Things I Learned from Movie X:
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
By Edwin Davies
November 8, 2010

This is why I hate Black Friday sales.

Hello, class. Sorry that I've been away for so long, but I've been away on a series of adventures with my crimefighting partner Seymour "Skinnyboy" Skinner, each sexier and more exciting than the last. Sadly, Skinnyboy got arrested for identity theft, and since I'm on the lam as an accomplice, I'm going to lie low and resume regular service here at Things I Learned From Movie X Towers. At least until the heat dies down.

In between the last edition of this column and this one, Halloween happened, and as is my annual tradition I went around to a friend's house and spent much of the day watching scary movies. Among the selection this year was Zack Snyder's remake of George A. Romero's classic zombie movie/anti-consumerist tract Dawn of the Dead. I'm not sure what the general consensus on the remake is, but I like it an awful lot. Unlike a lot of horror remakes, it is willing to move away from the original, instead using the setup as a playground for its own story. However, it does have a reputation for not being as intellectually nousrishing as its source material, a statement that I would challenge since there is much to learn from Dawn of the Dead if you are willing to listen.

Johnny Cash makes everything one thousand times cooler. This is indisputable, mathematical fact.

The first time I watched Dawn of the Dead, I had my doubts about it. I loved the original, didn't like the idea of fast zombies (as opposed to the infected in 28 Days Later, which I love because they aren't fast zombies but really fast, really angry people) or the prospect of the slow, methodical pace of the original being swapped for a balls-out action romp. Within the first ten minutes, though, I was won over. As soon as Sarah Polley crashed her car and Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around" started up, I knew that this was my sort of film. The already adrenaline-pumping intro, complete with a zombie child, rogue ambulances and exploding cars, was kicked up to a whole other level by Cash's rich, sonorous tale of the end of the world, which perfectly matched the sense of a world coming apart at the seams that the opening suggested.

For further proof that Johnny Cash can make anything cool, just check out the terrible, terrible Dane Cook vehicle Good Luck Chuck, which uses the same song towards the end and for a brief moment, thanks to the timeless cool of J. R. Cash, almost becomes cool in itself. Then it turns into the same old tired shit again, so your world won't be knocked off its axis for too long if you do watch it.

Zombies love braaaaaaains and teeeeeeension.

On the DVD commentary for Shaun of the Dead, also released in 2004, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg joke about the hitherto unknown phenomena of zombies choosing to stand perfectly still until the characters have finished talking. Similarly, in Dawn of the Dead zombies display, along with a feral bloodlust, an innate understanding of how to create tension and time their attacks for maximum effect. At one point, several human characters go down into a parking garage to turn the generator on. After they get it on, they hear an eerie noise. They investigate. A shadow flits across the ground. They tense up. The audience tenses up. Then suddenly, a doggy walks into the light! Just as we're all calming down, a legless zombie flies across the screen on what appears to be a zip line and drops onto one of the more anonymous characters. Suddenly, the garage is filled with zombies, the horde having decided that they wouldn't strike until the moment was just right. It makes you wonder if those rumours about Alfred Hitchcock being half-zombie that I just started are really true.

At some point, Phil Dunphy went a bit screwy.

In between the release of Dawn of the Dead and now, Ty Burrell made the leap from being a memorable supporting actor in movies to becoming one of the breakout stars of ABC's Modern Family. As a result, I now think of him almost solely as Phil Dunphy and his performance in Dawn of the Dead, whilst one of the best things about the film, was distracting for me in a way that it never was before. In order to account for the disparity between how Burrell acted in the film and how I think of him, I started to play a game in which the aim was to explain how "Phil" wound up as the acerbic comic relief in a zombie apocalypse. Warning: The following contains spoilers for the fictional Sixth Season of Modern Family.

So, after one well-intentioned screw-up too many, Claire got divorced from Phil and got custody of the kids. This sent Phil off the deep end, he started drinking and his goofy sense of humour curdled into a caustic, misanthropic defense mechanism. Then Claire died in a freak skiing accident (in a bid to improve flagging ratings, producers made the ill-advised decision to make the cast wear skis for the first 13 episodes of the season) before changing her will, so the now bitter and twisted Phil inherits a sizable amount. He buys a boat, starts hanging out with topless women, then accidentally wanders into an undead maelstrom.

Other plotlines in Modern Family Season Six: Jay gets a head transplant so that, from then onwards, his face is played by Ed O'Neill but his body is played by an uncredited Gerard Butler; Hayley starts taking advice from a psychic bluejay that only she can see; and Lily kills Manny with an iron. (OMG it's sooooo shocking! And a cliffhanger ending, too!)

Always watch the credits. ALWAYS watch the credits...

The first time I watched Dawn of the Dead was on TV late at night a few years ago, and as soon as the credits started I changed the channel. This time around, I was with friends, so I didn't have the option to turn the TV off and as a result wound up catching the end credits for the first time ever. For anyone who hasn't seen the film already, a series of Cloverfield-style home videos shot by the surviving characters play out over the credits which show their attempts to get to an island where they think they will be safe from the zombie hordes. Needless to say, they're wrong, and it's one of the rare instances in which what happens after the movie ends completely reverses the actual ending of the film. It's as if, during the credits for Seven, Gwyneth Paltrow had arrived in a cab and said, "I've been at my sister's for a few days, what's going on? Why is there a plaster cast of my head in that box?"