Horror Movies for Feminists: Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Synopsis: Ana misses an emergency news bulletin one night, and wakes up the next morning to discover her world has been eclipsed by the zombie apocalypse. She and a scrappy band of survivors retreat to a suburban shopping mall where they battle zombies – and each other – in their quest to resist the zombie takeover.
Why feminists will watch: There’s a lot going on in this remake of George Romero’s 1978 film that make it both a fun popcorn movie and one of interest to social justice nerds. First, see the star-studded cast, most of them before the peak of fame. Headliners Sarah Polley, long-time feminist activist and movie director, and Ving Rhames, beloved award-winning character actor, are supported by an ensemble cast, including Mekhi Phifer (8 Mile), Michael Kelly (House of Cards) and Ty Burrell (Modern Family). Next, note the well-paced and kinetic storytelling, in large part due to the partnership of Zack Snyder and James Gunn, who became famous in more recent years for their work on popular comic book and superhero films. The soundtrack is a little goofy and on-the-nose, but this is otherwise a fun, solid action flick about human survival in crisis.
Like many great scary movies, it’s witty and wry, it satirizes the genre as well as itself, there are jump scares, and it’s got enough social commentary to wet your whistle. Romero’s zombie stories are part of a long social history of using zombies to express cultural fears about “racial sublimation, atomic destruction, communism, mass contagion, globalism” and capitalism, a tradition continued here. Additionally, this version of “Dawn,” like the original Romero movies, trains a jaundiced eye on the overreach of law enforcement and security culture in times of intense crisis.
This “Dawn of the Dead” also captures the zeitgeist of early 2000s wartime America. In 2004, George Bush was about to be re-elected as a post-9/11 American hero, there were intense, widespread concerns about war profiteering and jingoism in Washington and political news media, and the zombie metaphor was an expression on behalf of a deeply cynical, knowing group of people who felt they were largely alone in their disbelief, frustration and overwhelm in the face of an extraordinarily popular but unjust war. Darker impulses had taken over the masses. Nobody was coming to save you, you had to save yourselves.
Is it gory? Very.
Is it problematic? Yep. But that said, one fun part of watching horror movies is that the genre is deeply concerned with who is good, who is innocent, who is bad, who is redeemable, and why – and metes out justice accordingly. Did the “right” folks get got in this movie? If not, why?
One of the deeply satisfying reasons to engage with the horror genre is that its self-referential tradition means that these questions – who deserves saving, and who deserves redemption – shift with the times, thus horror is deeply reflective of the tension, power, and market forces of the distinct culture that made it. This movie was made at a time when horror revivalists were looking at the genre with fresh eyes and some of the traditional tropes about what makes a person “good” and “bad” were in question.