Passion of the Zombies

When word came from on high—Daily Variety—that Mel Gibson's bio pic The Passion of the Christ had been usurped in that most holy of orders—weekend box office—many were shocked to discover the usurper was the flesh-eating zombie remake Dawn of the Dead.After Dawn took in $27.3 million, compared to Passion's paltry $19.2 million, word quickly spread that three weeks is about all people can take of religiosity, that eventually the public tide inches its way back to the American film industries' Big Three E's: Entertainment. Escapism. Ecannibalism.

But any suggestion that the public's taste for zombies comes at the expense of spiritual knowledge is a misreading of Dawn of the Dead. After all, like Gibson's Passion, director Zack Snyder's Dawncenters on the theme of death and resurrection as well as life everlasting—though Gibson's eternity suggests more of an at-oneness (atonement) while Snyder's forever seems more heavily weighted toward the procurement and ingestion of brain stems.

Still, there it is: a movie that begins with a man and a woman lying together (Adam and Eve) being visited by an evil (original sin) that drives them out of their paradisiacal sanctuary (a two-bedroom ranch-style house) and ends with a swarthy guy in a beard named "CJ" sacrificing himself so that others may escape that original taint. CJ? C'mon, it doesn't take a dyslexic bible scholar to figure there's deeper currents present. (Though CJ does seem to use the word "fuck" a good deal more than Jesus. Then again, I don't speak Aramaic.)

It's clear in Dawn of the Dead's aerial-view title sequence of a Wisconsin suburb that we have journeyed out from the profane to the phenomenal as we are confronted with the otherworldly sight of built-in swimming pools in Wisconsin. Immediately, we are aware that we have trodden upon unspoiled ground, specifically, that we are about to watch a film set in Wisconsin. From this initial revulsion, it's a short step to a world of horror and gore created by Snyder and writer James Gunn, working from George Romero's ancient text. It is a world in which the undead feed upon the body and blood of the living repeatedly in a bit of sacrificial necessity that is equal parts Last Supper and Red Lobster.

No explanation is given for the appearance of the ravenous undead. (Some unnamed minister says that when Hell is full, the undead will walk the earth. Well, duh, reverend. They've been driving up Newport Coast real-estate prices for years.) And, of course, no explanation is necessary. The zombies' unquenchable thirst for things of this world is not some temporary condition; it is, in fact, man's nature laid bare. So it's not surprising when both hunted and hunter head to that place where they feel safest and most nourished, the high temple of desire, the local shopping mall.

Once there, the filmmakers seem to argue that human beings, no matter their state, are creatures of survival, with each side willing to do anything to endure. It is not a rosy picture, and even institutional religion isn't spared when we learn the local church is rife with unholy predators. Imagine that.

Snyder and Gunn seem to argue it is not life, but death that separates these two factions. While the living fear death (God), the undead have no such dread, and this frees them to commit the kind of amoral marauding we commonly associate with the further neutering of the EPA.

The Book of Common Prayer tells us, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," and the zombies' "freedom" is quickly exposed as a prison of never-ending want, not only because of their ongoing desire to consume their prey, who stare down from the second-story mall roof, but also because they neither have the wisdom to get nor working knowledge to operate a ladder.

It is this last bit that may lead some to believe that the film may lead some to become virulently anti-undead and that this could have disastrous results for Dick Cheney as well as large portions of the South. I can't be certain if that is true, though it certainly is something to chew on.


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