There’s a narrative about Zack Snyder now. On some level, that’s a sign of acceptance; People are comfortable enough with his presence in pop culture that they talk about him as if he were just another character in the reality TV show of their lives.
“He’s the slo-mo guy!”
“He’s the creepy sex guy.”
“Is he the lens-flare guy?” (No, that’s JJ Abrams.) “That’s right, he’s the slo-mo guy.”
“He makes those bro movies.”
“He’s like Michael Bay, but less epileptic.”
“He’s like Michael Bay, but more subtle.”
“He’s like Michael Bay, but with a butt-chin. And more slo-mo.”
There are certain levels of truth in there. He does have a butt-chin. There are some bro-tastic cinematic events on his resume. He’s been known to play with the speed of his camera as a means to emphasize the severity of an ass-whipping he is carefully framing. It’s easy to boil down the man’s aesthetics to these simple cards, eagerly played in online conversations like a sneering game of Slap Jack.
But 10 years ago, there was only one narrative surrounding Zack Snyder: Who the fuck does this guy think he is?
Because 10 years ago today, his remake of Dawn of the Dead was released to theaters.
One aspect of his career isn’t in the narrative currently assigned to Snyder; the combination of foolish ambition and earnest passion doesn’t make for easily regurgitated punchlines about speed-ramping or glistening abs; It’s a poor means to cast him as an muscleheaded, sports-loving, knuckle-dragging tourist of genre entertainment, and so it is left out.
But this guy started his career in motion pictures by remaking what is still considered by many to be the single best zombie movie ever made, and one of the 10 best horror films of all time. That was his opener. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that he eventually adapted the believed-to-be-unfilmable Watchmen, and followed that with the probably should-have-been-not-filmed That Fucking Owl Movie Or Whatever. Once you’ve climbed Zombie Olympus on your first try, achieving the impossible becomes just another thing you put on your shopping list.
He didn’t do it alone, of course: James Gunn, currently climbing What The Fuck Mountain himself with Guardians of the Galaxy, wrote the screenplay for 2004’s Dawn of the Dead with uncredited polish from Scott Frank and Michael Tolkin. This is another card in the Slap Jack game, one I like to play myself from time to time: Snyder is only good as his script. It makes sense that his best movie is the one that has the best writers attached to it.
Gunn made a name for himself with an adaptation of an equally-beloved classic, resulting in Tromeo & Juliet for Lloyd Kaufman, adding to Shakespeare’s story some drugs, some sex, and a cow-monster with a three-foot-long dick (You can watch the whole thing here). This was not seen as the greatest of signs either, although having some Troma splattered on Gunn’s resume was something, at least.
George Romero’s 1978 original is deified less for its quality as a zombie movie, and more for its social commentary. It’s a horror movie that’s smart, with something on its mind, that means something, man! Snyder’s remake was going to be the cinematic equivalent of Ugly Kid Joe covering Harry Chapin. Worse, mouthbreathing idiot kids who didn’t know any better would see this tasteless pantomime and think this gym rat and the Troma guy came up with it.
I bought into that narrative, because falsely-confident cynicism has always been a valuable currency in film nerd circles, and there was no evidence to the contrary readily available — not that I would have sought it out anyway. Knowing things just makes it harder to be on the internet.
But then there was evidence. Universal decided the best way to rope viewers into buying a ticket to this travesty was to book time on the USA network, and just give away the first 10 minutes. Such a move only fed the grumbling: How much faith could the studio have if they’re going to give away the opening during the commercial breaks for Final Destination? This just proves it’s trash. That’s what you do with trash: You throw it away.
Of course, I watched it live.
Suddenly I needed a new narrative. Because Gunn and Snyder realized the best way to tackle Dawn was to sidestep it. Or rather, to sprint past it, grabbing only necessary bits from Romero’s story on the way toward realizing a clever idea: Yeah, it's called Dawn of the Dead, yeah it takes place in a mall overrun by zombies. But we’re not going to crib from the original, with its deliberate pace and its sledgehammer-subtle subtext about consumerism.
We’re going to crib from Aliens.
It was a shrewd move. Romero himself said the movie felt like a video game, and while he meant it as a negative, he wasn’t wrong, either. Game developers were well-practiced at sucking the marrow out of James Cameron’s 1986 classic for over a decade by then (they haven't stopped yet, either), and Snyder adopted gaming’s visual vocabulary for his remake, along with the controversial choice to replace the shambling, groaning masses of the original with screaming, sprinting undead, probably inspired by the success of Danny Boyle’s not-technically-a-zombie-movie zombie movie, 28 Days Later.
Dawn of the Dead works for the same reasons Aliens did (albeit on a lesser scale), trading gliding visual poetry for a grungy roller coaster ride. Sure, it doesn’t mean as much, but it doesn’t want to, either. There are solid performances from Sarah Polley (at the time just an indie ingenue making a questionable choice in mainstream sellout movie), Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Michael Kelly (better known now as Kevin Spacey’s right-hand viper in House of Cards), and a particularly delicious heel turn from Ty Burrell, all helping Dawn plunge through ups-and-downs of the kind a good carnival ride provides.
And then, just to make sure things don’t get too oppressive, too screamy and samey, he calls time-out to run a music video set to Richard Cheese’s tongue-in-cheek cover of the glottal, burping nu-metal "hit" Down with the Sickness.
It’s no piefight with blue-tinted Hare Krishnas, but its a nice riff on the same idea, finding a new way to communicate a similar feeling. The movie works because it never feels like it’s disrespectfully imitating the original. Snyder instead nods at it from time to time, giving Ken Foree a chance to utter his famous line, having Flyboy’s news chopper surveying the chaos of the gas-station explosion of an opener, among other little easter eggs easily plucked from the IMDb trivia basket.
Sure, you can look back, and cherry-pick elements predicting Snyder’s somewhat-earned narrative 10 years later: The grasps at emotionality that slide right off like unbelted JNCOs on a tweeking Juggalo; eye-popping style serving a puddle-deep story. But more than anything, I look back and I’m reminded conventional wisdom exists to be punctured and deflated. Zack Snyder poked a pretty big hole in my expectations 10 years ago, and he’s been taking stabs (and sometimes overreaching with them) ever since. Had I dismissed those 10 minutes 10 years ago, I would have missed a pretty pleasant surprise, one that still hasn’t worn off over a decade later.