Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead turns 10 years old this week. It's not only a fantastic remake of George A. Romero's original film about the survivors of a zombie apocalypse hunkering down inside a mall, it's also one of the best horror movies of the 2000s.
Seriously, if you haven't seen 2004's Dawn of the Dead recently, we highly recommend you go give it a rewatch. It's a really sharp character ensemble that improves on the original in all the right ways, while also carving out its own new path. The cast is terrific, the gore is tremendous, and it's also one of the last times studio horror felt big and unafraid of the kind of hard-core, R-rated movie audiences want to see.
We wanted to honor Dawn's 10-year anniversary with some backstory about the film that you may not know. All of the below is pulled from special features on the film's DVD, with much of the information coming from the commentary track featuring Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman, who both have a great sense of humor about the production.
The aerial shot of Ana leaving her neighborhood contains a combo reference to both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. The helicopter that enters the frame is an identical re-creation of the WGON News chopper the characters use throughout 1978's Dawn, while the truck crashing into the gas station is a nod to Ben's story in 1968's Night about a truck speeding across the road, crashing into a gas pump and catching on fire.
Original actors Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and Tom Savini all have cameos in the film. Though she doesn't appear in the film, the department store in the mall is named after Dawn's lead actress, Gaylen Ross. They wanted David Emge, who played Flyboy in the original, but he couldn't be found in time.
The car commercial on the TV was a Subaru ad directed by Snyder.
Sarah Polley was always their first pick for the role, and they were stunned she accepted it, calling it a "lapse in judgment." Throughout the commentary track Snyder and Newman joke about how she must be regretting her decision in every scene.
Ving Rhames actually approached the production wanting to play the role of Kenneth. He'd heard about the film, read the script, and for once wanted to be in a movie where "the black guy lives."
Snyder has a cameo as one of the soldiers on the lawn of the White House.
The infected woman in the wheelbarrow was actually a man, Ermes Blarasin, who producer Eric Newman first met when he was Chris Farley's stunt double on Tommy Boy, a movie he was a PA on.
James Gunn wrote the original draft of the film, but Michael Tolkin and Scott Frank also contributed to the film, though Gunn retains the sole writing credit.
Originally the film opened in Ana's house, but the producers felt it got to the zombies a little too quickly that way, so the hospital scene was created.
Ana was supposed to crash her car after entering a massive traffic jam, but the production couldn't afford such a large set piece, so they had to settle for just the one bus.
Mekhi Phifer's "Shatterproof, a**hole" line was added in response to a studio note wondering why the zombies couldn't just break in.
The helicopter they fail to flag down was originally going to land on the roof and attempt to take them away. During this, we'd see that one of the soldiers on board had a bite wound, which was the setup for when they later learn that Fort Pastor had its own zombie outbreak and was overrun.
One version of the script used more dogs and what Snyder called a "huge part of the movie" involved them training all of these dogs to pull wagons over to Andy's Gun Store. During the attempt, the trained dogs were going to be overrun by zombie dogs. The idea was abandoned because it never actually put the characters in danger, just these random dogs. (Speaking of the dog scene, after the film's premiere, Christina Aguilera, of all people, approached Snyder and told him that she too would have run after the dog, which made him feel vindicated in making the change.)
Zack Snyder was the very first director who met with the producers about the film, which was back in 2001.
When you see the aerial shot of Ana's neighborhood (seen above), the helicopter used couldn't get the right shot of the neighborhood, so the bottom row of houses had to be created with CGI. Everyone overlooked the fact that none of the added houses had driveways leading to them which Snyder calls "A f**k up, but I love it."
Scenes were shot largely in chronological order because this was Snyder's first feature and it never even occurred to him things could be shot out of order. When they started production, he was advised to always shoot the last death scene first (which he didn't do). Even the actors were surprised they were starting chronologically.
The set for Ana's house was built entirely inside of an abandoned department store inside the mall.
The only two companies that agreed to allow their stores to be used in the mall were Roots and Panasonic, every other store is a fake front they had to build inside the mall (which was demolished not long after they wrapped). Snyder was particularly disappointed that Starbucks didn't want to be the coffee shop where many of the film's scenes take place. Apparently none of the companies wanted to be in a movie where their products could get sprayed with blood.
A nurse was hired to be the hands when Ana is sewing the sutures into Kenneth's wound. The makeup team built a prosthetic onto Ving Rhames' arm, with fake flesh on top and a plastic guard underneath that she was to sew. After the first take, Snyder told the nurse to "go deeper" on the arm, meaning to sew farther down, but she misunderstood and actually sewed deep enough to pierce the plastic and sew the whole thing to Rhames' actual arm. He never broke character, though, and it wasn't until Snyder called cut that Rhames said he couldn't do another take just yet. They ended up using the first take in the film.
When filming the scene where Bart and Terry throw Ben's body off the roof, there was a funeral procession at the church across from the mall and everyone leaving the church was shocked to see them tossing bodies in the air.
None of the other producers wanted to use Dick Cheese's cover of "Down with the Sickness" in the movie, but once Snyder put it in as a temp track everyone agreed the movie wouldn't be the same without it.
The scene where they have to go down the stairwell to the garage to reset the power was actually shot during the 2003 blackout that spread from Ontario to New York, which was the second largest blackout in history. They used generators to film it, and many of the cast and crew were concerned at the time because they couldn't reach their loved ones in NYC.
The close-up of the lighter igniting the gasoline in the parking garage was a shot that Snyder wanted but didn't get during production. He was later filming a Budweiser commercial in Canada, and set up that shot when no one was looking and took the footage back with him.
When Michael Kelly shoots the flare to light it, he's firing a real gun with blanks in it. Everyone was amazed it really did ignite the flare.
The footage during the end credits was only shot after test screening audiences responded poorly to the ending of Michael killing himself and then everyone sailing off into the ocean. It was filmed at Universal Studios in the same lake as the parting of the Red Seas attraction.
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