Dawn of the Dead 2004
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Credit: Universal Pictures

This Week in Genre History: Dawn of the Dead saw the sun rise over Zack Snyder

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Mar 17, 2021, 8:30 PM EDT

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

It is Zack Snyder Week. That is a weird sentence to type! Zack Snyder has gone from exciting debut filmmaker to electric conjurer of the comic book zeitgeist to bloated destroyer of the DC Universe to, now, improbably, an auteur finally realizing his true vision version of Justice League, out this week on HBO Max. It has been quite a journey. 

Thus, the week of Zack Snyder's Justice League premiere, we thought we might go all the way back to the very beginning, back when Snyder was just an unproven filmmaker trying to remake a horror classic and make a name for himself in the process. As luck would have it, that movie, Snyder’s remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, came out March 19, 2004, almost exactly 17 years ago. What does it tell us about where Snyder ended up today? The story is not entirely dissimilar to the story of horror films, and genre films, in general. It started out with something pure, an undistilled vision. It then became… something else.

Why was it a big deal at the time? Snyder had constructed a successful career for himself by 2004, working mostly in commercials, including winning a Clio, the advertising industry’s top award, in 1997 for a Frisbee commercial. Watching them now, the commercials are very obviously Snyder: Slow motion, heavy drama, sweeping music, hugely ambitious … they’re like Michael Bay with about 34 percent less toxic masculinity. He was big enough to buy an Aston Martin, his favorite car, James Bond’s car, but he, as always, was thinking bigger. So he signed on to direct a James Gunn-penned remake of Dawn of the Dead, perhaps the most openly satirical of Romero’s movies, the one that plainly mocks commercialism and capitalism as … well, as the realm of zombies.

But a filmmaker like Snyder was never going to be a quiet, wry, microbudget filmmaker like Romero. He wants to go too big for that. So while some of Romero’s (and Gunn’s) satirical notions were still there, Snyder wanted spectacle too much to scale much down. From the very first scene, it was obvious that this Dawn of the Dead was swinging for the fences.

The movie had a terrific cast — it remains sort of wonderful that Sarah Polley once headlined a Zack Snyder zombie movie — and an undeniable energy. This was an age for new spins on the old zombie tale, and what Snyder was doing did feel new. It felt like a turbocharge of energy. It made a zombie movie seem just like a fun ride.

What was the impact? First off, here’s something you haven’t heard much of in your life: Zack Snyder had a critical hit! Critics legitimately enjoyed his Dawn of the Dead. Even Roger Ebert loved it, and he was one of the loudest champions of Romero’s original, called it “one of the best horror films ever made,” and was thus a tough audience. But he noted that the remake “delivers just about what you expect when you buy your ticket.”

The movie was a hit, finishing first for the weekend and ultimately grossing more than $100 million, a still-surprising figure. (That’s three times what Shaun of the Dead grossed, for what it’s worth.) But what it really did was announce Snyder as a presence with which to be reckoned. Snyder, with a surprise hit at his back, decided to turn his attention to a project he’d been working on before Dawn of the Dead, an adaptation of a Frank Miller comic he loved called 300. He co-wrote and directed that two years later, and it turned out to be a massive global hit, changing not just Snyder’s career but the focus of Warner Bros. and its comic book adaptations ever since. He then did Watchmen, and next thing you knew … he was in charge of Superman, and Batman, and Wonder Woman, and all of them.

Credit: Universal Pictures

Has it held up? The movie is unquestionably fun, maybe a little bit too fun: Even Romero himself said he loved the first 15 minutes but admitted that it felt a little bit like a fun ride after that. Ebert touched on this in his review too. Even through his praise, he pointed out that the film is “instructive in the ways that Hollywood has grown more skillful and less daring over the years.” The movie is slicker and bigger and more “epic” than the original, but less personal and less inherently interesting. Snyder took an intriguing idea and pumped it up with so much air that it took all the oxygen out of the room. It became all spectacle.

But that was the future Snyder was already pointing toward. The hit that Dawn of the Dead became led to 300 which led to Watchmen which led to Snyder taking the most valuable properties the studio had and turning them into that massive explosion of overwhelming sight and sound. Some loved it: Audiences clearly came out to experience Snyder’s vision. But then they ran out of steam, and Batman v Superman was just almost too much. By the time the original Justice League came around, it felt downright exhausting. Hence, the slashing contrast of Joss Whedon’s version … which of course had its own backlash, and here we are again, with another Justice League. The Snyder Cut came back from the dead, essentially, so it’s fitting that his career started with a little zombie movie that turned out not to be little at all.

Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.