Director Zack Snyder’s latest movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, isn’t quite the “trash fire” that some people contend, but it is a troublesome mess. That argument though has been applied to most of his films with only one consistent exception. His 2004 debut feature, Dawn of the Dead, remains his best.
It lacks the social/consumer commentary of George Romero’s 1978 classic, but it finds a life and energy of its own with some bravura set pieces and action beats. The gore is plentiful (and mostly practical), it’s fun while still being incredibly bleak, and it wisely features Sarah Polley delivering head shots to zombie interlopers. Snyder recorded a commentary track for his director’s cut release, so I gave it a listen.
Keep reading to see what I heard on Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead commentary.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Commentator: Zack Snyder (director), Eric Newman (producer)
1. The opening originally featured a transition from the Universal logo into the sun, but while Snyder loved it Newman reminded him that they needed to fit the Strike logo ‐ Newman’s production company ‐ somewhere after Universal’s.
2. Sarah Polley was their first choice for this role. They’re unsure who the guy playing the doctor with her is, but Snyder likes him. “He’s really great though,” says Snyder. “He sells this kind of doctor vibe that I love.”
3. The first scene in the movie is the first they shot. This was Snyder’s first feature, and he assumed you just start on page one, “and they were like, no no, normally you shoot the last death scene first.”
4. The off-screen character name “Dr. Dhandwar” is a nod to director Tarsem (The Fall) whose full name is Tarsem Singh Dhandwar.
5. Snyder points out something odd about the neighborhood in the overhead shot at the 2:38 mark. There’s an entire row of homes with no road access ‐ their driveways just end at a fence of some kind. The helicopter didn’t get the widest shot they wanted so they had to work something up in post-production.
6. Hannah Lochner plays the little blond girl who greets Ana (Polley) before attacking her the next morning, and Newman suggests she’s destined to be a big star in Japan because “much of the Japanese marketing is around her which is kind of cool. They just love the idea of that little blond girl who will rip your throat out.”
7. The Old Milwaukee beer bottle actually contains fake beer. Newman says the only corporate sponsor interested in actual product placement was Panasonic. “People were like ‘do we want to be in this movie where blood gets sprayed all over our thing? I don’t think so,’” recalls Snyder.
8. Polley and Louis Ferreira (who plays the husband) gave Snyder grief over their shower scene saying that no on really kisses in the shower.
9. Zombified Vivian (Lochner) does a little jump up from the ground after being pushed by Ana, and it was accomplished with some subtle wire work.
10. Snyder did three takes of Ana’s run to the car after being attacked by her husband, and Polley told him she ran more in just those three takes than in any of her full movies previous. He responded that she should get used to it.
11. The swerving cop car that almost hits Ana’s car actually almost hit the car. The fish-tailing back end wasn’t planned.
12. They recorded this commentary track the day before the film opened theatrically.
13. Snyder cameos during the opening credits montage as a soldier with a machine gun on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
14. The script is credited to James Gunn (Slither), but Newman adds that Scott Frank (Get Shorty) and Michael Tolkin (The Player) did some work on it as well.
15. Ving Rhames came to them about starring in the film saying “I want to be in this movie because the black guy lives.”
16. The stores in the mall all have fake names, and Snyder’s favorites are the book store called Bookmark and the coffee shop, Hallowed Grounds. They also named a department store Gaylen Ross after an actress from George Romero’s original film.
17. The close-up of Ana suturing Kenneth’s (Rhames) arm was done with a nurse handling the needle, but on the second take she accidentally sewed his skin to the plastic beneath. “Blood started coming out of the wound,” says Snyder, “and I was like ‘that’s awesome, they did a great job with that prosthetic!’” Rhames alerted them to the issue after Snyder called cut.
18. The shot where they throw a wrapped body off the mall’s roof was filmed across the street from a church funeral service.
19. The original’s Tom Savini, Ken Foree, and Scott H. Reiniger all cameo here as a sheriff, a preacher, and a general, respectively.
20. The large woman in the wheelbarrow is played by Ermes Blarasin who Newman first met when Blarasin was serving as Chris Farley’s stunt double on Tommy Boy.
21. Snyder isn’t sure what to think about the shot of Nicole (Lindy Booth) checking out Terry’s (Kevin Zegers) ass as he walks away from her. “It kind of makes me uncomfortable. She’s looking at it, and smirking. What’s that mean?”
22. They shot the blackout scene during an actual blackout. It was a coincidence, and they had generators.
23. Newman asks where the mother was when they were pointing the handgun at the baby, and Snyder’s response is a joke but feels truthful all the same. “She was there saying ‘I love show business, and I want my baby to be a part of this.’”
24. They painted Andy’s (Bruce Bohne) ribs to make him look scrawnier and hungrier.
25. Snyder points out a “funny sound” at the 1:21:59 mark that entertains and eludes him. “I don’t know what it is. it’s either a seal, it sounds like a dolphin, I don’t know what to this day I don’t know what that is.” He then proceeds to try and recreate it.
26. The bit involving the dog that the survivors lower down to take food to Andy originally included the pooch being attacked by zombie dogs. It would have involved more dog training as well as CG mutts, and that just wasn’t in the budgetary cards.
27. Some viewers question Nicole’s decision to face zombies in an attempt to rescue the dog, but at least one pop superstar agrees with her. “When I was talking to Christina Aguilera at the premiere she said ‘I would have gone after that dog too! I was really nervous about the dog, and when I saw that Nicole was going after the dog I thought that’s real!’”
28. Snyder recommends that children not try to emulate the scene where they attach a flare to a propane tank and then shoot it. “I’m serious when I say this.”
29. Someone after a test screening questioned Snyder as to why/how the zombies pause at the bottom of the stairs at 1:32:25, and it put him on the spot when they asked if the zombies could even do that. He replied, “in real life, no, but in film where you dramatize…”
30. CJ’s (Michael Kelly) elevator line, “I like this song,” was improvised. There wasn’t even any music playing while they filmed it.
31. They’re fond of the ending where Michael (Jake Weber) is left on the dock with one bite on his arm and one bullet in the chamber. “This is how you end a movie if you got a script you’re writing, and you’re wondering how you’re gonna end it, and you don’t want to sell out.”
32. The end credits footage on the dock was shot in a “lake” area on the Universal Studio Tour.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
- Snyder: “Watch this stretchy bit here. I love this stretchy bit right there.”
- Snyder: “If you know anything about Sarah [Polley], you know that she shouldn’t land on her back like that.”
- Snyder: “I didn’t want to poke fun at the zombies, but when you do you gotta really go strong.”
- Snyder: “I’m a badminton player.”
- Snyder: “I always think it’s a great moment when a young man and a sort of older woman can shoot it out at point blank range.”
- Newman: “Every day he overshot his ‘fuck’ quota.”
- Snyder: “If a friend can’t kill you when you’re a zombie who will?”
Dawn of the Dead is a fun zombie flick, and both Snyder and Newman make it clear that part of what made it that way was their inexperience on the production. Both men are thankful that studio execs didn’t pull the plug and wonder aloud why it never happened. Snyder is the funnier of the two, but Newman seems interested in offering more anecdotes. It’s a solid enough commentary track worth a listen for fans of the director or the film.