The digital image as virus in Dawn of the Dead (2004)


We’re going to the mall

It makes complete sense but then it’s so gratifying that like Fleischer’s experimental Inkwell shorts or Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1, the early adopters of digital did such significant work teasing it out as a medium before it became the invisible norm: Lynch’s bit rot, Mann’s real-time hyperconnectivity, Snyder’s virus. Dawn of the Dead‘s opening isolates and probes the textures of digital screens, at once leveraging their pre-aesthetic immediacy for the viewer, but also more than that, rupturing the images themselves for us to see. At a distance the images hold like any other, but up closer they fragment into digital artefacts, and then closer than that transform into porous containers of swarming individual bits. The act of rendering the images at once gives life and destroys them, as though the digital reproduction can infinitely proliferate but will never be stable — its only mode is to spread and distort.

In last century’s zombie movies the body of the film itself gets infected, slowing down and ambling toward the inevitable night, but here Snyder reveals the medium itself as the infection. The digital respects bodies insofar as it can seize them from the living, animate them, and then consume them from the inside before discarding them and moving on. We see the bits collecting, vibrating, and dispersing, off to find the next form to inhabit, own, devour. The speed with which they work is exhilarating, but their chaos underpins the form — Dawn of the Dead belongs in an already precarious future where the particles of every image are set to self-destruct like flies.

When the film begins, Snyder works at this same pace. Like his independent forebears there is the dual contradictory sense that its speed comes about through a lack of planning, as though we’ve just been thrown into something as it’s happening, but also rigorous storyboarding due to the expense of shooting, an efficiency achieved through plain good filmmaking. In close quarters, Dawn of the Dead is appallingly kinetic, quick, brutal, and intuitive. The spaces go where we expect them to go, the props hit with the gravity given to them in our world, the people move and tumble according to the force that hit them. A window leads outside, a siren in the left channel means an ambulance entering from the left, an open front door means something rushing out, a windshield can be broken, so can a wooden door. Basics when you mention it, but peculiarly rare to see this detail sustained as the spaces of the film are connected — a room is never just an isolated room. This might be Snyder’s love of videogames (a spatial medium where things have to connect), but it might just be that he thinks these things matter any way.

Romero had time spill out by making the film itself stretch, but Snyder’s ugly jagged image mimics the inexpensive, surplus heavy digital shoot, implying the passage of time by removing huge pockets of information, as though it was all shot coherently and then deleted when it was decided what did and did not contribute to the finished product. In the former an expensive medium loses its value, so ceases to be used only to capture action-oriented storytelling. Romero’s is humane because once its present value systems have collapsed, the focus and the form becomes life itself. In the twenty first century update, references to apocalypse are more clearly emphasised, but the characters and tone of the film hold that the apocalypse already happened and here we are, nothing changed. Borders are drawn and redrawn ad hoc and policed more strictly than ever before, and even surplus, drawn out in Romero’s vision through the now unlimited supplies of the mall, is managed through an enforced scarcity used to sustain the border necropolitics. Bodies are displaced, bodies are reanimated, bodies are devoured, bodies are deleted.

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