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Dawn of the Dead Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 November 2007

Image Zombies have become the coolest monster in current horror entertainment. They’re the subject of several novels, from horror novelist Brian Keene’s novel, “Dead Sea”, to one of Stephen King’s latest novels, “Cell”, to Robert Kirkman’s three-plus years of comics, “The Walking Dead”, to Brit zombie horror film “28 Days Later”.

There’s something so simple about zombies that horror fans just eat them up. Of course, on the big screen, the zombies eat up everybody. George A. Romero and John Russo together created “Night of the Living Dead” and launched a whole new type of horror movie on an unsuspecting public.

After the two had a falling out, Romero and Russo each went on to keep zombie franchises on track. All of Romero’s films have “Dead” in the title, and all of Russo’s have “Living Dead”. Both franchises have zombies looking for human buffets.

The two had differences of opinion from the start. Russo wanted to deliver an explanation for why the zombification took place. Romero wanted that to be left as a mystery. Personally, I prefer the mystery aspect; the idea that the dead walk the earth because “there’s no more room in Hell” is absolutely chilling. Russo’s biological agent created by the military just makes everything too logical and removes some of the fear factor. Plus, as that series goes on, the Trioxin nerve agent starts to grate on the willing suspension of disbelief. “Dawn of the Dead” was Romero’s second zombie movie, released in 1968. Both that movie and this remake are set primarily in a mall and use that environment as a backdrop.

However, the main setup of the characters is drastically changed in the remake. Here, they’re a little more sympathetic and well-rounded. Sarah Polley plays Ana Clark, a nurse at a Milwaukee hospital who’s just pulled a 13-hour shift and is dealing with an unsympathetic doctor. He has her hunt down a patient who’s been there for hours before she leaves. Polley’s acting is flawless and I enjoyed getting to know her character.

The patient is a bit of foreshadowing. Ana finds out that he’s been moved to intensive care and is going to be examined thoroughly in the morning. She can’t believe it, but I felt like I’d already been thrown onto the rollercoaster and could suddenly see that first big hill.

Later, Ana returns home. She talks to a neighborhood child she knows, then meets her husband in bed. While they’re engaged in the shower, a special bulletin comes on and they miss it. Later, the neighborhood girl appears as a zombie and attacks Ana’s husband. After he bleeds out, he returns as a zombie and she’s on the run for her life.

This all happens within the first seven minutes of film. The first half of the movie moves at a gallop, never breaking stride. I enjoy zombie movies, and I’ve taught my kids to watch them while we have pizza. They’re usually good for a laugh. Romero and Russo’s initial film was originally designed as a comedy.

This version of “Dawn of the Dead” has some comedic moments as well, but I didn’t feel like laughing during the first half. Despite years of having watched these kinds of films and growing calluses to the simplistic knee-jerk reflex of music cues or having characters wander off in areas that I know aren’t safe, I was hooked solidly for the first half and couldn’t turn away from the screen.

Ving Rhames plays the heroic cop to a T, but he’s also selfish enough to want to find out if his brother is still alive at Ft. Pastor. His solid style of acting also further grounds the realism of the movie and made me buy into the whole apocalypse-is-now scenario.

Jake Weber (good as Patricia Arquette’s husband on TV’s “Medium”) really shines here as Michael. He’s the planner and the thinker, the one who always seems to stay one step ahead of the game of kill-or-be-killed. Instead of a special forces background you might expect him to have, he’s just a guy who used to sell televisions at Best Buy. After his showing in this movie, I’m really ready to see him move into meatier roles.

Mekhi Phifer stars as gangbanger Andre. Since not much detail is given about his life prior to landing on the zombie buffet menu, viewers don’t know how deeply he got into it or where he was headed in his life. His relationship with his girlfriend and unborn child carries the weight of his presence. He fills the hero’s shoes on several occasions, but everybody who’s seen films of this kind know he isn’t going to make it through. He does a good job of playing off Rhames and Weber.

CJ, played by Michael Kelly, is as unlikable as they come when he’s first introduced as the leader of the mall security guards. He’s hard-edged and unsympathetic as he becomes one of the worst menaces the little band of survivors thus far face. However, his paranoia and decisions are understandable, and that’s what makes him so believable. Under similar circumstances, nany people would choose to save their own lives before anyone else’s.

Kevin Zegers plays Terry, the young and innocent security guard who can’t quite be as hard-hearted as his peers. It’s his choices between right and wrong that shift the tables. He’s got charismatic appeal for this kind of role, and he was matched well with Lindy Booth (Nicole), who appeared on “Relic Hunter”.

Matt Frewer, a veteran actor, puts in what basically amounts to a cameo as Nicole’s father, Frank. But in that few minutes he’s skilled enough to elicit viewer sympathy and some strong emotion.

One of Romero’s recurring themes in his “Dead” films is the inability of people in general to get along any time the chips are down. Romero depicts them as falling apart, being only out for themselves, and that’s what happens much of this film that drives the tension.

At the middle of the film, though, the edge is blunted for a while. Things become comedic to the point that the danger is so far removed I didn’t feel tense as all. I suspect that a lot of viewers will feel that same way.

On one hand, I resented the semi-promise that everything was going to work out. I’ve seen enough of these kinds of movies to know that about half of the cast was still slotted for grisly deaths. (And I was right!) I didn’t want to toy with the idea that everything was going to be okay only to have the rug yanked out from under me.

On the other hand, I was grateful of the break. Things had gotten extremely tense during the first half of the movie. There is a big difference between Romero’s zombies and the things in this remake: these zombies are faster than human beings. If they chase you, even if you’re in a car, they’re probably going to catch you. When Ana drove off with her dead husband chasing her down, I really thought he was going to get her.

Once the middle of the movie skates through quick relationship building and sophomoric humor that tickled my funny bone, it returned to the meat and potatoes of the zombiefest. Marooned in the mall for almost a month, the survivors are dismayed when the generators go down. The attack in the parking garage as the survivors try to put things to rights is pretty eerie.

Then Andy, the guy who runs the gun store a block down and on the other side of the street, runs out of food. He’s supposed to be a big part of their escape plan. The plot here gets a little far-fetched (they use the dog Chips to ferry food to Andy, then Nicole goes after the dog even though they’ve already proven that the zombies don’t crave animal flesh, and then they travel along a sewer line—why didn’t they use it earlier?), but by that time the rollercoaster is thundering along. There’s no rest for the wicked—or anyone else—at this point, and the movie crashes through to a somewhat predictable ending. The action is still incredibly intense, though, and you’ll find yourself sucked right into it.

The video presentation is hi-def and extremely vivid. The opening montage clearly sets the stage for the widescreen presentation because every line is straight and clean, without blemish or blur. The colors are vibrant, except when they’re intentionally dark and nasty. Even the masses of zombies milling around at the mall can be clearly seen. Presentation of quality like this is going to make special effects people earn their keep. But “Dawn of the Dead” was a big-budget picture and rated the best in the business.

The audio is chilling as well. The score plays with the viewer’s mind and emotions. The surround sound system brings every note and bass line into the room and beats you to death with them when the action is hot and heavy. During quieter moments, as when the group is in the elevator listening to mall music, the quietness of the music jars with the same effect, but much more quietly.

Where the HD DVD really brings its game is in the special features. There are tons of them, all well developed and given plenty of space rather than hurried along. Especially disturbing is “The Lost Tape: Andy’s Terrifying Last Days Revealed”. After seeing the movie and getting to know the character, this 15 minutes is hard to watch. The “Special Report: Zombie Invasion” is done as a pseudo-news story that is extremely well done. “Undead Scenes” shows the scenes that were cut, as well as Director Zack Snyder’s explanations as to why they were eliminated. “Splitting Headaches: Anatomy of Exploding Heads” is a hoot and deals with the special effects as well as the weaponry. “Attack of the Living Dead” showcases the gruesome zombie killings. “Raising the Dead” is a documentary that deals with the movie from concept to finished product. Zack Snyder’s commentary and introduction are exemplary as well.

“Dawn of the Dead” should be on every horror fan’s collection shelf. This film is streamlined and sleek as a bullet as it blasts through 110-minutes of story, action, and horror. People wno haven’t developed a taste for horror probably won’t see the same value, but the driving story, characters, and constant building of suspense is there for those who like drama. If you haven’t seen a horror film in a while, try this one. But be prepared to be shocked and pulled into the storyline.

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