Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Scenes #9: Dawn Of The Dead: Apocalypse Right Now

(As the internet's foremost Zack Snyder Apologist you can bet that I'm pretty excited about the upcoming release of Sucker Punch.

I had intended for this week to be a tribute to/defense of Snyder. But then, well, shit got in the way (which oughta be the sites motto at this point). Anyway danged if I'm not going to get in at least one of my articles in praise of Snyder before Sucker Punch. So here it is...)

Oddly enough for all the influence that Night Of The Living Dead has had on myriad of zombie movies, very few take place concurrently with the raising of the dead. Instead preferring to start in some nebulous amount of time afterwards.

Not Snyder’s remake of Dawn Of The Dead, which starts things off with a relentless immediacy not seen in a horror film since they came to get Barbara.

“No not tomorrow. The day after tomorrow” is the first line we hear. It’s a nice touch, despite being a bit on the nose. So many characters in horror movies seem to realize they are in horror movies. That their certain doom at the hands of forces too dark to be imagined lies right around the corner.

Snyder allows them to be as oblivious to impending doom as you or me. Not frowning over these strange foreshadowy things that he’s seeing on the X-Ray. But Bull shitting with friends. Not just assuming there will be a tomorrow, but a day after tomorrow as well. How’s that for counting your chickens?

Even Polly, not the type of actress who normally does this kind of role, even less so back then, who has seen patient zero with her own eyes is less concerned about the virus and more concerned about getting a chance to clock out.

Polly has always been an appealing actress and to her credit isn’t playing down to the material the way certain indie ingĂ©nues do to preserve their street cred when they get in spitting distance of a budget over ten million (I’m looking at you Chloe Sevigny).

“Security to Admitting please-“ this line over the PA is buried deep in the sound mix. You almost have to be listening for it. Synder isn’t a director usually praised for his subtility, but this is just a nicely layered scene.

Again in the distance a siren passing by. Mixed well under the conversation. It’s a hospital people don’t even bother looking up. It’s a hospital after all; nothing out of the ordinary about it...

Or that for that matter. Polley doesn’t even give it a second look.

OK that’s funny.

Claustrophobia. Paranoia. Dread. Not to mention the establishing of geography something that Snyder unlike so many modern actual directors cares for. Not bad for a simple jump cut.

The Dialouge between Polley and her significant other is actually some pretty sharply banal writing on James Gunn's part. Once again this is a relatively subtle piece of work. Underlying both the intimacy of them as a couple, and the sheer trivialness of their concerns. I like many fans of the original (which I revere) initially rejected Snyder’s film for lacking a satiric point of view. Revisiting this film now (for perhaps the third or fourth time since its release) I merely think he had a different target. It’s the very idea of safety of security that Snyder finds a dark joke. With a worldview like that I can only hope that Snyder finds some time to return to the horror genre after Superman.

It’s not something that usually gets talked about, obscured by all the testosterone in 300, but Snyder actually has always been pretty good at documenting intimacy between couples. He takes the time to make it seem as though his characters actually have met one another. Even in 300 it’s clear that he sees Lena Headly as an equal partner of Leonides.

In this instance you literally have grim reality shouldering trivial bullshit aside…

Or in this case kicking in the door as it were on this cozy cocoon of a world. (As an aside many like to point to Snyder’s style as all empty bombast. But as the dual push ins on the reverse shots of the opening door show he can be subtle when he needs to be.)

It’s a cruel object lesson. Those who show empathy and concern are the ones who will literally get eaten alive in the new world.

Five Minutes Forty Seconds into his career we get the first slo motion shot in Zack Snyder’s oeuvre.

Yes running zombies are stupid (ever try sprinting with rigor?) and screw up the whole metaphor. But eh what are you gonna do?

Once again the door is under assault. It having taken all of two seconds for the real world to reach in and destroy theirs.

Note the face not the trademark Zombie Snarl, but a look of fear, almost grief. That’s the look you expect to see on the victim in a zombie movie not the aggressor. Once again a choice more creative then Snyder is usually given credit for making.

Once again the overhead motif. I just wanted to note violence and ferocity of this shot and stunt. She flies through the door. And that landing looks like it hurts.

Normally in a film this would be a head slapping duh. But here because of the care taken with the set up it feels earned. After all we don’t want to believe the worst is happening.

But it is and it’s brought a damn fine jump scare along with it.

Nothing like your neighbor in a bathrobe calling you by name as he points a gun on you to let you know things have gone right to shit.

This is a seriously eerie shot. So complete is it's break down. Look at the fire in the background with the sapling in the foreground. It's a weird quasi religious bit of imagery a complete inversion of how things are supposed to be.

So is that.

This pan is all the more affective for the way that Snyder's blocking subtly keeps not one but two Zombie attacks off of screen. Another director would break the mood with an insert shot. Go for the money shot. Snyder is confident enough to delay pay off.

Once again the rules have changed. Yesterday at this time Polley would have been exactly the type of person who would pull over to help a distraught stranger. But survival trumps all.

This is a nifty shot. Not just for the magnitude of the chaos it conveys but the way it helps us suspend disbelief. How'd things get so bad so quick?

...Oh that's how.

That is a horrific image.

That look of exhaustion. Weariness. Sorrow. In other words Of Horror is something that some of the finest veterans of the genre have never brought to their films. Substituting only looks of fear.

Once again Snyder has such a reputation as a director of testosterone that often times its lost just how capable his heroines usually are. Sucker Punch will of course be a major factor in this, but I will not at all be surprised if when the history of Snyder's career is finally written it will be the one of a surprisingly female friendly director.

I’m deciding to stop this study before Snyder’s brilliant credit sequence (another hallmark) which intercuts a staged apocalypse with contemporary news footage until the two become indistinguishable. It’s its own sequence and deserves to be treated on its own terms.

I will merely note that it carries the exact same feeling of apocalyptic dislocation.

Dawn Of The Dead’s greatest crime is the fact that it peaks in its first fifteen minutes. Though it has its moments it never regains that exquisite pervasive wrongness of its opening (Though it is a film that I like more each time I see it).

But that takes nothing away from the achievement of this sequence. Nor nothing away from a director able to create such a profound sense of dislocation, the thing at the heart of all horror. A director who can create such a pervasive sense of dread and ending out of a few bloodied extras and some CGI fire is one I am proud to be an apologist for.


Ivan said...

Nice recap, thanks!

le0pard13 said...

Excellent breakdown of this sequence, Bryce. It really is a visceral stunner. Thanks.

Riot.EXE said...

Thank you, Bryce, thank you. That beginning is one of the main reasons I LOVE that remake. (although the oddly censored naked chick at the bus scene still irks me.)

Daniel Orion Davis said...

Great write-up, sir. I have always been something of an apologist for this movie (but not Synder in general, since I loathe 300) and your description of what makes this opening so fantastic is perfect.

The Dirty Mac said...

The opening credits, for whatever reason, always gives me the creeps and the chills. Cash's haunting, tired voice accompanied by snippets of chaos and violence is so effective. I think mostly because the strange familiarity in his voice and that song in particular makes it all the more eerie.

I dig these posts Bryce. Looking forward to catching Sucker Punch this weekend!

Rob said...

Great breakdown of one of the most stunning opening sequences I can ever remember seeing-true it doesn't always sustain afterwards following the beginning, but still a great movie (in fact, I prefer it to the original). Just as an aside, my friends and I were all delighted when we discovered it was set not far from where we live!
LOVE Sarah Polley.

thevoid99 said...

Great breakdown indeed. I was skeptical about a remake of Dawn of the Dead but the way he opened it made me realize. This was going to be something different.

I like Zack Snyder. I think he's a unique visionary and I'm definitely going to see Sucker Punch this weekend.

Neil Fulwood said...

Brilliant stuff, Bryce. I still remember seeing this on the big screen first time round, taking my seat with a sense of trepidation at the untold damage a novice director might do to Romero's classic - and then sitting up straight in my seat during that first ten minutes, utterly astounded at Snyder's control of the material.

BRENT said...

I really liked this as I do most zombie flicks. You are absoltulety right about the first twenty minues or so. They are rip snorters.
I have always liked the small girl in the hallway. She is intially standing with her face in shadow. Something really creepy about having a kid watch you in bed!!
And then of course she steps out and we see she isn't all we thought..Great stuff! It is a pity the rest of the movie went off the boil somewhat but the start is definitely worth seeing and spending money on.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Ivan: You're welcome.

@ le0pard13: No sir thanks you.

@ Riot.EXE: Yeah that is kind of a weird detail I noticed that. But by the time I got there I was just trying to wrap things up.

@ Daniel: Thank you. I have to admit I kind of dig 300, though I definitely understands why it turns some people off.

@ thevoid99: I was VERY skeptical. Dawn of the Dead would be one of my top three horror films of all time. No questions asked. It wasn't until I'd watched this three or four times that I was able to concede that it had it's own merits.

@ Mac: Oh yeah PERFECT song. If Snyder knows one thing it's credit sequences. I'm psyched for Sucker Punch too. Let's hope we're "unprepared."

@ Rob: Yeah I agree. Once they reach the mall too much tension goes out of the movie for me. And aside from Rhames, Polley and Gun Store Guy I never get attached enough to the characters to actually care what is happening at the mall.

@ Neil: Word. What I like about Snyder is you can tell he was well aware of what big shoes he was filling. Some people approach a remake and don't give a fuck what it is. They're just happy not to shooting commericals anymore.

@ Brent: Very much agreed. I was very impressed by just how far Snyder dragged that out.

Emily said...

Love this post! I remember when this came out, the USA Network showed those opening 10 minutes as a prolonged teaser. I would've been there opening day anyway, but that really made me excited for it.

And good point about some of Snyder's strenghts. I often feel like he's just great at making entertainment, but you it's definitely true that he has serious strength with showing relationsihps. Even the development of Anna and Michael works, despite the fact that for a lot of reasons, it absolutely shouldn't.

Bryce Wilson said...

Oh man I forgot about that USA thing. That was a pretty great idea! Thanks for the kind words Em.