Friday, September 18, 2009

Dawn of the Retread

I rented Dawn of the Dead, the 2007 remake. During the movie it occurred to me that I had little ground to compare it, because I've never seen a plain-old ordinary zombie apocalypse film before. I've seen a few send-ups: Shawn of the Dead, and Dance of the Dead, and I've seen some of the genre peripherals, such 28 Days Later and some of the (gawd-awful) Resident Evil films. But I've never seen any of the George A. Romero "classics" like Night of the Living Dead.

So, in that vacuum, here are my reactions of Dawn of the Dead.

1. My impressions of Zak Snyder have not improved. I've now seen every movie he's made, and they all give me roughly the same impression: not unwatchable, but not stellar. Highly stylized mediocrity with the occasional "wow" moment thrown in. I didn't hate it. But I don't have any desire to see it again.

2. It's awfully timid. All the shock-worthy elements are there, but nothing seems to come of them. Zombie baby? Check. Zombie baby attacking people? Nah... Surprise oh-fuck ending? Check. Do we get to actually see any of that? Nah... Zombies in a mall? Check. Pointed satirical statement about American consumerism? Nah...

3. When did "pastel" become an appropriate color palette for a horror film? Just sayin'.

4. It seems blissfully unaware of itself. And this is perhaps the most bothersome. As suspension of disbelief goes, I'm fine with the un-dead walking around mauling people, but the idea that no one in the movie has heard of a zombie before? That's too much of a stretch. The characters aren't in shocked disbelief that a zombie apocalypse has begun, they literally have no idea what's happening. This could have been wrangled. The main character is a nurse and she starts off the film complaining about a particularly long shift. If she had said something like "I feel like a freaking zombie", it would have given us a framework for her disbelief. She's aware of the idea, but her concept of what a "zombie" should be like is challenged by the zombies she runs across.

More to the point, is it even possible to make an un-ironic zombie movie these days? You wouldn't make a vampire movie without anyone knowing what a vampire was, would you? Dawn of the Dead adheres to the zombie apocalypse checklist: the living become un-dead when bitten and the only way to kill them is to shoot them in the head. These zombies run, but all zombies run nowadays. That's because someone in the last twenty years figured out that a running horde is, in fact, scarier than a trudging one. So that's hardly an innovation.

The closest point of comparison for me is 28 Days Later, which brought enough variation to make the idea feel fresh, so much so that it really can't be called a zombie apocalypse film. Still, there are parallels, and I can't help but not the wide divergence between how they handle the subject matter. Days, for example, actually bothered to discuss themes that are broader than "zombies are scary".

In that film, the "infection", as they called it, had not only stripped away the humanity from civilization, on both metaphoric and literal levels. Sometimes your loved ones disappeared, but sometimes they would turn against you. But towards the end of the film our heroes interact with others who've been hiding out, and find out that non-infected people will betray you just as quickly and with far more subtlety.

And honestly, that's what zombie movies are all about: not being afraid of monsters, but being afraid of people.

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