George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is a bloody colossus, one of most significant horror movies ever made. It was inevitable that certain fans would never be appeased by any remake, period, so director Zack Snyder made a wise choice: screw imitation, don’t overreach--just make a damn good zombie movie.
Because Snyder remade Dawn of the Dead as a standalone feature, without any sort of reboot franchise (like a Night of the Living Dead remake) behind it, he has to get some backstory out of the way right out of the gate. Normally such exposition is clunky, but in this instance it’s a great, great thing for his audience, because the first 14 minutes of Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead comprise one of the best opening sequences in contemporary horror. In a beautifully shot, expertly edited handful of scenes he rushes us, at perfectly breakneck pace, from early hints of danger at a hospital into full blown, apocalyptic chaos as a zombie epidemic erupts in the midst of ordinary life.
The plot as follows is a simplified version of what we already know: following the outbreak, a band of survivors flees to a shopping mall for safety, but their sanctuary quickly transforms into a prison when thousands of zombies surround it so thickly it becomes impossible to escape. Snyder drops most of the social commentary that made Romero’s original so groundbreaking, focusing instead on kicking the energy into gory high gear and staying there for as long as possible. Though the plot drags in the middle when a few too many survivors show up, with too little to do, the action sequences never disappoint (if nothing else, this will always be the movie that brought us Zombie Baby and the charging bloated corpse).
In the years since the film’s release, some Romero hard-liners have quibbled that the zombies are less scary now that Snyder has turned them into Olympic caliber runners instead of slow and steady creepers. But that criticism is mostly borne of stubborn nostalgia and is really about different kinds of scariness: Snyder has only replaced bleak dread (for the most part) with uncontrollable panic.
When the story threatens to get thin, Snyder’s exceptional filmmaking and a solid cast--led by indie veterans Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames, and featuring then-unknowns Mekhi Phifer, Michael Kelly, and Ty Burrell--are there to provide substance that the script can’t always muster on its own. Dawn of the Dead begins and ends on some serious bloody high notes, and comparisons to the original feel less and less relevant now that the land of horror is practically overrun with bloodthirsty walkers. Over a decade on, Snyder’s debut feature feels like less of a well-crafted knock off and more like the jolt of adrenaline the zombie genre needed to bring it back from the dead.