Girl Meets Context: We’ve declared December Zombie Month in reaction to the Christmas season and its concomitant resurrecting god-figure. We continue with Zack Snyder’s well-received and successful remake of the Romero zombie classic. This version follows a feisty nurse (Sarah Polley) as she navigates the zombie apocalypse, teaming up with a gruff cop (Ving Rhames), a handsome everyman (Jake Weber), a paranoid expectant father (Mekhi Phifer) and many others to wait out the crisis at a local shopping mall. But as the zombie hordes outside the mall grow in number, the survivors realize they need to hatch an escape plan… Kristine and I sat down to discuss the film. If you haven’t seen Snyder’s take on Dawn of the Dead, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: Did you like the movie?
Kristine: I did! I think I might have liked it as much as the original, even though it had less ideological heft. There was basically no social commentary or political critique in this remake. I mean, the primary conflict here is humans versus zombies. Even though some of the humans were dicks, it was just because they had terrible personalities, not because they were meant to showcase any kind of idea. I didn’t see anything bigger than that going on in the movie. Whereas the original had a lot of big and depressing things to say about society, right? But regardless, I definitely would put it up there with Cronenberg’s version of The Fly in terms of being a quality remake. I found it to be highly watchable. It zipped along nicely. You know how I hate long movies, right? When I saw this was nearly two hours long, I was like, “Ugh.” But then it went quickly. What say you?
Sean: Hmmm…. I liked it. I wouldn’t go farther than that maybe.
Kristine: Not as much as the original, I gather.
Sean: No. But they’re very different, right?
Kristine: Yes, I think they are quite different. This felt a lot more like an action/adventure film.
Sean: I mean, I kind of can’t forgive a movie that has that “Down with the Sickness” song in it twice (in both Muzak and regular versions).
Kristine: Oh God, that was terrible.
Sean: But I love both Sarah Polley and Jake Weber as the leads. And that opening ten minutes, where Sarah Polley’s Ana wakes up and all hell has broken loose, is pretty spectacular.
Kristine: I agree the opener is great. I liked Polley and Weber (who looks like a bizarre amalgamation of David Arquette and Tim Roth) a lot. I also really liked Michael Kelly as CJ.
Sean: I actually said to my boyfriend during the movie, “He’s like a hot Tim Roth,” about Jake Weber.
Kristine: Exactly! But for me the main thing this movie has over the original film is fast zombies. Sorry, but fast zombies are so much scarier than slow zombies. I get that slow zombies work really well as a representation of the plodding multitudes that just keep coming. And I get the appeal of that classic zombie formula, where the slow, gathering hordes work as a social critique of mass culture and mob mentality and the rest of it. But fast zombies are scary. What was the first film to feature fast zombies? Was it 28 Days Later? (And don’t start with the “they aren’t zombies, they’re infected people” bullshit).
Sean: The first movie to feature fast zombies is also the Movie That Shaped and Changed My Brain for All Time: The Return of the Living Dead! The best zombie movie ever made!
Kristine: I see. And what year was that made?
Kristine: I still get scared thinking about one scene from 28 Weeks Later where Robert Carlyle is running across a field in broad daylight being chased down by hordes of fast zombies. Terrifying. Do you agree that fast zombies are scarier, even if slow zombies make for a better metaphor?
Sean: Oh god yes. I completely agree, with only one exception: the original Night of the Living Dead still scares me with the slow zombies. But fasties are scarier in all other instances.
Kristine: Okay, I want you to do something for me.
Sean: Yes, ma’am. Anything.
Kristine: I need you to explain this complicated zombie movie chronology to me, because I’m getting a little bit lost. When were Romero’s original zombie movies again? And which ones got remakes? And when were the remakes? And which ones have we watched and which ones haven’t we watched? I’m suffering from zombie confusion.
Sean: Ok, the original zombie movie on which the modern, Walking Dead-style zombie is based is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). There were zombie movies made prior, but they were either Caribbean voodoo-inspired automatons or just shambling weirdos. The modern zombie as we know it today enters the culture with Night of the Living Dead.
Sean: About a decade later, Romero makes a sequel called Dawn of the Dead (1978), with an assist from Dario Argento. Dawn is set in the same universe as Night, but they don’t share any characters. There’s not any real direct continuity between the two. We’ve watched both. In 1985, Romero finally gets around to completing his trilogy with Day of the Dead. Like Dawn, Day has its own set of characters and is set in the same basic universe as the previous two films. But again, there’s no direct continuity between the three films. We’ll be watching Day of the Dead later this month.
Kristine: Okay. Got that. But what about remakes?
Sean: Night of the Living Dead was remade in 1990 by Tom Savini, FX-man extraordinaire. Romero was involved with the production. In fact, he wrote the screenplay for the remake and a couple of stars from the original movie did cameos. We haven’t watched it, but hopefully we’ll get to it someday. Another remake (Night of the Living Dead 3D) was released direct-to-DVD in 2007, which I’ve never seen and have heard is shit.
Kristine: Ok. This is getting complicated.
Sean: Oh, I agree. As you now know, Dawn of the Dead was remade in 2004 by Zack Snyder, with the beloved James Gunn (who wrote and directed cult classics Super and Slither) writing the screenplay. Romero gave the following quote in reaction to the remake: “It was better than I expected. … The first 15, 20 minutes were terrific, but it sort of lost its reason for being. It was more of a video game. I’m not terrified of things running at me; it’s like Space Invaders. There was nothing going on underneath.” Based on the success of Snyder’s version of Dawn, Day of the Dead was remade as a direct-to-DVD movie in 2008. No one from the Dawn remake was involved, except for Ving Rhames, who is in it but not as his character from Dawn. As a totally different character. Confusing. I’ve seen the Day remake and it is a horrible piece of crap. It’s really awful.
Sean: Shit. Here’s where things get really complicated.
Kristine: Ok, I’m ready.
Sean: John Russo, the novelist who wrote the screenplay for Night of the Living Dead in 1968, parted ways with Romero. Legally, Russo owned the rights to the “Living Dead” moniker, though Romero was free to create his own zombies movies. He just couldn’t use the phrase “Living Dead” – thus, Romero’s sequel is titled Dawn of the Dead. In 1977, Russo wrote a novel called Return of the Living Dead that was meant to be a sequel to the original 1968 film. He then wrote a screenplay and began the process of developing it into a feature film. Along the way – I’ll skip over the finer details here – Dan O’Bannon (the guy who’d written the screenplay for Alien) came on board and completely rewrote the script and took over as director. So the 1985 film The Return of the Living Dead is O’Bannon’s own unique vision and bears almost no similarities to Russo’s 1977 novel.
Kristine: Okay. Have you read it?
Sean: No, I’ve never read the novel.
Kristine: What does Romero think about The Return of the Living Dead? Are Russo and Romero enemies, or do they love each other’s movies?
Sean: I don’t think they’re enemies, but I think The Return of the Living Dead is a thorn in Romero’s side because it came out the same year as his own movie, Day of the Dead. And Return was a hit, while Day flopped. I think that annoys and pains Romero. Plus, the people who owned Romero’s movie sued the makers of Return, claiming that the public would be confused about the two movies. They wanted to prevent Return from coming out, but they lost. End of story.
Kristine: Okay. I think I got it. Can I list the things I liked about the Dawn of the Dead remake?
Kristine: Tom Savini‘s cameo as the sheriff on tv who coins the term “twitcher.” I was so happy when I recognized him right away!
Kristine: No, I missed him! Fuck.
Sean: Subtract 760 horror movie points.
Sean: He was the televangelist fire-and-brimstone preacher who was like, “Man-on-man relations” blah blah blah.
Kristine: Oh, right! Okay…
Sean: And what about Scott Reiniger, who played Roger in the original? He’s the army general on tv who is like, “I suggest you come to Ft. Pastor.”
Kristine: Oh. Dammit! Ok, I also love the “hijinks in the mall” sequence (which also appeared in the original movie) when the motley crew of outsiders is allowed a few minutes to have fun and cavort in all the stores and stuff.
Sean: I loved that, too. Though the blonde chick in the lingerie was a bit much. Pulling out her tits to get buttfucked by the dad from Modern Family?
Sean: Did you think the movie made good use of the mall setting?
Kristine: Not good enough. I think there was room for more. Every time they did use it, I enjoyed it (like the birthing scene in the Babies”R”Us store or whatever). I don’t understand why the setting wasn’t utilized more.
Sean: I want to just state that the obese zombie woman running at Ana with her gigantic stomach bouncing and her arms raised was terrifying.
Kristine: I wanted that obese lady to be put out of her misery as soon as I saw her, before she even become zombified. She was terrifying and repulsive.
Kristine: I want to restate how much I loved Michael Kelly as CJ. He looked super familiar to me but I couldn’t place him – then I realized that I knew him from that Netflix show House of Cards, where he plays a bald, nebbishy weasel who is Kevin Spacey’s Chief-of-Staff. The complete and total opposite of CJ. I died when I realized it was him. I really enjoyed his performance here and not only because I found him hot. Granted, his character’s transformation is totally underwritten, but he plays such a good redneck asshole. But then he goes on to provide excellent evidence for why, if possible, it is always good to have a redneck on your side in a crisis (weldin’ skills, shootin’ skills, gasoline hurlin’ skills)
Sean: I actually really liked how the movie made it seem like the jerky secuirty guys would be major antagonists, but then they sort of joined the team. I liked how the movie undercut some of our clichéd expectations in that way. But I hated the twink security guard’s “no-mance” with that redheaded bulbous-forehead girl.
Kristine: I also have to say that (reminiscent of Kate Hudson in The Skeleton Key) I found it ludicrous that Ana was parading around in a sundress and flip-flops throughout the mall. You never know when zombies could get in and you have to run for your life. If I were in that situation, I would find The North Face and be fully decked out in survivalist everything, ready to scale the sides of buildings and parkour away from zombie hordes.
Sean: I am really enjoying the thought of you in North Face outdoorswoman clothing.
Kristine: I am wearing a puffy vest right now. And L.L. Bean duck shoes. So!
Kristine: I love how you think that in a zombie apocalypse, I would choose to don a twee vintage cocktail dress and kitten heels. Grrrrr.
Sean: “Kitten heels” makes me vomit.
Kristine: I was amused by the movie’s portrayal of mall security guards as power-hungry, small men. I thought the second-in-command guy was hilarious.
Sean: I wasn’t that keen on the moment where the old gay guy is like, telling his coming out story to CJ and his crony while they are locked up and stripping their shirts off. And CJ is like, “This is hell!” The joke in that scene was most definitely on the old gay, not on their homophobia. Gross.
Kristine: That was weird for sure. That scene should have ended up on the cutting room floors.
Sean: It was like, “Hi, a straight man director thought this would be hilarious.” I hated it.
Kristine: Yeah, agreed. But speaking of man-on-man relations, I loved the long-distance bromance between Andy the gun shop owner and Ving Rhames’ Kenneth.
Sean: The scariest moment in the movie, for me, is when Andy holds the blood-smeared sign up and you realize he’s become a zombie. Like this uncanny horrible shadow of the way they used to communicate. That was awesome. Do you agree?
Kristine: Yes, I loved all the Andy scenes and I was really upset at his fate.
Sean: Yeah, the Kenneth/Andy stuff was a really great invention of James Gunn’s screenplay. The redheaded girl going to the gun store after the dog was….
Kristine: You are getting into my “Dislike” list. Stop! Let’s stick with what we liked, for now.
Sean: Fine, but she was horrid.
Kristine: Agreed. I appreciated how the Andy relationship gives Kenneth some motivation – he has to have something to live and fight for, right? At first it’s getting to Ft. Pastor to find his brother, then it’s Andy.
Sean: Yes, for sure.
Kristine: What about the utter horror of the little nuclear family’s fate (Andre, Luda and child)? God, was that dark.
Sean: Zombie baby.
Kristine: It made me very uncomfortable that Luda was shackled to the bed in order to give birth, even though I knew she was a zombie. It still was just troubling as fuck. The whole sequence was totally harrowing through and through, for me.
Sean: Well, yeah. I thought it was a pretty amazing metaphor for “traditional family as prison/bondage for lady.” Though, to be honest, I was bored by all the Andre/Luda stuff, and Luda’s character and presence in the movie was annoying and discomfiting to me. I watched this with my friend Cannon and 45 minutes into the movie she was like, “Has that goddamned pregnant woman even spoken?” And she hadn’t. Wait, I think she’d nervously whispered “I have to pee” to Andre.
Sean: She is there, like every other female character in this movie besides Ana, to function as a prop more than a person. She’s the symbolic mother figure, and she needn’t speak or have needs and desires beyond “I have to pee.” Redheaded Forehead just wants to wuv a puppy. Blondie just wants to get reamed and strut about. That’s it. Whereas Kenneth, Andre, Michael and CJ get multiple shadings to their characters.
Kristine: I can’t really argue with that.
Sean: I thought the zombie baby effect was cool looking, though. And sure the baby stuff was bleak, I guess… I don’t know. I wasn’t into it.
Kristine: Poor zombie baby. I was upset for baby.
Sean: You were?
Sean: I would have been much happier if it had eaten its way out of the mother or eaten Andre’s face or something. I wanted zombie baby mayhem.
Kristine: Hee! Eaten it’s way out of mom, killed dad, and then scurried off into the mall, giggling like a gremlin.
Kristine: And frolicked in a fountain.
Sean: Yes!!!! Like the baby from Dead Alive.
Kristine: Exactly what I was going to say. I loved that baby so much.
Sean: 400 zombie points awarded.
Kristine: Yay! I know that all the various ladies in the ensemble were disappointing cardboard props, but I still loved Sarah Polley as Ana and loved that she was our lead character. And I especially dug how smart and resourceful Ana is – remembering to grab her car keys before she flees her home in the opening sequence and remembering to grab asshole Steve’s boat keys even though zombies are descending upon her.
Sean: Yeah, I agree with you there. Ana is just smart and gritty and good and I loved the chemistry between her and Michael. I was sad that he had to die.
Sean: I like, sort of cried.
Kristine: I never realized how tiny Sarah Polley is. She must be like 5’1″.
Sean: Oh yeah, she’s a total Winona Ryder. Did you love her husband getting zombified at the beginning, and her neighborhood all descended into apocalyptic chaos? How her zombie husband was chasing her car, but then just veered off to eat someone else after a block?
Kristine: Yes, that was all good. I thought her husband was ugh and I was glad when he got it.
Kristine: I thought the movie overall looked really great, like that scene where the camera just pans around to take in all the devastation in Ana’s neighborhood, or when she’s fleeing in her car and we see a bird’s eye view of the city burning and like, trucks smashing into gas stations and stuff.
Sean: Yes. And that particular detail – the truck that smashes into the gas station – is actually a nod to Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead. When Ben tells Barbra the story of how he came to be at the farmhouse, he describes a very similar scene, where a truck covered in zombies barrels into a gas station and it explodes.
Kristine: Right, right. But for the most part, I enjoyed Snyder’s stylized visuals (though I do have a few complaints in this area). I thought the opening and closing credits were effective and scary, and I thought I was over jumpcuts. But you’re right that the music was abysmal at times.
Sean: But how great was ending with the Jim Carroll Band song?
Kristine: Oh, sure, but that song is just great.
Sean: So great and such a great pop reference for a zombie movie. This is the thing about Zack Snyder. Do you know of him?
Kristine: I don’t.
Sean: He’s famous for directing CGI fanboy-epics like 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch… Things like that.
Kristine: I haven’t seen any of those movies.
Sean: He can have a very keen pop sensibility (Jim Carroll Band) or he can also have a nightmarish one (“Down With the Sickness”). Let me respond to your earlier comment that there is no political context to the movie, unlike the original. I actually don’t agree. But I just think that Snyder takes the genuinely subversive, paranoid elements of the original movie and turns them into pop spectacle. The best example being the opening credits montage that you just mentioned of all the real-world news footage of war, conflict, riots, etc. set to the Johnny Cash song. I mean, that’s Snyder’s version of political commentary. It’s a very “YouTube generation” way to stage political commentary. What do you think?
Kristine: I think it’s actually underscoring what you’re saying – sure, that is political commentary – but it totally lets those who don’t want to indulge in thinking critically off the hook. You don’t have to think about the images, you can just read them as generically scary images of chaos, right? He is not making the viewer connect the movie with other, real life horrors, or making a point of how society shows it’s true colors when the shit hits the fan. Like I said earlier, in this version the asshole, antagonist characters are that way just because they’re assholes, right? There’s no real examination of whatever larger social or cultural or political forces shape characters in specific ways. And in the case of CJ, they redeem themselves without any real story arc explaining how or why. The only scene I can think of that hints at a larger infrastructure of power imbalance is when the helicopter passing overhead clearly sees them and is obviously not going to rescue them. The Man does not have the backs of the hoi polloi. Right?
Sean: Right. I totally agree. The movie is slick post-MTV, post-YouTube entertainment, and has about as much depth and complexity. That’s fine – I don’t mind it, as long as we’ve still got the original Romero to revisit and go back to. It’s a very different style and mindset of moviemaking than Romero, as captured by his quote from earlier. But this is why I can’t say it’s a great remake, like Cronenberg’s version of The Fly or Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. It does not earn a place among those films, for me. But it’s a fun, good, gripping piece of pop cinema, and I like it.
Kristine: Let’s talk about what we disliked.
Sean: Nicole, the redheaded girl with giant forehead.
Kristine: Number one with a bullet is Nicole. Lame.
Sean: Hated her.
Kristine: Stupid. The only skill she contributes to the group is… spray-painting?
Sean: I am offended that so many movies make the person who loves dogs into a simpering idiot. Like, dog people are all twee, sentimental morons. Not true! Plus that dog was cute.
Kristine: The only time I felt any empathy for Nicole was when the group was lowering Chips from the roof into the horde of zombies so it could bring Andy some food. I was dying.
Sean: Agreed on the puppy-lowering scene. I was screaming “No!” at the tv.
Kristine: I know the RIMAs ended up being right that the zombies only wanted human flesh – but how did they know?
Sean: But in terms of Nicole, I don’t like when the plot of a movie is moved forward because some stupid girl character does something stupid and the movie is like “See how dumb girls are!?”
Kristine: And God was she dumb. Let’s run down the list of female characters while we are doing our dislikes. Here I go: 1. Nicole, the simpering slow-witted redhead.
Kristine: 2. Luda, the walking Russian womb who never speaks.
Sean: I thought she was Iranian? But she was a nothing.
Kristine: No, don’t you remember that the one time she speaks, she is whining about how she wants the baby to have a Russian name?
Kristine: 3. Norma, the trucker who gets killed.
Sean: Loved her, but didn’t like that she wound up exterminating the 21st century non-white family.
Kristine: 4. Monica, the bitchy blond bimbo.
Sean: Who gets like, cut to shreds by a chainsaw, along with the old gay. Which is basically a statement about how much use Zack Snyder has for bimbos and queers.
Kristine: 5. Obese wheelbarrow woman from Hell. That’s it, right? Not very encouraging.
Sean: Like I said before, if Sarah Polley wasn’t the lead, the movie would be over-the-top ridiculous misogyny. As it is, it’s just stupidly unimaginative and sexist.
Kristine: Yes. So, I said that for the most part I enjoyed the aesthetics and visual choices in the movie, but I did find the abundant and nonsensical usage of close-up slow-motion shots to be really irritating and just dumb. Examples: slo-mo close-up of CJ combing his hair (shot from above). Slo-mo close-up of Norma dropping her cigarette and stamping it out. Ten thousand slo-mo close-ups of shell casings falling to the floor…
Kristine: At first I thought those shots were foreshadowing something important (only possibly true in the case of Norma’s cig – right before she enters the baby shop and finds the zombie family), but they were just there… Why? Because the director likes slo-mo close-ups?
Sean: This is Zack Snyder’s signature thing. The slo-mo.
Kristine: Oh, really? Like I said, I’m not familiar with his oeuvre. But all the slow motion close-ups were hella dumb.
Sean: Totes dumb.
Kristine: It reminded me of that one scene from The Devil’s Rejects - the slo-mo shoot-out that is totally a music video? Do you know what I am talking about?
Sean: Yeah, I think so.
Kristine: I was mad that I wasted some of my brain trying to remember the slo-mo scenes in case they proved to be significant later. I gave that up after the 80th slo-mo close-up of a shell case dropping…
Kristine: Do you agree that overall the visuals are pleasing if a little overstylized at times?
Sean: That’s exactly how I’d put it, yes. My big theory is that Zack Snyder’s flourishes are an example of male melodrama. All the stylistic stuff, the excess… It’s almost Baz Luhrman-esque.
Kristine: Like in the place of the music swelling?
Sean: Sure, yes.
Kristine: Totally agree.
Sean: What did you make of the superbleak ending? Where the movie becomes a found footage movie in the last few seconds?
Kristine: It was… super bleak. There is at least some hope in the original. But for me, nothing will top the bleakness of the ending of Night of the Living Dead. I’m trying to think of other movies we have watched with super-nihilistic, bleak endings… Help me out.
Kristine: Yes, yes.
Sean: Um, A Serbian Film.
Kristine: Oh, God. Yes.
Kristine: Sure, I guess.
Kristine: Yes. But do you agree with me that Night of the Living Dead is still the most harrowing of all?
Sean: One of the most, yes. So is this nihilistic ending just not same kind of nihilism as the original Night of the Living Dead? If so, how are they different?
Kristine: Because Ben was killed by humans, not zombies, for one. He survived the zombies and then was killed by a lynch mob of whites.
Kristine: The imagery of Ben’s body on the burning woodpile has a lot of other social/historical connections. Here, it’s like… Well, they had a good run of it and they had a chance.
Sean: Remember in the final found footage moments when they open the ice cooler on the boat and there’s that sick zombie head in it gurgling?
Kristine: Gross. When you are ready, I have something to add that I expect will earn me many horror movie club points.
Sean: I am ready.
Kristine: I noticed a name in the opening credits and a quick Google check that confirms: The costume design for this movie is done by… Denise Cronenberg! I was 99% sure it had to be wife/sibling of David (it’s his sister) because of the name and because I knew they filmed in Canada. And I was right!
Kristine: I am awaiting accolades and points to rain on my head!
Sean: I am impressed. Good catch.
Kristine: How many points?
Sean: Mmmm… 250.
Sean: One last thing. I noticed that the cast of characters in this movie is conspicuously and pointedly blue collar. They’re all reg’lar folks that we don’t often see as main characters in movies like this: a Best Buy salesman, a nurse, a security guard, etc. I think there’s some element of class consciousness there. Or something.
Kristine: Maybe that is part of the reason the helicopter doesn’t pick them up. They aren’t the 1%. Like, Nicholas Van Orton from The Game probably has an underground zombie-proof bunker for exactly this occasion, right? These characters are at a loss, with nowhere to go, so they gather at the church of the common man: the shopping mall. Rich folks don’t need to go to the mall.
Sean: Agreed. That’s well put. That’s what I was driving at.
The Girl’s Rating: Stylistic triumph AND A good romp
The Freak’s Rating: Slick, bloody and fun AND Horror for the YouTube generation