The Rise and Fall and Rise of Zack Snyder: Part 1

We're taking a deep dive into the filmography of Zack Snyder, arguably one of the most divisive directors of our time.

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After the success of Zack Snyder’s Justice League and with the upcoming release of Army of the Dead, we here at PHASR are taking a dive into the filmography of a decisive yet singular director.

Since bursting onto the scene with his daring remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie classic Dawn of the Dead in 2004, Zack Snyder’s filmography has been divisive. Nearly every single one of his comic book adaptations has been met with critical acclaim and derision alike. Both his detractors and supporters are equally vocal in their views on the man himself and his singular style of movies. I mean, it’s pretty easy to pick out a Snyder flick from any line-up. Over the coming weeks, we at Ghoulish Media look back at Snyder’s directing career and all the highs and lows found within.

It takes a pair of balls the size of a kaiju to remake a horror classic. Both John Carpenter and David Cronenberg did this with their amazing remakes of The Thing From Another World and The Fly. Other attempts have not been as lucky. But when Zack Snyder exploded onto the scene with his cinematic debut in 2004 with a more stylistic and at times over-the-top re-imagining of the Romero classic, nobody expected it to work.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Zack Snyder
Dawn Of The Dead (2004)

And boy, this is one of the best horror remakes out there. From the opening sequence that is at once both intimate and grand in scale, we see Ana (Sarah Polley) going about her life as a nurse. Throughout these moments, though, she and the audience begin to notice strange things; unsettling things are beginning to happen across the world.

This leads into a tense scene at Ana’s house involving her husband and a neighborhood child that continues into a chase that then cuts to the opening credits, with Johnny Cash’s voice telling us what sort of movie we’re in for. (Fun fact: the studio didn’t want to use Cash’s The Man Comes Around nor Richard Cheese’s cover of Down With The Sickness, but Snyder pushed, and both sequences are standout moments in the movie)

The thing about Dawn of the Dead 2004 is that Romero himself didn’t like the one massive change Snyder and writer James Gunn gave to their version of the story: fast zombies. I understand that slow zombies are scary in their own way, that slow-moving horde that will inevitably catch up and swallow you. But fast zombies are scarier just because they can get you sooner, and the way they move is almost like a hive mind. By swapping the typical slow-moving ones for the fast rageaholic kind, Snyder ups the intensity of his Dawn of the Dead.

One of the biggest criticisms this movie faces is that it doesn’t care about the characters and instead focuses on the violence and the action (more on that later). While yes, there are moments when the survivors seem to be emotionless, this isn’t Snyder’s fault directly. Remember that James Gunn wrote the script, and the actors make their own choices, and to be honest, this isn’t your father’s zombie movie.

And yes, some character moments don’t ring true, but then we get some amazing moments from Ving Rhames’ cop, Kenneth. Especially the relationship he develops with another survivor hiding out across the parking lot in a gunshop. Also, there is a quiet moment towards the end between Ana and Michael (Jake Weber) that packs a punch.

Before we continue, let’s get this out of the way. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is an action movie with elements of horror. This is not a bad thing, mainly because it gives the classic tale a new edge that we hadn’t seen yet with a zombie movie.

This is a movie that has three distinct stages. The first is the opening, focusing on Ana and then meeting the central characters. After that, we have the previously mentioned montage set to Richard Cheese. This shows everyone settling into their daily lives with a couple of fine sequences; the parking lot sequence and the zombie baby. Once we pass that turning point, Dawn of the Dead becomes a much darker, almost full-on apocalyptic movie with the majority of characters biting the dust (spoilers!) as they launch an escape. During the end credits, we are even shown a chilling found footage sequence of what happened to the survivors.

A lot of people have said that Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead doesn’t understand the source material. They feel that Snyder missed the point of the slow zombies and chose to focus on the carnage, gore, and general action while ignoring the characters. I disagree with these comments. Yes, Snyder’s predilection is to prioritize the visuals and action, but his Dawn of the Dead was part of the zombie renaissance of the early 2000s.

This was the period that gave us 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and the original run of the comic series The Walking Dead. Snyder made his version of a zombie movie, which will be a recurring theme throughout this article; a man doing his own thing.

All Snyder did was show us how a more action-driven take on the subgenre can work. In saying that, though, this isn’t Snyder’s best movie, nor is it his worst. And the same can be said for it as an entry in the long history of zombie movies.

Snyder’s next film would be the start of a run of movies that would come to define his style perfectly.

300 (2006)

300 (2006)

Here’s a crazy idea: take an ancient battle, make it into a Hollywood sword and sandal epic, then have one of the craziest comic book artists/writers watch that, and then do their own version of the story. Finally, get Zack Snyder to direct it. Know what you get?

You get one of the most perfect comic book adaptations ever created, Frank Miller’s 300

Based on one of the most heroic and inspiring last stands in the history of war, 300 comes from the ‘Battle of Thermopylae’ in which the Spartan King Leonidas, played beautifully by Gerard Butler, led three-hundred of his personal guard against the forces of the Persian Empire, led by Xerxes I (Rodrigo Santoro). This is as over-the-top and bombastic a retelling of a historical event as any out there, with all the Frank Miller-isms on full display.

Now do keep in mind that the comic was released in 1998, back when Miller was putting out hit after hit and his creativity was high. But even still, some of his stylistic flourishes and characteristics back then were always problematic. Let’s save that discussion for another day.

Just like the previous year’s other Frank Miller adaptation, Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, 300 was filmed on a digital backlot. This is where the movie is shot on large green screens or blue screens, and then all of the sets are digitally added. For 300, all that the actors had to work with were their imaginations, props, and a couple of moveable rocks for specific scenes.

This raises the question, why did Snyder decide to make 300 using this production technique?

Easy! Just look at any panel from the comic and compare it to the relevant shot from the movie. Snyder wanted to be as faithful to the art as possible. When it’s prime Frank Miller, you’d be crazy not to! By all accounts, Snyder made copies of the individual panels, then reverse-engineered the previous shots and the following ones to create the entire movie.

And what a movie it is! Glorious in every way; each shot a piece of art (many cannot deny that Snyder has one of the best visual eyes) with the action looking as if it was ripped from the pages. Bloody and filled with Snyder’s use of speed ramps and slow motion (everything looks better in slow motion).

This was actually my introduction to Zack Snyder and his particular way of making movies, with style and tone taking the front seat. And it made me an instant fan; like other fans of the man, most have to agree 300 is one of his better moves.

Of course, like any historical fiction, be it literature or movie, there are plenty of historical inaccuracies. This is to be expected, especially with the unique way 300 came about. Remember, this is a movie based on a comic based on an older movie based on an ancient battle. One would be crazy to expect historical fidelity. Even Frank Miller himself had plenty to say about the inaccuracies present in the comic:

The inaccuracies, almost all of them, are intentional. I took those chest plates and leather skirts off of them for a reason. I wanted these guys to move and I wanted ’em to look good. I knocked their helmets off a fair amount, partly so you can recognize who the characters are. Spartans, in full regalia, were almost indistinguishable except at a very close angle. Another liberty I took was, they all had plumes, but I only gave a plume to Leonidas, to make him stand out and identify him as a king. I was looking for more an evocation than a history lesson.

Frank Miller, How ”300” went from the page to the screen EW Interview

Which, when you think about it, makes perfect sense. In a visual medium, being able to see and recognize  each of the main characters was imperative (and still is in regards to all movies and comics). Hiding them behind the exact same looking armor would make battle scenes hectic and impossible to follow, especially when Snyder is doing the battle scenes, which brings us to the Spartans themselves. By all accounts, these people were not the nicest in the land, and Miller once again made a choice in how he wanted to depict them that affected how Snyder showed them.

The same can be said for the additions made by Snyder. In Miller’s original work, once the 300 Spartans leave for Thermopylae, Sparta and the other characters disappear. When it came to the movie version, Miller wanted it to remain a boy’s movie, and honestly, this is one of the biggest problems with most of Miller’s stories; anytime a woman appears in one of his stories, she tends to be portrayed as an object.

They are something for the heroic man to aspire towards being with or save from the villains. Even his tough female characters are like this. Look at Wonder Woman in Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. In 300, Queen Gorgo only appears in a couple of panels, and even then, she doesn’t say or do much, but then in comes Snyder, who had a completely different idea. He wanted to expand upon Queen Gorgo (Lean Headey) and show more of Sparta:

I would say it’s probably 90-percent the book, there is maybe 10-percent that I added which was the Queen’s storyline and we did that initially to remind people of the ‘why we fight’ part of it. You get all the way up there to Thermopylae and suddenly Sparta becomes abstract. I wanted to remind people. Once we got into that, we started to realize that we had to figure out what the queen was about. There’s a line in the graphic novel where Gorgo says,

‘Come back with your shield or on it,’ which was attributed to her in history. In my research I found oh here’s another thing, ‘only Spartan women give birth to real men.’ That was another line I found attributed to her. I thought gosh, if you combined those two, wow, what kind of character is that? Who is that woman who said those things? That’s really what we used to sort of build her and flesh her out.

Zack Snyder, interview with comingsoon.net

The other thing about both the comic version and the movie version of 300 is that the way the story is told is nothing more than that epic end of the movie speech. You know what I’m talking about. Just reading the final lines from the character and narrator Dilios (David Wenham) drives my point home:

“Now, here on this ragged patch of earth called Plataea, Xerxes’s hordes face obliteration! Just there the barbarians huddle, sheer terror gripping tight their hearts with icy fingers… knowing full well what merciless horrors they suffered at the swords and spears of three hundred. Yet they stare now across the plain at *ten thousand* Spartans commanding thirty thousand free Greeks! HA-OOH! The enemy outnumber us a paltry three to one, good odds for any Greek. This day we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny and usher in a future brighter than anything we can imagine. Give thanks, men, to Leonidas and the brave 300! TO VICTORY!”

Dilios (David Wenham), 300

Another aspect that was done on purpose in regards to historical inaccuracies is that the entire movie is from the Spartans’ point of view:

I’d say 300 is a movie that is made from the Spartan perspective. Not just from the Spartan perspective, the cameras are the Spartans, but it’s the Spartans’ sensibility of the Battle of Thermopylae. If you had Spartans sitting around a fire and they were telling you, before anything was written down, what happened at Thermopylae, this is the way they would tell it. It’s not necessarily down to the fact that they don’t have armor on. Everything about it is just to make the Spartans more heroic.

Zack Snyder,  interview with comingsoon.net

The story of 300 is one to rally the men; it is pure propaganda told by an expert storyteller, Dilios. So, of course, there are going to be inaccuracies and the occasional less than proper description of a people. But this is a movie based on a comic by the guy who gave us Sin City AND Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

And one of the constant arguments thrown at Snyder is that he doesn’t understand the source material of what he’s adapting. If you’re looking for a clear counter-argument to that then Snyder’s next adaptation (this time Alan Moore’s seminal masterpiece) shows the man knows exactly what he’s doing.

Join us next week as we discuss the 2009 adaptation of Watchmen and the closest he’ll ever come to making a kid’s movie, 2010’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.

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