having broken loose; zombies swarm the neighbourhoods, buildings are on fire, injured pedestrians covered in blood, teams of helicopters are in the sky, and panicked drivers are crashing their cars into each other.
After taking a drive away from her home, trying to figure out what on earth’s happened, she nearly gets carjacked by a running passer-by which causes her car to careen off the road and crash into a tree, knocking her unconscious.
After which, we get a title sequence which features intercut footage of newsreels showing civil unrest across the globe, press events where people in power express their utter confusion as to what’s causing the mayhem, and microscopic images of blood cells mutating; all set to the tune of Johnny Cash’s ‘The Man Comes Around’.
To steal a phrase from an entirely different movie, “We ain’t in Kansas anymore”.
As befits a Zack Snyder film, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is largely distinguishable from its 1978 counterpart by freneticism; the movie is designed to be visually fast. Zombies sprint with ferocious intensity towards their prey, there’s a greater emphasis on chaos and sociological destruction, and a much grander sense of scale in the climax.
Everything left over from Romero’s film feels a lot more cranked up, making this version more action focused than character focused.
There are certainly characters to speak of – only a fool would deny that – but developing said character aren’t exactly one of Zack Snyder’s top priorities; by the time our eventual band of survivors get into the mall (consisting of Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, and Mekhi Phifer, at first) and have to live there for a while, there’s a sense that Snyder is bouncing off the walls trying to keep the pace flowing whilst figuring out things for the characters to do, seeing as he manages to jam a montage of mall activities into the middle of the film, set to Richard Cheese’s parody version of Disturbed’s ‘Down with the Sickness’.
And incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered about Snyder’s obnoxious playlist-style music selections in his movies, you’ll be happy to know that that’s pretty much been here since day one.
Whilst on the subject of obnoxiousness, there’s only a moderate use of slow motion here, seeing as it was only until ‘300’ that Zack Snyder would hone that particular visual fascination into a style. What we have here instead is actually something that appears surprisingly pedestrian; there’s nothing much in the way of the grand, visually elaborate, master shots latter-day Snyder is known for; save for a couple of choice moments where he’s allowed to let loose and it really shines.
‘Dawn of the Dead’ makes some interesting deferences from the original movie by way of plot – including, but not limited to, a thread involving trying to get along with the security guards who still protect the mall as law enforcement as well as a pregnant woman who gets bitten by a zombie – but they often feel self-contained and momentary, primarily as a means of killing time; it’s only until the third act where the characters make an escape to a boat in order to travel to an island off the coast that the plot gets its ass in gear, and even then the story feels like it comes to a close rather abruptly.
The fast paced nature of the story makes for great momentum and pulse-pounding tension – two things ideal for a horror movie of this nature – but Snyder doesn’t quite know or understand how to slow the story down for when it has to close, and instead seems to decide to just turn everything off when the film crawls over the 2 hour mark.
It’s not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it exceptionally broken like his latter works; it’s just a movie that starts off rather strongly before running out of steam somewhere in the middle which leaves an ending that comes off as rather unsatisfactory.
Still, it’s worth a look in because it’s clear from the off that whoever made this clearly has chops as a filmmaker, so at best it can be described as a rather strong debut, regardless of how said filmmaker eventually turned out.
It may surprise you to note that I still hold some hope for Zack Snyder inasmuch as I’ve never thought of him as an overtly terrible filmmaker. He’s certainly flawed and perhaps a touch over-rated at this point, but there are very few filmmakers working in the mainstream arena who have as strong a visual style.
Whatever else could be said of Zack Snyder, I’m fairly confident at this point that I wouldn’t dismiss him as a hack or boring or interchangeable; he has an identifiable aesthetic and a quantifiable voice that is clear enough to be as much discussed alongside his movies taken on their own. I’d argue that as a point in Snyder’s favour, regardless of the voice in question.
So in the end, in spite of ‘Batman v Superman’ and what’s going on with the upcoming ‘Justice League’ movie, I don’t hate Zack Snyder and never have.
It think he’s interesting, and I’m fascinated to see whatever he does next.
So I do have hope.
Then again, I’ve always described myself as a ‘constantly disappointed optimist’ rather than a cynic.
So there’s that.