The Modern Zombie and Islamophobia: A Closer Look at Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead

By Jordan Laub

The title sequence for Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) opens with a short clip of a Muslim mosque during prayer followed by a series of still images, short clips and segmented audio that depicts the back-story of the film through fragments of the zombie contagion’s genesis. With journalists reporting in poor quality from a foreign desert and American soldiers in beige fatigues, the imagery of the title sequence is curiously strange for the remake of a film set entirely in a suburban strip mall in the heart of America. But, why would a remake of George A. Romero’s cult classic, Dawn of the Dead (1978), which is widely accepted as a metaphor for the mindless consumerism of American culture, open with a clip of a Muslim mosque during prayer? What does a back-story portraying elements of the ‘War on Terror’ have in common with a zombie contagion set entirely in an American strip mall? Although a generation of mindless shoppers trapped in vicious cycles of over-consumption still plagues American society, it is not at the forefront of its subconscious, nor is it what gives Snyder’s remake its terrifying appeal. By reinventing Romero’s zombie as a fast-moving, highly dangerous and contagious organism, Snyder has embodied the media’s portrayal of fanatical Islamic terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS in the zombie. When re-analyzing Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) with its socio-political backdrop firmly in the mind of its audience, the relevance of the film’s bizarre title sequence becomes disconcertingly clear: Snyder’s zombie is a manifestation of radical Islam.

Dawn of the Dead debuted in American theatres in 2004, just three years after the official dawn of the ‘War on Terror.’ Its debut was part of an explosion in popularity of zombie films that occurred immediately after 9/11 and still continues today. In the 2000s, zombies appeared in 10% of theatrical releases, and in the 2010s, that number increased to 13% (IMDB 2015). This boost in popularity of zombie films coincides with the emergence of a new sect of radical Islamic insurgents, ISIS. One explanation for this boost in popularity coinciding with the growth of ISIS is that the zombie contagion is rather effective at portraying America’s real-world enemy. As explained by Andrew Schopp, author of The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: “The label of terrorist possesses an ontological blankness strikingly similar to that of the zombie, as they are both outward physical threats to western civilization whose inner motivations remain hidden from view. They are both also sufficiently Othered as Monstrous” (Schopp 35). According to mainstream media, America is at war with a radically dangerous, and extremely contagious superbug. Although the disease itself is invisible, the infected are immediately discernible from the healthy and the number of infected is exponentially increasing. The name of this contagion is radical Islam.  

Midway through the title sequence of Dawn of the Dead (2004), after a brief glimpse of American soldiers equipped with gasmasks, an audio recording from a CDC press conference regarding the zombie contagion begins and is audible for the remainder of the title sequence. The dialogue between the reporters and the CDC commissioner is equally fitting for that of a press conference on the spread of religious extremism and ensuing threat of terrorism, as it is for the film’s zombie contagion: “Is it a virus? We don’t know. How does it spread, is it airborne? Airborne is a possibility, we don’t know. Is this a national health hazard, or a military concern? Both. Are these people alive, or dead? We don’t know” (Snyder 2004). Interrupting the video feed to this conference are brief sequences of cell division and other bimolecular processes. American politicians, and news and media sources alike, all explain the military expansion of Islamic radical insurgents in terms of a viral contagion. During his speech at the Reagan Library, 2016 Presidential candidate, Jeb Bush stated, “Radical Islamic terrorists are one of the gravest threats facing our country,“ and he then described the influence of ISIS as “spreading like a pandemic” (Bush 2015). This pandemic first spread to the American homeland on February 5, 2002, when American citizen and notorious traitor, John Walker Lindh, was indicted for conspiracy to murder US citizens and conspiracy to contribute services to Al Qaeda. Described by President George W. Bush as “the first American Al Qaeda fighter” (Bush 2001), Lindh became patient zero for the contagion outbreak. With Lindh declared guilty in 2003, the threat of domestic terrorism perpetrated by those infected with a dangerous ideology became very real, a theme most evident in the likeness of Snyder’s zombie to a suicide bomber.

Perhaps the most terrifying moment in all of zombie cinema occurs at 16:37 of the unrated director’s cut for Dawn of the Dead, a scene that was omitted from theatrical, and standard DVD release. While the group of survivors struggles to escape from a passing horde of undead by forcing entry into the mall, one of the infected suddenly breaks from his zombie horde and charges towards the group. Despite being shot a total of six times, the zombie remains at a full sprint, unphased by the bullets. Arriving at the door just before it is sealed, the zombie blocks the door from closing with a heavily bleeding severed arm, waving it in the face of the survivors, splashing its highly-infectious blood into the faces of its victims. More disturbing than the scene’s gut-wrenching tension is its striking similarity to a suicide bombing. Brandishing a black tank top, the infected man wears a form of a suicide vest, only without the explosives. Instead of a detonator in his right hand, the zombie uses its severed right arm as the tool for his zombie jihad. Charging towards the group at full-speed, and splashing blood in the face of its victims, the jihad zombie similarly relies upon physical proximity to deliver its lethal payload. Snyder’s zombie manifests the subconscious attributes of a radicalized ‘terrorist’: ruthless, unwavering, and utterly terrifying. According to Stephen King, “that’s exactly what Snyder’s zombies are, it seems to me: fast-moving terrorists who never quit” (King xxi). The only cure to Snyder’s jihad zombies and their unwavering reign of terror is a bullet to the head–the physical destruction of the mind.

Throughout the film, there is a constant reiteration of the necessity to shoot the zombie in the head. At 27:02 of the unrated director’s cut, the survivors gather around a TV in the mall that displays an interview between a reporter and the county sheriff discussing how to kill a zombie. “I understand you’re having a difficult time killing these things. Just shoot em’ in the head. They seem to go down permanently when you shoot em’ in the head… It’s gotta’ be done” (Snyder 2004). After hearing the last line of the interview, CJ points to the TV with a smile and states, “What did I tell you boys? America always sorts its shit out” (Snyder 2004). This is the first time in the film America is referenced in connection with the contagion. CJ’s statement connotes the sheriff’s indiscriminate execution of the infected as the American solution, and thus, the only solution. By shooting the victim in the head the threat is eliminated by removing the infected body’s ability to think as well as its ability to spread infection. This exchange also probes the audience to consider the survivors as American and the zombie as a foreign invader. This concept of the survivors as America’s defenders vs. the foreign hordes is most evident in the ‘identify and execute’ game.

The reading of Dawn of the Dead (2004) as a manifestation of the ‘War on Terror’ would be wholly incomplete without a segment of the film dedicated to the idolization of the American military sniper; fortunately, a significant portion of the film concerns Andy, a blond-haired Caucasian, who sits atop his perch above the gun store adjacent from the mall armed with a sniper rifle. Sporting shaggy-hair, combat boots, and a tan-green undershirt reminiscent of the kind warn beneath the armor of American soldiers in Afghanistan, Andy certainly matches the military sniper stereotype. On the command of Kenneth (the police officer who acts as Andy’s spotter), Andy locates the zombie with the characteristics corresponding to the name written on Kenneth’s whiteboard and shoots the target in the head–a simplification of the process used by the American military to order the assassination of an enemy combatant. When reading the mall as a symbol for America and Andy as its heroic defender, the walls of the mall become America’s geographical borders and Andy as its American sniper. Needing only one shot per kill, Andy’s excellent marksmanship evokes awe in and praise from the group. After watching his art through binoculars, Tucker states, “wow, he’s good” (Snyder 2004). This idolization of Andy’s marksmanship can be attributed to his manifestation as the model agent for the American solution. Methodically taking headshot after headshot in defense of the homeland, and eventually losing his life in the line of duty, Andy symbolizes the perfect patriot; a hero dedicated to eradicating the growing pandemic, one bullet at a time.

The subversion of reason and morality is a common theme throughout the film as humane treatment of sick persons is eschewed and the persona of the callous executioner becomes necessary for survival. The audience is probed to perceive the characters that defend the lives of the infected as weak and whose actions compromise the group’s probability of survival. After learning that the contagion is transmitted through oral contact with an infected individual, Ana, the voice of morality and reason, advocates for the bitten to be quarantined; however, to the approval of the other survivors, Michael decides those who have been infected must be immediately exterminated, stating, “it is too dangerous to keep them around here” (Snyder 2004). As the body begins to show symptoms of infection, physical touch becomes taboo, and scenes depicting a proximity to the flesh of the infected body become utterly repulsive. Just before the transformation is complete, the infected ‘die’ and are reborn as a zombie terrorist. This process of reanimation graphically materializes the conversion of a healthy mind into that of the enemy—an irreversible transformation of the American into the monstrous ‘other;’ a transformation that warrants immediate extermination in the name of self-preservation. When perceiving empathy as detrimental to survival and the persona of the callous executioner as necessary, self-preservation becomes the characters’ unilateral justification for unspeakable acts of violence. This is the very same rationale used to justify the ‘War on Terror.’

Perhaps it is for this reason the remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) coincides with the dawn of the ‘War on Terror’–the concept of a group of survivors defending an American mall from a horde of terrorists is again relevant. It is not difficult to view the mall as a symbol for America and the zombie as the Islamic terrorist threatening its culture; after all, shopping is America’s favorite past time and its second is the over-consumption of media that relies on terrorism to sell the ‘news.’ The irony of a nation openly at war with terrorism, yet whose media constantly uses fear mongering to portray its enemy is not lost on Andrew Schopp, “it proves rather ironic that we are fighting a war on terror outside our national borders since the real terror seems to be occurring within them” (Schopp 2009). What makes Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead such a terrifying film is that it is an accurate manifestation of the monster haunting the post 9/11 American psyche. Snyder’s zombie contagion is the symptom of a subconscious utterly paranoid of infection with a fast-spreading, borderless contagion that threatens the very existence of the American consumer, and thus, American culture itself.

Works Cited

Dawn of the Dead: Unrated Director’s Cut. Dir. Zach Snyder. Perf. Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames and Jake Weber. Universal Pictures, 2004.

“Jeb Bush: ISIS is ‘spreading like a Pandemic'” CBS News. CBS Interactive, 2015, Accessed 10 Mar. 2016.

Lindh, Frank. “How John Walker Lindh Became ‘Detainee 001″ The Nation. N.p., 29 Aug. 2014, Accessed 10 Mar. 2016.

“Movie Monsters that Ruled the Big Screen By Decade.” Imgur. IMDB, 2015, Accessed 10 Mar. 2016.

King, Stephen. Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. Everest House, 2010.

Schopp, Andrew, and Matthew B. Hill. The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009.