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and Jørgen Leth

Zombie movies, much like the walking dead themselves, are indomitable. The cinema of the undead is perpetually popular for one simple reason: There’s no better venue for splattering brains. Or rolling heads. Or puncturing carotid arteries. Zombie hordes offer ample fodder for the deployment of the latest in body-rending technology, and there’s nothing the fanboys and -girls love more than a new way to undo the undead.

Typically, however, creativity doesn’t ride shotgun with a guaranteed fan base: Why put yourself out to make something original when the teeming masses are going to come anyway? For some reason, that didn’t occur to George A. Romero, whose Dawn of the Dead, the 1978 sequel to his Night of the Living Dead, managed to please the Fangoria types while turning the conventions of the undead bloodfest on their necrotic ear. OK, maybe Romero isn’t the master of subtle metaphor, but he deploys the bountiful shopping-mall-bound corpses with such wit and aplomb that the ham-handed message about consumerism goes down easy. Plus, it’s just fun to see drooling zombies lying on escalators.

Given Dawn’s sacred position in the zombie canon, it’s hard to imagine a remake that wouldn’t pay homage to Romero’s genius in the field of corpse reanimation. But from the outset of Zack Snyder’s 2004 version, it’s clear that the debut feature director isn’t shy about leaving his own imprint. Unlike most horror flicks, the new Dawn of the Dead wastes no time establishing mood: Within the first few frames, a maniacal child zombie has ravaged the neck of young nurse Ana’s husband, who then sprints after her as cars careen into people and houses and each other. Everywhere, it seems, things are on fire. Snyder then pulls back, using bird’s-eye shots to extend from the neighborhood to the world at large: Before the credits roll, most everything and everyone has been destroyed by the inexplicable zombie plague.

Snyder’s scorched-earth policy leaves our protagonists, breathlessly, outside the Crossroads Mall. Besides Ana (Sarah Polley), there’s the rough-hewn cop (Ving Rhames), a dutiful husband (Mekhi Phifer) and his very pregnant wife (Inna Korobkina), and a garden-variety bland guy (Jake Weber). After teaming up with mall security and a crew of late arrivals, they while away the time as the corpse hordes bang on the glass doors downstairs. In one funny sequence, the captives write out the names of celebrities on a whiteboard, and the gun-store owner on the roof across the street caps the zombie that looks like, say, Burt Reynolds.

Though the first Dawn’s cheekiness is ever-present in James Gunn’s witty screenplay—when the frightened survivors first enter the mall, they’re soothed by a Muzak version of “Don’t Worry Be Happy”—its consumers-as-zombies message is almost entirely absent. A crucial difference between this Dawn and the Romero original is that rather than parade mindlessly through the food court, the zombies run around outside.The choice of MTV vet Snyder to direct ensured that this Dawn would be stripped of anything resembling the shuffling hordes of yore—asking a music-video director to film shuffling is like charging a coke addict with threading a needle.

So yes, Snyder is skillful in his use of music—especially Johnny Cash’s creepy “The Man Comes Around,” which plays over the opening credits. And he has a good grasp of fast-slow-fast horror pacing, too. But he also goes beyond-video big with the visuals, often with breathtaking results. A scene in which the undead fill the screen and then start to shake a pair of buses like a rowdy crowd at a rock concert is almost beautiful in its depiction of mayhem. That this Dawn owes less to Romero than to the amped- and arted-up likes of 28 Days Later doesn’t destroy the movie—it just means that there’s no real reason it takes place in a mall. But, hey, I guess you’ve got to kill the zombies somewhere.

Lars von Trier certainly isn’t a horror director, but he does use film as a torture device. In Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, the filmmaker brutalized leading ladies Emily Watson and Björk with such perverse melodrama that any reasonable audience would be moved to tears, screams, or both. Von Trier’s films are compelling but fundamentally dishonest in their coding of pain for honesty. The director who co-founded the austere Dogma 95 movement, with its prohibitions against sets, lighting, and the like, isn’t so much concerned with truth and authenticity, it seems, as with the most stylized kind of fiction.

In the documentary The Five Obstructions, von Trier indulges his twin obsessions: creating artificial barriers to filmmaking and fucking with people he respects. The film co-stars von Trier and the man he claims is his idol, Jørgen Leth, the director of the 1967 short The Perfect Human. That film, which is shown in snippets throughout, is an alternately endearing and annoying faux-anthropological study of a man in a tuxedo eating, dancing, shaving, and falling as Leth asks, “What does the perfect human eat?” (and so on) in voice-over. The project of Obstructions is for Leth to remake The Perfect Human five times, with von Trier giving him different lists of required working conditions. As von Trier says: Leth’s film is “a little gem that we’re now going to ruin.”

Von Trier clearly relishes his role as the godlike überdirector: He orders Leth to make his first movie in Cuba based on a passing comment that he enjoys Cuban cigars. Then there’s the requirement that each shot can’t be longer than 12 frames, which causes Leth to complain, “He’s ruining it from the start.” The resultant film is exhilarating, with Leth’s jerky cuts adding a stop-motion veneer to the perfect human’s stylized movements. Leth is clearly pleased with himself. So for the next version of the film, von Trier announces, “I’d like to send you to the most miserable place on Earth.”

And so the friendly game of sadomasochism continues. It’s hard to tell how much, if at all, Leth is aggrieved by most of von Trier’s requirements, but he seems genuinely unnerved by his fellow Dane’s perpetual claim that he’d “be thrilled if it was crap.” Von Trier’s complaint that “You always try to be too good” gets no traction with Leth: Though he does genuinely attempt to please his master, he can’t force himself to make a film that he doesn’t enjoy himself.

Though Obstructions purports to be an exercise in the forms of filmmaking, the process of re-creating The Perfect Human is interesting only in the light it reflects on its participants. By the end, when von Trier and Leth film themselves watching a film of their filmed experiences together, the whole thing starts to feel more like self-abuse than self-therapy, it’s true. But if it’s all very dirty and disgusting, it’s also so incredibly shameful that you can’t look away. CP