March 28, 2004|Supplanting that other zombie movie (the at least twice as gory The Passion of the Christ) at the top of the box-office charts last weekend, Dawn of the Dead compelled me to request a phone interview with its director, Zack Snyder. I should amend that I was driven not by pressing questions, but by that flicker of fanboyism I'd thought long-extinguished; I was stunned to have liked the film, just as I was stunned to have enjoyed Marcus Nispel's remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nevertheless, it strikes me that in a day of high production values and sophisticated action editing, the personal horror films of the Seventies are being re-imagined as self-aware takes on the slick formula and stainless steel look of Aliens from a decade later. There's even a Carter Burke character in the new Dawn of the Dead.
Comparing Snyder's film with George A. Romero's original is an unimaginative exercise doomed to futility: the one is dated, bloated, theoretical; the other, Snyder's, is lean, tight, and deceptively complex. Though not a perfect debut, its mostly-positive reception resembles the reception of the original film--and its detractors tend to throw stones from a position of patronizing genre superiority. Mr. Snyder sounds like a young guy giddy about his picture's success and, perhaps not surprisingly (given the intelligence of the picture), aware of the ironies that infect Dawn of the Dead enough to have not only avoided making the film a parody of itself (or, more damning, an indictment of its audience), but also maintained a sense of humour about the hilarity of its central conceit. It's a balancing act for sure.
Mr. Snyder's next project is a proposed collaboration with possible genius Frank Miller on an adaptation of Miller's super-cool ode to Sparta, 300 (a chronicle of the Battle of Thermopylae). Emerging victorious from one dip into the sacred, Mr. Snyder has the balls for Miller, no question--intriguingly, he seems to have the smarts and the chops to match.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: A risky first movie--for a lot of people, you can't love the first Dawn of the Dead enough.
ZACK SNYDER: (laughs) They're all risky, aren't they? I actually got an email a while back that wanted to know why we were remaking the perfect film. It was awesome--I mean, it was a literate argument and those are the scariest crackpots, I don't need to tell you.
Why do you think the original is so beloved?
Well, I think the thing about it that made it so unique was that it gave people an experience that they hadn't had at the movies. I think a lot of it was timing--I think the social elements that it explores were fresh at the time and that it struck the right nerve. People saw it as a holy grail and, in a lot of ways, it is, and I was terrified. The only thing I was afraid of is that people wouldn't get it--that they'd write off the film and I expected that to happen, the mainstream saying, "That's a horror film, I got it. F," and the fanboys saying, "Why remake perfection? F."
[THE NEW YORK TIMES'] Elvis Mitchell hated it--but not because it was a horror movie.
(laughs) Did you read that review? What he said about the movie is just awesome--it's so misguidedly heady. It assumes so much about the way that we approached the material--and it's exactly, exactly the opposite of the truth. He apologizes to James Joyce in the review: "The Dead, apologies to James Joyce"--I mean, wow. You take this intellectual high ground immediately and there's no way to come back down from that privileged perch. It's not that I'm sensitive, it's just that I'm amazed how much we assign to a movie, what sort of expectations accompany some people into a genre picture.
Horror is really making a resurgence as an "indicator species" for sociological unrest. As a platform for sociology, after all, you just get away with more.
I agree, totally, that's the nature of horror movies--they back off, you have a lot more freedom. I gotta say that the studio itself was really cool with us in the sense that we had a lot of leeway. The performances, the look, they let it flow. The only place that they intruded was they would watch the dailies and demand "scarier"--but they never said "too much, leave Jay Leno alone" and stuff.
Did you have to tone down the gore?
Y'know, not much, not much. Let me tell you this story. There's this great moment after we tested the movie where I had to go into this room with forty studio people. And people, in those meetings, they like to chime in so that they feel like they should be there. So this one guy talks about the scene where all these zombies pause at the bottom of a stairwell before storming up at the heroes. He says, "It looks like they're assessing. Now, would a zombie really do that?" And I think about it and say, "Well, y'know what, in real life... They wouldn't."
(laughs) Really got a kick out of the Muzak selections--and the Johnny Cash tune that opens the film.
That's another thing, we put a ton of thought into it and with the music we tried, every time we could, to use exactly the opposite music that we thought the studio would want.
No Dido or Coldplay?
Right, right--Richard Cheese instead, that Disturbed song? That version is the exact opposite song that they wanted--we use the original in the close credits, I think it works there as an anthem as you leave the theatre ("Zombie war is awesome!"), but we were trying really hard to be contrary.
(laughs) Something I want to bring up: I thought that Ving was infected by that gash on his arm.
(laughs) A lot of people ask me about that and I see how that's a pretty viable read of it--the blood from Ana's husband in the water--and I remember at one point during the shoot saying, "Um... gosh... I wonder if the blood work would be a problem. What's the infection rate?" And I said to someone, "Y'know what, there's a chance he could get it. But he didn't." (laughs)
|Sarah Polley on the set of Dawn of the Dead|
The most common criticism of your film is that it doesn't go as deeply into sociology as Romero's film--I disagree with that read, I don't think the original is all that deep and, in fact, I think that your picture has a broader, subtler, more satirical edge.
I feel like it does, too. One of the comments I've made is that when Romero made his movie, mass consumerism was a really fresh topic, y'know, something that we were first waking up to. People were more unaware that they were living in a mass consumerist society, but now, man, if people don't know that we're living in a commercial, a cynically commercial, society now, a movie ain't gonna wake you up to it. We took a lot of time and effort on the satirical structure--even the construction of the mall was meant to reflect this corporate vision of our world. A sophisticated aesthetic to give the illusion of uniqueness when the truth is that it's mass-produced, manufactured, and given over to the illusion of specialness.
Echoing the fact of the film itself...
Exactly. The way it's marketed and sold--a movie modeled after a cult classic to emulate that cult experience--but it's none of those things. I mean, it's Universal Studios. (laughs) That part of it, the movie itself is a conversation about mass consumerism and just how hard--how impossible--it is to replicate sort of the pioneering spirit of Romero. But we can do this self-knowing thing without being self-hating and that's the line to walk.
More, you're a commercial director.
Yeah, I went to a school called Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and right out of school I made a bunch of commercials, a few videos. There's a Subaru commercial playing in the opening where Ana and her husband are in the shower that's mine--but, sure, my entire identity as a commercial director plays into the irony of the source film's central, most obvious satire, about capitalism gone wrong. The only way you're saved is by knowing who you are--and even then. But knowing gives you a leg up.
The common slam of commercial directors is that they don't have any kind of attention span. Your picture doesn't fit into that hyperactive mold.
My style in commercials is not governed by that aesthetic--I mean, my commercial work is a lot slicker, a lot more stylish, but I was really conscious as we went along that I didn't want to just make a Hollywood version of Dawn. We would've been hoisted up on the cross for that for sure if that was the only thing feeding a revisit of the premise. But again, it's not something that we could completely avoid. I mean, the first one was made in a different time with a different philosophy--it was less than a million dollars, wasn't it? Something insane--and we didn't have the same kind of restrictions of course and like we've talked about, the conversation that we have to have with this subject material now, more than twenty-five years later, has to be in a lot of ways about how the film itself is an example of how Romero was right. For me, my favourite parts about my movie are the ones that veer down a crazy road--away from Hollywood.
The most effective part of the film is told through a walkie-talkie exchange--no gore at all.
I agree--that whole sequence was a lot different in the script. There was never any kind of communication/interaction with Andy; there was just this extended sequence with like a dozen trained dogs rescued from the mall pet store, outfitted with little wagons that ran across the parking lot and transferred all this ammunition from Andy back to the people at the mall. They'd trot over there, trot back--but on the way back, they're attacked by zombie dogs. It was a huge sequence, twenty pages, and I said first of all, I don't know if we can afford this, it's insane--and second of all, what are my humans doing during all this? We're gonna follow these dogs around for twenty minutes in the middle of all this? [Screenwriter] James [Gunn] did a great job, but he really just went off on this weird kick.
Sounds like a good premise for a different movie: Dogs of the Dead.
(laughs) And also, I really wanted to have Ving's character Kenneth kill Andy--you sort of have to do that, it's gotta happen. Everyone looked at me funny when I said that, but I said you have to do that because in the zombie movie world, that's how you affirm your friendship. That's how you know when someone really loves you: they blow your head off.
The Ken Foree character does that for the Scott Reiniger character in the original.
Right, exactly. And I thought that scene was really powerful--we had to have it.
Did you use a lot of CGI?
Not much: the propane tank fireball, that was the only way to do it--and then there's a shot in the opening of a truck smashing into a gas station plus a few inserts now and again, a helicopter, stuff like that. The rest of it, we really relied on make-up effects, some plates and duplications--a lot of in-camera stuff with speed changes, stuff like that.
Thank God you didn't do the pie-in-the-face bullshit.
Arrgh! The seltzer water? I hated that shit--can't stand it, drove me nuts. Part of the reason, really, that we made the zombies so fast was that it made it so much harder to make fun of them--you can't be playing little pranks on them, you had to have more wit, y'know, do what you call in your review the "celebrity skeet shooting"--or the knocking golf balls off them. You get too close and they kill you--that sort of reduces the opportunity for dumb physical gags, even stuff like that guy with his arm in the blood pressure machine? Crazy stuff--I just never got it.
There's real menace in Romero's first and third zombie films because, mainly, they were in confined spaces--ninety zombies in a 20x20 room is terrifying, ninety in a giant shopping mall is not so scary.
True, absolutely, but you know what, that first zombie in Night of the Living Dead, I maintain, lumbers pretty fast--chases a car, smashes a window, that zombie's a lot smarter than mine. He's a predator, man. He moves with a sense of purpose. They slow way down in Dawn compared to Night. It's gotta be a product of scale, you don't have to worry if you don't act like a clown.
I asked you in the beginning why you thought the original was so beloved--for me, I think it boils down to it being an allegedly "smart" satirical movie that's actually really easy to read. Oh, look, they're shopping--I get it, that's us.
(laughs) That moment of glee when you believe that you're as smart as the filmmakers.