The first words out of CJ’s mouth after the elevator doors parted to expose Michael Kelly flanked by a pair of his security guard brethren in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake were “Find another place.” Words which set into motion a character that appeared a deplorable of the highest order.
Despite the chops and fu Manchu, CJ was a frightened little boy with trust issues, limited loyalty and a tank full of shutdown sarcasm. Kelly’s character may not have not have been a redneck or donned a crossbow, but he was most certainly Daryl Dixon before we even knew who Daryl Dixon was.
Kelly wasn’t afforded six-plus seasons to grow, but there were chinks in the armor and over the course of an hour and fifty minutes, CJ enjoyed an arc that began with selfishness and fear but ended in selflessness and bravery. As producer Eric Newman stated on Dawn’s DVD commentary, “His redemption is awesome.”
To get there, however, CJ had to fulfill the role of hardened prison guard to a group of people who were guilty of nothing more than seeking refuge from the horrors that roamed beyond the walls of the Crossroads Mall.
Ving Rhames’ officer Kenneth was sniped with “You can take your ass on over to Quality Inn if it’s still there, Shaq,” Michael (Jake Weber) the Best Buy television salesman was offered a “tall glass of shut the fuck up” and Sarah Polley’s nurse Anna was informed that she had a “smart mouth.”
The faux bravado of the man in charge even ventured so far as to lock the group in a furniture store their first night at the mall like “a fuckin’ nursery school” because he didn’t want them “sneakin’ around and stealin’ shit.” Of course, that was only after CJ was open to Michael’s idea of posting signs atop the mall’s roof calling for help, so long as it was presented in such a way that it seemed CJ’s idea. One has to keep up appearances when they want to project unflustered, all-knowing leadership.
That was until a new batch of would-be survivors showed in the mall parking lot and CJ’s rush of panic let the entire group know (including a fellow security guard) that he didn’t want to “let the wrong ones in” and would “kill each and every one of (them) to stay alive.”
That final threat was enough to inspire the group to mutiny, placing CJ and his cohort Bart (Michael Barry) in the hold. During his incarceration, however, CJ had a light bulb moment when the late-night perusal of a magazine article led to the realization that the primary ingredient in any relationship was trust.
In the aftermath of turning the power back on and zombie baby carnage, CJ couldn’t argue with Kenneth’s assessment of “better them than me,” but needed more than Michael’s idea of reinforced parking shuttles as homage to “The A-Team” to cross his own personal Rubicon.
So CJ dipped his toe into the pool to test the water.
Once CJ kew that the group believed in the plan, he placed his trust in them, and from that point forward was all-in. The head security guard was no longer a difficult smartass who shot down every concept thrown his way, but a cooperative badass who simply did whatever needed to be done without pause.
When the group was confronted with the need to rescue Nicole (Lindy Booth) on a moment’s notice, they discovered that they had done so without having secured safe passage back o the mall. No brainstorming was required, however, because CJ had gone from a guy waiting on answers to a solution man, and simply plopped a propane tank atop the counter with the suggestion of a barbecue. A single shot bought the group the time required to slip back into the sewer tunnel and head for what could loosely be referred to as sanctuary.
Of course, nothing could ever be that easy in an apocalypse, so when Tucker (Boyd Banks) broke his leg falling from the street and the zombie horde closed in, CJ was presented with a choice. Rather than flee with the others, he told them to go, handed Tucker a pair of hand guns and dragged one of those “wrong ones” from the parking lot through tunnels in an effort to save him. Though he was unsuccessful in that endeavor, it was obvious that it was no longer just about CJ.
Finally, after take two of propane-cleared pathways, the group arrived at the marina dock in the hopes of escape aboard Steve’s (Ty Burrell) boat. CJ took one glance at the wall of death closing in and tossed the last of the ammunition to Kenneth with the message, “Go, man. I’ll catch up!” as a swarm of dead cannibals embarked on the bus and remaining members of the posse.
As Beau Brower said in 30 Days of Night, “It’s my turn.”
Going back to the DVD commentary, Snyder noted that “Michael was really into the fact that he was going to do this on purpose,” continuing, “he’s a hero.”
Snyder obliged Kelly’s enthusiasm.
“I’m going to give you that close-up so that the world will never doubt for a moment that you didn’t just say ‘You know what, I’m gonna save the group by blowing these zombies to bits right here.’”
Of course, we know that the islands that the group sought were not the safe havens they had hoped for, but CJ’s sacrifice for those he would have just as soon shot himself weeks earlier allowed them the opportunity to launch the vessel and find out.
A man whose fear and uncertainty had been so intense that he was hesitant to do anything but sit back and hope to be rescued, grew into one of the most courageous and redemptive characters that any horror flick would be proud to call its own.
To steal one from Stephen King, thanks to CJ the survivors of the Crossroads Mall are still survivors.