STARRING: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Kelly, Ty Burrell, Boyd Banks, Inna Korobkina, Lindy Booth, Jayne Eastwood, and Matt Frewer

2004, 114 Minutes, Directed by:
Zack Snyder

Like you’d expect, the new remake of Dawn of the Dead is a little bit dumber than the 1978 original and a whole lot slicker.

The pleasant surprise is that that “little bit dumber” is indeed very, very little. Twenty-six years ago director George A. Romero was certainly up to something satirical—ignored by the new film—when his zombies began acting like mall shoppers and his survivors broke into a bank so they could play worthless $10,000 hands of poker. But both the original and the remake know that the end of the world is its most involving when we can find our way in through human beings.

While not a character study, the new Dawn of the Dead does give us several sharply drawn and universal personality types. If not for them, all the Dolby sound, surreal cinematography, and CG helicopters in the world would still be interesting, but leave us at a distance. We like these characters, broad as they are, and, because they suck us in, the result is a marvelous, thrilling, and at times genuinely scary gut-wrenching bloodbath. And it does have a sense of humor, illustrated by the opening credits’ use of the Man in Black.

The set-up is pure nightmare. Zombies are everywhere, as far as the eye can see, turning their victims into mindless, flesh-eating cannibals. Military bases are overrun, the police are useless, reporters are attacked on television before going to static. Zombie-fied children turn against their parents, husbands attack wives, armed neighbors suspect everyone. No explanation is given for the plague because none would be satisfying. We follow a band of survivors that barricades itself in a neighborhood mall. (The amount of time spent on barricading is significantly larger in the 1978 film, while the 2004 version declares “shatterproof glass” and leaves it at that.)

The rules are basically the same: a headshot, preferably all splattery, still finishes a zombie. But this time around you can only become a zombie through a zombie-bite, whereas anyone who died in Romero’s film, no matter what the cause, would come back a few minutes later. And now the zombies can run like hell instead of just lurch around (people are a lot healthier now than in the ‘70s).

For a scant 30 million dollars, the movie has a super-glossy action picture look, with only occasional computer-enhanced crowds, helicopters, and devastation, while the beasts themselves are the work of old-fashioned makeup and blood packs. So many, many blood packs…

"Dawn of the Dead delivers the goods in spades . . ."

Most people would agree that this entire situation is pretty absurd, although if the world’s gonna end some day, I suppose this is as good a way as any. Screenwriter/Troma veteran James Gunn and first-time director Zack Snyder maintain the approach of Romero’s original Dead trilogy, which is to play everything as straight as possible. The survivors face one tough decision after another and it’s a credit to the actors that we feel they are behaving realistically, like we all would, when faced with an Old Testament-sized disaster. Should we let in more survivors, or should we keep our bunker to ourselves? Do we have enough supplies to wait here for help, or will help never come? If someone is bitten, should we kill him now or wait until he’s foaming at the mouth?

Among the more intriguing survivors is a former street punk (Mekhi Phifer) with a pregnant and bitten wife (Inna Korobkina) in tow. More than many other action movies, Dawn of the Dead shows that sometimes the worst part about disaster and death is that, well, there were these things that I wanted to do in order to complete myself and my life. And now I never will. Indeed, the dead are not so much outside the mall as they are inside of it.

The survivors also include a patrolman (Ving Rhames) and a nurse (Sarah Polley). We meet a bully of a security guard (Michael Kelly) who wants to keep the mall to himself, and by the end of the film we find out why, in strange sort of way. Every group needs a joker, and it is wise of actor Ty Burrell to portray his joker as a guy who genuinely uses sarcasm and arrogance to face down life’s problems instead of just comic relief for the audience’s benefit.

If the group has a leader, he is played by Jake Weber as one of those rare movie leaders who asserts himself not through strength, bravado, or by inspiring others, but by being conciliatory, even a little sycophantic, in getting done what obviously needs to get done. There’s also a neat touch in which an older woman (Jayne Eastwood)—any woman past about 37 is usually useless or ignored in adventure movies—handles herself effectively with a .357.

The movie has a sequence during the end credits that’s probably a little too clever for its own good; although in five years I might see it again and think otherwise. Our emotions have built one way, through a hundred relentless, hard-fought minutes, and it’s cheap to turn them around as a joke. Gags that do work include cameos by Tom Savini, who was an actor and special effects artist for the 1978 film, as well as the director of the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead; and Ken Foree, who played a SWAT officer in the original, gets to once again declare that “when there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” Really, really psychotic moviegoers will notice that a gun is snatched away from Ving Rhames in the cab of a truck, exactly like in the 1979 film, and that a television scientist is cast because of his resemblance to the hero of the original Night of the Living Dead.

The appeal of all horror movies is said to be cathartic, in a strange sort of way. Zombie movies are about the net closing around us, about holing up in a city, and then in a building, and then in just one room, before making a break for it. The zombie’s prey always tries to hold out long enough. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. The movies are gleefully agoraphobic too, in the way that being caught in a big open area is a death sentence. Dawn of the Dead is just as much as disaster movie, and we all have a macabre fascination with watching the machines of civilization collapse one by one, in the same way we’re all dying to catch a glimpse of that zombie baby. But for whatever reason we like that jolt—when something jumps out of the shadows, when someone makes a break for it, when ghouls are hot on our heels—Dawn of the Dead delivers the goods in spades.

After the movie, my wife and I decided to make it a double-header and see Spartan, but we had to run home to take the meatloaf out of the oven. Waiting in the dark parking lot while she ducked inside, I decided that if she wasn’t out in five minutes, I’d go inside after her, armed with a tire iron.

But nothing was scarier than Cinemark charging $2.75 for a small Coke. Sheesh.

- The Friday & Saturday Night Critic

An effective sci-fi movie posing as a horror movie: the movie preys more on our morbid fantasies about civilization failing us that any fears we might harbor about the dead coming back to life. Sure, the Shaun of the Dead parody has taken the edge off the proceedings to a degree, but this is one remake that works rather well. James O'Ehley


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