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SYFY WIRE Dawn of the Dead

The First 10 Minutes of Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead Are Perfect Horror

The 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead is great, but the opening sequence (and opening title) are damn near perfect. 

By James Grebey
Dawn of the Dead 2004

George A. Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead is an acclaimed horror masterpiece. It’s a grim, gory, and moody zombie story that makes the mind-numbing complacency of consumerism out to be as deadly a threat as the walking dead. So, the bar was high when Zack Snyder, who was making his feature film debut after an early career directing music videos, remade Dawn of the Dead in 2004. Could Snyder, working off of a screenplay written by a young James Gunn, make a movie that lived up to Romero’s original, or would it be a pale, shambling imitation?

You need only watch the first 10 minutes of Dawn of the Dead for an answer, as the film’s opening sequence is damn-near perfect. 

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To be fair, all of Dawn of the Dead, which is now streaming on Peacock, is good. It’s Snyder’s best film. But it peaks in its opening sequence, an incredible bit of narrative filmmaking that expertly sets the stakes and then quickly makes it clear that the people of this world — and the people watching — don’t actually know what to expect at all. 

Part of that is because these zombies are fast. The 2004 Dawn of the Dead wasn’t the first movie to reimagine the traditionally slow, plodding walking dead as lightning-fast brutes (28 Days Later had done it in 2002, though it’s debatable if the Rage-infected in that film technically counted as the undead). Snyder’s zombies are vicious, forcing their victims to think and act fast. It makes the suddenness of the opening that much more gripping and terrible to watch, because things get so bad so, so quickly.

Dawn of the Dead remake zombies

And yet, Dawn of the Dead starts calmly. Sarah Polley plays Anna, a nurse who we meet when she’s already worked an hour longer than her already long shift at Milwaukee County Hospital. She’s tired, but in just a few scenes it’s clear that she’s good and hardworking, and she has a nice rapport with her coworkers. They’re talking about plans for the future — plans that will never happen. 

There are subtle signs that something is wrong, that something bad is coming. A patient who came in with a bite wound is in the ICU. While driving home, Anna changes the station too quickly to hear a worrying report on the radio. It’s almost painful to watch, as the clues that could have tipped her off are there, and she’s just barely missing them.

Upon arriving home in her almost eerily tranquil pre-planned suburban neighborhood, Anna has a conversation with Vivian, a neighborhood girl she’s friendly with. She makes a promise to roller skate with her — another plan for the future that will never happen. Then she gets home and enjoys date night with her husband Luis. They have passionate sex in the shower, missing a TV news bulletin that would have let them know something was wrong. They’re ignorant of the looming end of the world. It’s a perfect night at home in their perfect little neighborhood. 

And then the world as they know it ends. 

The next morning, Vivian enters their house, and when Luis goes to help her — proving once again that we’re dealing with fundamentally good people here — he’s rewarded for his kindness by having Vivian suddenly rip his neck out with her bloody, exposed teeth. The violence and gore are sudden and shocking. Mere seconds ago, Anna was asleep in the arms of the man she loved. Now he’s bleeding to death on their bed because the friendly neighbor girl attacked him. Things are moving so fast, though, that she doesn’t even have time to mourn, because now Luis is attacking her. She manages to grab the car keys and flee through the bathroom window in a tense, claustrophobic escape sequence.

There’s chaos outside. People are running and screaming while smoke and fire fill the air. A neighbor points a gun at Anna, viewing her as a threat because the foundation of society has broken down in an instant. He’s obliterated by an ambulance. As when Anna tried and failed to call 911 to help Luis, it’s further proof that the authorities can’t save anybody. Anna flees a pursuing Luis, who chases after her car before peeling off to attack an easier target. Anna doesn’t mean anything special to whatever Luis has become. He’s just driven by rage and hunger, which adds a sense of morbid sadness to the moment when she’s no longer being chased. 

As Anna drives to who knows where, she brushes past a woman who asks for help while trying to get into her car. Again, the foundation of society is gone, and it’s everybody for themselves. A wide shot reveals the extent of the devastation, and there are explosions and burning buildings as Anna drives through the chaos.

Everything she knew came to an end while she was sleeping. Everything the audience thought they knew about zombies has been thrown out the window. It’s all happening too fast, and we’re just as disoriented as Anna, who crashes her car while fending off a man who was trying to steal it to save himself. Cut to black.

It’s only been 10 minutes, and so much has changed so horribly.

The cherry on top of this terrifying slice of horror is a superb opening title sequence, created by Kyle Cooper. A few glimpses of news reports — especially a sequence where an official admits “we don’t know” if the infected are alive or dead — add a little bit of context, as do scenes of devastation that make it clear what’s happening in Milwaukee are happening around the world. 

It’s the end times, a fact underscored by the use of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” Hearing Cash sing, almost jauntily, about the biblical end of the world adds a sense of dark humor to the proceedings. But, nobody’s laughing. It’s overwhelming, and the title sequence is at once a release valve for the high-octane terror of the previous 10 minutes and a grim warning of what’s to come. When it ends, as Cash sings “And I looked, and behold a pale horse / And his name that sat on him was death, and hell followed with him," you’re almost dreading the return to the movie. 

The rest of the movie is, again, good. But there’s something so powerful about those first 10 minutes and the following title sequence. You almost don’t even need the rest of the film. Almost. 

Dawn of the Dead is now streaming on Peacock