Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Starring Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer
Directed by Zack Snyder
Screenplay by James Gunn
In their overhaul of "Dawn of the Dead," director Zack Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn may seem to have chucked most of the campy consumer satire of George Romero's 1978 zombie classic and emerged with a state-of-the-art but empty Hollywood gore-fest. Not quite. They've also created a darkly funny, nihilistic post-9/11 vision of radical fundamentalism overrunning bourgeois society. In the midst of the carnage, lead character Ana Clark (Sarah Polley), a smart, tough, resourceful nurse, helps to lead a small band of survivors trapped in a suburban mall and keep them human, literally and figuratively.
The film opens with Ana about to get off a long shift at her Wisconsin hospital, apparently in the ED. A physician thinks it's Ana's job to track down a patient who does not appear to be hers. Ana could have been stronger in this slightly confused scene--she doesn't confront the physician directly, passing the task off to a colleague. Ana returns to her nice suburban tract home and enjoys a "date night" with her husband. In the morning, a formerly cute neighbor girl appears and brutally bites Ana's husband, who dies, revives, and lunges for Ana. She escapes, driving off through a series of chaotic zombie/human endgames. Ana and a few other survivors, including taciturn cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames), resourceful electronics seller Michael (Jake Weber), and tough guy Andre (Mekhi Phifer), hole up in the nearby Cross Roads Mall.
Outside the mall, zombies begin to gather and seek ways in, driven by a need to kill humans, apparently because it sustains them and/or simply creates more of them. As it becomes clear that the zombies have overpowered all civil and military authority, the ragtag band undergoes the standard disaster movie conflicts and bonding. The only way to permanently kill the undead is to shoot them in the head or burn them, which is quite a boon to those with a taste for such cinematic delicacies. Ultimately, the shrinking band of survivors uses reinforced trucks to try to break through the hundreds of surrounding zombies and reach a marina, where they hope to take a boat to an island that may be zombie-free.
The movie follows a fairly standard trajectory, but it has ruthless efficiency, nasty humor, and good acting. You can still see the zombies as a metaphor for brainless mall customers, and the living characters do interact ironically with mall artifacts. But the mall seems to be more of a marker for heedless middle-class America, for a celebrity culture that shows little real concern for the wider world that might some day come stomping into its living rooms. Instead, we sit in our orderly suburbs and watch "reality" TV shows in which shallow attention junkies are slowly picked off until almost no "survivors" remain (sound familiar?), as Ana and her husband do during their last night together. We also pay to experience vicarious violence. When Ana sees some of the male survivors identifying individuals in the crowd of zombies outside the mall by the celebrities they resemble, then challenging a gun shop owner trapped on a nearby roof to pick them off with a rifle, she notes with contempt that they must have had rough childhoods. So must all of us watching.
You could argue that "Dawn of the Dead" simply promotes a paranoid, post-9/11 fear of those who are different. But the movie also pointedly distinguishes the survivors' ability to talk, read, plan, and bond from the zombies' inability to do anything but launch themselves at the living. The zombies have one basic imperative, and they will rush at someone who has a big loaded gun pointed at their heads. But as a group, they are highly effective. No modern tool can hold them off for long, not guns, negotiation, money or even health care. Ana sadly assures one doomed survivor that she can help him, when they both know she cannot. A televangelist intones that when hell is full, the dead will walk the earth--as if the human race had produced so many sinners that God had given up on us. The churchgoing Kenneth dismisses Andre's suggestion that God is punishing Andre for his past bad acts, but no one invokes God's help. We're on our own at the Cross Roads Mall. The film is packed with apocalyptic humor, particularly in the powerful opening and closing titles and the soundtrack song selection. However, the zombies do not seem to represent any particular religion or other world view, but unyielding fundamentalism and the aggressive quest for domination in the post-Cold War era (Andre's sympathetic, pregnant wife is Russian). Some viewers may not believe this kind of thing to be solely the province of stateless "terrorists."
In the midst of all this, the filmmakers and the excellent Sarah Polley give us a heroic yet desperately human nurse lead character. Of course, a genre devoted to selling violence and gore may not seem like a perfect vehicle to advance the mission of nursing. Ana does not hesitate to dispatch zombies when she must. And any movie that both deplores and revels in violence has a problem. But no one needs to see a strong, smart nurse more than this film's audience does.
Ana seems to be the ultimate "survivor" in this group of survivors. She struggles past the memory of her undead husband to care for the group's wounds; sewing up Kenneth alone probably saves them several times over. She responds to one character's snotty "what are you, a f---ing doctor?" by snapping "no, I'm a f---ing nurse." She uses her nursing skill to determine early on that any zombie bite dooms a human to death and then undeath, also life-saving information. She alone thinks to and does retrieve a critical key in the midst of a hellacious fight. She is the negotiator (with the living), and she preserves a sense of decency among the survivors.
Ana is the last aspiration to human reason and love in a world that seems increasingly dominated by absolutist violence. Let's hope she doesn't get kicked off the island.
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