Comment, Comics and the Contrary.
Earlier this year my stepfather bought a Dawn of the Dead (DotD) DVD, thinking that he was getting Zack Snyder’s 2004 Hollywood remake. So when he realised that he had actually bought Romero’s 1978 independent movie he was uncharitable in his critical review. ‘It’s rubbish’ just about sums up his opinion. I protested that DotD 1978 was an intelligent, witty; a horror film with something to say. There is little doubt that DotD 2004
is faster and flashier, and even without the make-up kit of gore-master Tom Savini it looks a whole lot better, or at least more acceptable to a modern audience than DotD 1978
does. But beneath this sheen of music video standard cosmetic cinematic competence, what can be found in the body of DotD 2004? What does it say?
The 1978 version is routinely described as taking a critical, satirical view of consumerism. It is mindless consumption (of braaaiiins, no less) that threatens the world in 1978. DotD 2004 opens with a barrage-montage of news footage. This is Snyder’s analogue to the opening scene of Romero’s original, where a television discussion programme, the last vestige of civilised, rational discussion, democracy in action, descends into chaos as the crew abandon the studio. Snyder’s rapid-cut montage is more reminiscent of the blizzard of unconnected and decontextualised, though ‘fair and balanced’, images and audio found on Fox News.
These clips purport to show the collapse of civilization as the zombie epidemic takes hold, but they are note-perfect replicas of the images of police/protester conflicts that represent anti-globalisation/anti-capitalist/anti-corporate demonstrations on television news. A few of these clips bear the rolling news indicators of Third-World reports, and the most disturbing image, in light of my reading of the subtext of the film, appears to show a group of Muslims at prayer.
This montage prefaces the rest of the Snyder’s film, which I read as a defence of consumerism/capitalism. As in the 1978 original, the survivors take refuge in a mall. But whereas Romero’s characters raid the mall and live in a converted storehouse, well away from the shopping front-line, Snyder’s heroes live in the mall itself, comfortably making a home amongst the shops. ‘Hallowed Grounds’ is the punny, but appropriate, name of their coffee shop cum council chamber.
While the human heroes of the films have undergone a subtle transformation, the zombies are totally transformed. In 1978, zombies were mindless creatures of instinct, shuffling slowly towards their next act of consumption. In 2004, zombies have become malevolent, aggressive sprinters of superhuman stamina. They are motivated by hate and destructive lust. They are chillingly similar to the Somalis portrayed in the shameful Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001)
; a bunch of indistinguishable, unintelligible, barely human creatures.
Remaking Dawn of the Dead has transformed a film critical of mass-consumer culture into a movie with a crude and unsophisticated subtext which reads: the critics of the existing western culture have only simple, easily condemnable motivations - hate, greed and envy. This echoes the standard explanation of terrorist motivations given in the right-wing American press. Or indeed, the motivations ascribed to egalitarian, liberal or socialist movements. Our very way of life is threatened by the unthinking hordes at our gate(d community).
Romero’s ‘Dead’ movies always warns us that the zombies, the dead, are us. Snyder warns us that they are very definitely a them.