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Dawn of the Dead

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The actor recalls his first meeting with the filmmakers as “serendipitous...we were finishing each other’s sentences by the end of it. What interested me about Michael was how he realizes what he’s capable of, the level he can rise to when suddenly confronted with this—there’s no other word for it—this war. He fights to preserve the last vestiges of humanity in an insane world, and it totally surprises him, this newfound talent, as he realizes that the only alternative to cowardice in this unreasonable situation is courage.”

“If Ana is the heart and moral center of the group then Michael is the conscience, caring about the group practically,” adds Snyder. One of the roles the filmmakers considered most challenging was Andre, a streetwise husband who is trying to do right by his pregnant wife.

“He is guy who in this situation finds himself asking the big questions...like is there a hell? And he realizes that if there is, he may very well be going there. So he sets a course for redemption and in doing so, lies to the group and pays a steep price for it,” says Newman.

“We needed a great actor who could embody that turmoil and Mekhi Phifer is the real deal,” adds Snyder. Known for his roles in a variety of films and as Dr. Greg Pratt on the hit series ER, Mekhi Phifer drew warranted critical attention with his moving portrayal of Future in 8 Mile. No stranger to horror films (having starred as Tyrell in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer), Phifer was not primarily interested in the horror elements of the film.

Phifer explains, “While, yeah, there are zombies in this movie—and freaky ones at that—most of the time they really are a backdrop to the very human story of what goes on within the group of survivors. No offense to James Gunn or Zack or the producers, but you could replace the zombies with anything that people would be hiding from. But whatever it is, and in this case it is zombies, it forces the characters into a confined space and it forces them to deal with themselves and each other. That is what really drew me to the project.”

Phifer was also glad to work in the company of his co-stars, who were amply suited to bring this character-driven horror film to the screen. He continues, “I really enjoy working with this cast, particularly Ving. We have a poignant scene together, where I’m really thinking about all of these issues that have come up because of this insane life-and-death situation...like what happens when you die? Is there a heaven or hell? And I turn to him.”

Rounding out the exceptional and varied cast are such actors as Ty Burrell, who plays Steve, a successful businessman with a cynical streak; Michael Kelly as CJ, a mall security guard who finds his power usurped; Kevin Zegers as the younger security guard Terry; and Lindy Booth as Nicole, a later addition to the mall survivors.

With a tipping of the hat to the original Dawn of the Dead, filmmakers were also able to cast actors from the original production for cameo roles: seminal makeup artist Tom Savini is the Sheriff; Scott Reiniger, who starred as Roger DeMarco in the original, is the General; and Ken Foree, who starred as Peter Washington, plays the Televangelist.

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Filmmakers keen on re-envisioning a classic are also aware that the semi-dead of three decades ago would hardly be considered as menacingly adversarial today. With new times come new zombies.

And just as Snyder approached this Dawn in a “fresh, new way,” he and Gunn imagined their post-plague world with zombies that “needed to be a real threat—you just can’t walk right by them. When our dead walk, you run.” In 2004, zombies are quick and supernaturally strong, with the single-minded killing drive of a shark that smells blood in the water. And once a human is bitten and dies, the transformation into one is nearly instantaneous with death. So the numbers grow exponentially as more humans succumb.

“Zombies are cool, and our zombies are really cool,” continues Snyder. “They act like a pack—very wolf-like, which is important in order for the audience to buy this ride. They have to believe the zombie threat is real—that if you confront a zombie oneon-one, you may be able to escape, but against more than one, you’d better run. There’s never really a chance of winning...if you’re lucky you’ll get away in one piece.”

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2005 Entertainment Magazine / EMOL.org