Tomorrow, director Zack Snyder comes home. Army of the Dead drops on Netflix this weekend, which sees him returning to his undead roots. Before the Snyderverse – before 300’s glorified slow-mo, before Watchmen and Man of Steel, before whatever the hell Sucker Punch was – Snyder broke onto the scene with a bold reimagining of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
Now, I’m not gonna revisit the whole movie here. I just wanna talk about the first ten minutes.
Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead has one of the scariest openings I’ve seen not just in a zombie movie, but in any horror movie period. It spawned nightmares and irrational fears of my own neighborhood. The only way I can explain this is by going back to 2004— to the zombie genre at its unique tipping point.
28 Days Later. You don’t get to Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead without Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland saw a chance to bring the zombie into the 21st century. So how does one evolve a voodoo vessel turned lumbering ghoul that clamored for your brains? By making them run faster than hell.
It sounds so simple, but running zombies struck a kind of irrational paranoia equivalent to sharks in the pool. Of course there are no sharks in the pool, but you watched JAWS as a kid and your overthinking brain can’t be convinced otherwise.
A zombie running full-tilt was like seeing firsthand the way the world ends. Sure, zombies are physiologically impossible, but you just knew that if THESE zombies ever came true we’d be fucked.
I was 12-years-old when Dawn of the Dead came out and I had the (mis)fortune of seeing it in theaters. It remains to this day my favorite horror movie experience ever.
I remember the local news reported walkouts in screenings. People were traumatized. The only reason I remember this is because it was the first time I had heard the word “traumatized” used to describe watching a movie. There were signs posted at the ticket booth stating there would be no refunds after the first 30 minutes, that anybody younger than 15 would not be permitted even with an adult present—which meant that any self-respecting youth wanted to see this movie.
Everybody in the theater was tense, whispering amongst themselves. Was this movie THAT intense, truly?! My cousins and I sat bookended between our aunts and uncles (you a real one if you take your nieces and nephews to R-rated movies ✊). All of us wondered if we could withstand this thing that was spurring so much noise like The Ring or The Blair Witch Project had done prior.
There was something so bloodcurdling (paralyzing?) about that Universal Studios logo rolling in. It was here, it was finally starting, and suddenly our questions weren’t hypothetical anymore. You could hear the slightest shift in someone’s seat. People were gnawing on popcorn and then they weren’t. All of us had fucked around. We were about to find out.
The greatest trick Snyder pulls in the first three minutes is how he lulls you into a false sense of complacency. It’s not all zombies sprinting toward you, not yet anyway. We begin in the hospital, on Sarah Polley’s character Ana working past the clock and eager to get the fuck home and it’s all so… calm. My mom was a nurse for 30 years. There’s nothing more comforting than a nurse doing her job. Nurses know the routine. They know not to panic.
Ana gets home to her slice of suburban heaven where she’s met in the driveway by a little girl showing off her roller-blading skills. Ana then climbs into bed with her perfect suburban husband and everybody lives to see another day. We’re fooled into thinking Snyder is easing us into this. He’s not.
We go from a handful of static shots at the hospital to slow, painfully slow tracking shots across the bedroom to the door ajar. This interrupts the rhythm we thought we had a handle on… or establishes a quicker tempo as we see a girl standing in the hallway. We already know who it is.
Snyder builds so much impending dread in just 60 seconds FLAT. And then the movie goes berserk.
It’s a roller coaster drop where you didn’t even realize you were climbing upward this whole time. Snyder starts moving the camera FASTER, the cuts happening much swifter, all while that tense, pulse-pounding score preys on our anxiety.
Ana’s husband gets bitten, dies, and is reanimated within a minute. From Ana’s point of view, this happens in a heartbeat. He’s recognizably her husband and then he isn’t in the space of 3 seconds. Now he’s out for her neck and Ana has to flee for her life. His piercing zombie shriek still reverbs in my head 17 years later.
Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn asked all the right questions in crafting their contribution to the zombie canon: “Where do we go after 28 Days Later?” Zombie movies would never be the same because walking zombies aren’t scary anymore by comparison— a thing George A. Romero himself found out the hard way with 2005’s Land of the Dead (and something The Walking Dead would eventually reconfigure). So what do you do when another movie gave the genre a shot of adrenaline?
Well, you don’t let up.
In 28 Days Later, it takes the “infected” less than 30 seconds to turn, meaning characters had even less time to take action. Hesitating meant life or death, so the choice was kill or be killed in a heartbeat. Snyder leads with this, reimagining our fear of zombies in the most basic and primal sense. If Danny Boyle injected the running zombie into the mainstream, then Zack Snyder simply gave it a home.
There’s a mini domestic thriller in Dawn of the Dead’s opening, of wife escaping the clutches of a terrifying husband. Snyder slips in a sleek homage to The Shining, and then he takes John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg’s portrayals of suburbia and puts them into a blender. Carpenter gave us Jamie Lee Curtis screaming for her life in a stone quiet neighborhood, while Spielberg treated us to epic panoramic spectacle in the cul-de-sac.
This pan shot of suburbia gone mad is both an ode to the genre and Snyder’s singular masterstroke as filmmaker. Romero saw the zombie as a tool for biting social commentary. Snyder, on the other hand, imagines an apocalyptic survival horror movie in true cinematic fashion. It’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse (which came out the same year), except, you know, GOOD.
Turns out, zombies are plenty fucking scary on their own—so much so that when the opening briefly cuts to black, it’s hardly a reprieve. The following title sequence is somehow scarier than what came before. (There’s a renewed kind of fear seeing the CDC say, “we don’t know.”) So when we cut back to Ana after the crash, nothing – not even the quiet – feels safe or certain. Because as we just witnessed, a running zombie can come from anywhere. And it will never stop.
I’ll never forget how deeply I cowered in my seat. There was still a whole ass movie to get through! Some people bowed out right then and there, heading for the exit. Two of my cousins had to leave. My aunt took them next door where You Got Served was playing and I envied them. My uncle, chuckling, asked the rest of us if we were okay. I lied and nodded. Because I felt like if I stepped out of the theater, I’d be stepping into the movie.
Sometimes you’re so terrified that all you want to do is run. Book it in the other direction. Get as far away as you can. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead was the rare movie that scared me so badly I wouldn’t dare move, not if my life depended on it.