Never Get Off the Bus: Dawn of the Dead

Zack Snyder was battling the original’s inflated rep when he made his version. Before it premiered it was already being slammed–how dare they even ATTEMPT to remake Romero’s undisputed classic without Romero! When people actually saw it, the criticism was muted because the movie’s quality was clear. It had to be average or even only mildly better than average for the haters to pile on. It was better than expected by far. Snyder’s Dawn is well-written, well-cast, well-paced, violent and disturbing. It also has one of the best moments of any horror movie I’ve seen since 2000.

And get this–they head for THE MALL!

The pre-credit sequence depicts a world coming apart spectacularly and succinctly. Sarah Polley’s character is attacked from two unexpected sources, then stumbles out of her house to a city in a state of anarchy. The horror imagery is potent: Zombies ablaze, the smoke from fires over the chaotic city, the instantaneous deaths from speeding cars and zombie attacks, all work on us. We accept the situation immediately. Polley and some other survivors end up in a mall, and the rest of the movie deals with their holding up in this fortress.

The movie falters with the introduction of some mall guards who are the usual authority figure stand-ins, not real characters but cut-outs to serve the demands of the plot and the need to populate the story.

Not for long.

Life in the mall starts out with hope but soon decays. Another character is a pregnant woman, and since this is a horror movie we know what’s coming, but it’s okay. People complain when a horror movie telegraphs what’s coming but it’s a useful tool for creating suspense and dread as we wonder how the inevitable horror is going to play out. (Will it be as horrible as what our own minds tailor for us? No. But the waiting is itself a form of entertainment.) The gruesome birth sequence plays out an exaggerated nightmare of any parent who prays for a healthy baby, playing out here in a desperate situation and set in a makeshift nursery. (I don’t know why the other characters sometimes seem unaware of the impending birth.) It’s a striking scene, and scarier than anything in the sanctified original. The scenes involving a survivor across the street show more compassion for regular folks than the whole of the first version. The “shoot a zombie celebrity” scenes satirize our treatment of celebrity crushes; once they’ve served their purpose we want to see them fail. A scene involving fast zombies and an injured survivor is effectively scary.

The situation is far bleaker than Romero’s. Survivors turn, kill each other, endure life in a mall and are clumsy with chainsaws with fatal consequences. The ending goes where Romero almost did before he changed his mind to his goofy, heroic-music-blaring finale.

Aren’t people who spend all their time in malls phony?

The movie’s great moment comes during the final push to escape the mall. As the zombie population outside grows, the survivors decide on a plan of escape involving school busses. There are the usual stupidities (driving fast even when there are no zombies in sight, which results in a crash and another attack). But in the middle of the scene there is a shot of the bus in sea of zombies, rocking back and forth. The viewer is shown that there is no escape from the zombies for anyone caught outside or pulled from the bus. The headlights only accentuate that the bus is in darkness. This is an illustration of the unthinking mob in control, coming in overwhelming numbers for YOU.

I can nod and appreciate the complaints and criticisms of the moviemaking. I don’t care for Snyder’s other movies. I acknowledge Romero’s masterpiece started the whole genre–he created what we mean when we say “zombie” now, which has nothing to do with the original meaning. I won’t argue that Romero is one of the titans of the genre. But nothing in his Dead is as potent a scare as that image of a bus holding a few people in an ocean of the living dead.