When the director’s cut for Justice League came out, almost everyone hailed Zack Snyder as a part-time filmmaker/full-time messiah who would singlehandedly save the film industry from the debilitating effects of the pandemic. And then he released Army of the Dead, the “spiritual successor” of his debut feature Dawn of the Dead (2004) which was immediately dismissed as a derivative iteration intended to cash in on the spectacle of the genre.
Even though Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake received critical acclaim and launched his directorial career, it failed to impress George A. Romero. The horror master insisted that the satire of the 1978 original seemed anachronistic and too dated for re-contextualisation within the frameworks of the 21st century.
In an interview, Romero explained why his imagination in Dawn of the Dead was so relevant for that time: “I sort of thought it lost its reason for being… Basically, because I was using the idea for satire. My film needed to be done right when it was done, because that sort of shopping mall was completely new. It was the first one in Pennsylvania that we had ever seen. The heart of the story is based in that. And I didn’t think the remake had it.”
After the unprecedented events which transpired in 2020 and left us reeling in shock, Romero’s statements have been successfully debunked because he underestimated the timelessness of his own creation. Dawn of the Dead still feels strikingly important, forcing us to confront the pernicious machinations of the system within which we exist. It urges us to ask questions about the ideological constructs of capitalism, religious morality as well as anti-natalism among various other issues.
Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is fondly remembered for its whacky visual effects, the infinitely creative ways in which zombies are neutralised and the grotesque images of dismembered bodies. Beyond the chaotic surface of the film’s visual narrative, there is a composed and pointed subtext which serves as a commentary on the actual socio-political issues plaguing America that still exist to this day. Between the scalping of zombies and the frenetic injection of a brilliant soundtrack, Romero pauses to reflect on the actual evils that threaten to destabilise our society.
Right from the very start, modern audiences can draw comparisons between the current political climate and the iconic opening segment which is set in a newsroom. We can see media agents desperately trying to televise a “civil” discussion about the zombie apocalypse, resulting in the politicisation of science and the inevitable breakdown of all communication. All these years later, the exact same thing has happened with the Covid-19 vaccine and other scientific findings of the pandemic. American conservatives even tried to ingest dangerous amounts of horse deworming medicine in order to be “immune” from possible infections. You can tell it’s bad when satire cannot keep up with the distressing reality.
In Dawn of the Dead, just like in the deeply flawed world we inhabit, it is the minority groups who are persecuted by repressive apparatuses of the government when the apocalypse arrives. People think twice about killing child zombies but don’t bat an eye when it comes to gunning each other down. At this point, Dawn of the Dead is no longer a highly stylised horror flick that has become a cult classic. It is Romero’s prescient documentary about America, an America where government authorities, rednecks and bikers are more terrifying than actual zombies. The situation is so grim that one scientist declares on live TV: “One wonders what is worth saving,” a sentiment that today’s doctors surely echo after learning about the latest TikTok analysis of their highly specialised research areas.
The focal point of Romero’s opus is the iconic setting of the shopping complex, a magical microcosm of American society which has video game arcades, brain dead zombies who stroll along the aisles, the excess products of widespread labour exploitation that nobody needs as well as a lot of cash. Despite the fact that the entire economic system has collapsed, capitalist indoctrination is so severe that the characters can’t help but pocket wads of an obsolete currency. The entire world is ending all around them but they maintain that they have “got everything [they] need right [there].”
Romero once claimed that “the zombie… is a sympathetic character” but he’s wrong. We are the real zombies and we aren’t sympathetic, we are just pathetic. Surrounded by all the distractions that modernity has to offer, we have also locked ourselves inside the shopping malls of our minds.
At least they had a helicopter on the roof as an escape strategy, the only escape we have is death.