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A first-time director breathes new life into 'Dead's' zombies

Zack Snyder, 38, jumps from commercials to box-office gold with his horror-classic homage.

March 23, 2004|Erin Ailworth | Times Staff Writer

Zack Snyder is a "really smart 6-year-old kid who knows how to make movies."

At least that's how one cast member described the 38-year-old director of "Dawn of the Dead," the hip horror remake that dislodged "The Passion of the Christ" from the top of the box-office chart. Snyder admits to being goofy, but the man -- who describes himself as too old to be a "wunderkind" in the TV-ad world and too new in Hollywood to "be an old-school cat" -- said he knows pretty much zippo about movies. This is his first.

"Basically, in the last 10 years I've been cranking out TV commercials like a maniac," he said. This involved jet-setting to exotic locations for whirlwind two-day shoots, hard-core multi-tasking and simple plot lines often involving fast cars, beautiful actors who don't need a lot of direction, and sometimes even lingerie.

"You miss your kids' childhood if you are into that," Snyder said. Considering that the father of six (ages 3 to 10, four of his own plus two adopted) is the type who set aside his Saturday for a round of kiddie birthday parties, a change of pace was in order.

So Snyder decided to try his hand at being George A. Romero.

"I got the camera, and I said, 'This is nuts,' " he said of directing what the zombie fan calls a "re-envisioning" of Romero's cult classic. "I've got actors and I've got to tell them what to do? They could write books on what to do."

But the schedule was so rigorous, Snyder said, there was no time for whining.

"I was a pretty serious fish-out-of-water at the beginning," he said. "I think the experience of not knowing was fun. I still don't know, I'm still naive."

What Snyder calls naivete, however, is what Strike Entertainment producer Marc Abraham calls "fresh."

Abraham said he and fellow producer Eric Newman didn't want someone who had "just pounded away making horror movies" and who was thinking, "I've been here before."

"There was no question after meeting [Snyder] that this was a guy who was going to bring every ounce of his heart and soul and viscera to the movie," Abraham said. "But he was willing to listen to people with more experience."

Snyder only had two rules while shooting the movie: be true to himself, and avoid making a movie for the cult fans.

"I like to think George ... made a movie he wanted to see," Snyder said. It's a "personal film" with a strong message about mass consumerism.

In contrast, "my movie is like an Urban Oufitters T-shirt," Snyder said. "When you've got it on you feel like, 'God, this was made for me.' But you know what? It was made in a factory."

This movie, he said, knows it's a zombie movie and "nothing is worse than the zombies."

And he picks them off with relish -- especially zombies Burt Reynolds and Jay Leno.

"Once you are absorbed into the army of the undead, then you are fair game," Snyder said. Killing Leno and Reynolds is "me shouting out, 'Hey, I love ya. Bang.' "

Snyder, who grew up in Wisconsin, said his interest in directing began when his parents gave him a Super-8 movie camera after taking him to see "Star Wars" in 1977. At the time, he said, "I wanted to be a mercenary and I wanted to do this and I wanted to be a welder and I wanted to be an animator."

Directing won out -- it might even have been because of that midnight showing of "Dawn of the Dead" Snyder snuck out to see when he was 13.

"I knew I wasn't supposed to be seeing it," he said. "It did have the desired effect like ... the first time you see 'Jaws.' I didn't even want to get in the bathtub after that."

And though Sarah Polley, who plays Ana Clark in the film, said Snyder is more "kid than any other director," he managed to make a movie that is "entirely his and sick and twisted."

According to Polley, when she and Snyder met, he told her "I just want to make sure that this isn't going to be one of those crappy remakes of a great '70s horror movie."

"You're really willing to go down with people like that," she said. And she hadn't even read the script. It was Snyder's "childlike enthusiasm" that hooked her. And his on-set antics made the experience good gory fun.

He's the guy who got gun-control activist Polley to pick up a rifle and blast a zombie, and then immortalized her horrified face on a T-shirt he wore the next day. Polley laughed as she remembered the shirt and the times Snyder would pretend to blow away hordes of zombies.

"He puts my 5-year-old nephew's adrenaline to shame," she said.

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