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Dawn of the Dead (2004)  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Saturday, 20 March 2004

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Film Rating:
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At first, remaking a sequel, of all things, seemed like a goofy, misbegotten idea. (This does seem to be the very first remake of any sequel, ever.) On second glance, though, the original “Dawn of the Dead” was essentially a stand-alone movie; all that the audience needed to know was that in this world, corpses were returning to life and attacking the living in order to (drool, slobber) eat them. The distinguishing element of the George Romero movie—his best—was that most of it was set in a shopping mall where a few living people have barricaded themselves against the living dead.

So remaking that particular sequel wasn’t as brain-dead (you should pardon the expression) an idea as it initially seemed. Maybe something marginal could be wrested out of the elementary material.

The surprise is that something terrific has been wrested out of the elementary material. “Dawn of the Dead” is the best horror movie in years; it may even be better than the original. It’s fierce, scary, dynamic and smart. At times, it’s wildly entertaining; at other times, you have to look away, not because the images are so gruesome (though there is, of course, a lot of gory violence), but because you’ve been caught up in the characters’ fates. That alone would make this movie unusual among horror films today. There is one serious failing, however, which is briefly explained below.

Zack Snyder has been a commercial director for some time; this is his first feature. For some years, Hollywood was deeply committed to the idea that commercial and rock video directors really had the chops to move into features. Usually, this was shown to be a disastrously bad idea. Not this time. Snyder directs with confidence and intelligence; he is devoted to telling the story of these beleaguered survivors, not to showing off how cool he is. This is one of the most strikingly successful directorial debuts I’ve seen in a heck of a long time.

The story, as mentioned earlier, is simple. We meet nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) at work in the hospital. She doesn’t notice that things are a bit strange in the background, but just goes about her duties. She sees a neighbor kid on the street of her extremely suburban home (an aerial shot features lots of tidy little houses, some with gleaming blue swimming pools), and goes to bed with her husband.

In the morning, they’re awakened by the neighbor kid—whose face is falling off, and who tears out the husband’s throat with her teeth. The husband dies, and then comes roaring back to life, charging at Ana. She scrambles out a window and takes off in her car. There’s a great aerial shot following her out of the suburbs and toward the city, now burning and circled by helicopters. The sense of chaos is amazing, with small details vividly demonstrating the swift collapse of society.

After her car is wrecked, she meets frightened but resolute cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames), and they join a few other survivors including Michael (Jake Weber), Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his very pregnant wife. They take refuge in a nearby shopping mall, encountering a few of the living dead cannibals inside, but they’re fairly easy to deal with. Less easy is the trio of mall security guards, led by cold, tough C.J. (Ty Burrell). C.J. tries to seize control of the situation, but eventually a kind of armed truce develops.

Outside, the living dead wander through the parking lot.

Soon, a truckload of other survivors manages to get to the mall, but a couple of them (including the cameoing Matt Frewer) are nearing zombie-hood and have to be killed.

Outside, hundreds, then thousands of the living dead still roam.

Inside, things settle into a routine that includes sex between some of the survivors, lying around, and Kenneth playing chess by signboard with Andy, a guy across the parking lot barricaded on the roof of a gun store. Just to pass the time, Andy occasionally shoots a zombie, picking them out by their resemblances to celebrities.

But everyone knows that eventually they are going to have to escape the mall. There’s only so much food available.
Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn create a situation that’s edgily funny and all too credible. The movie has a swift pace, but Snyder is smart enough to vary that pace considerably. Everything works together: the characterizations drive the plot, the plot creates the situations, the film techniques drive both.

Snyder employs the kind of moviemaking grammar that usually takes a few years for even experienced directors to realize. He mixes long shots, sometimes very long indeed, with closeups, two-shots and other angles with finesse, and always with an eye to telling the story. Each scene makes its specific point and moves on; there’s no dwelling over anything, no shot just for its own sake. This is brisk, efficient moviemaking, the kind of thing American filmmaking was founded on.

The approach seems influenced both by Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” and “28 Days Later,” Danny Boyle’s little surprise in 2002. Romero’s zombies tended to shamble, rarely moving faster than a slow walk. Snyder’s zombies are like Boyle’s: they’re fast and fierce, rushing after their prey, and scary for it. Like Romero’s zombies, Snyder’s are falling apart day by day, rotting away even as they chase their living prey. I suppose eventually they’ll just fall to pieces, but all living people may be dead by then….

Snyder didn’t want “Dawn of the Dead” to be a CGI festival, insisting instead on classical special effects makeup. But he does use digital effects occasionally, and, as with the rest of the movie, with startling authority. When that truck slams into zombies, they leave a blood smear, even though they’re CGI at the moment of impact. The one area where CGI tends to reveal itself a little is in the gigantic throngs of zombies meandering around the lot, and attacking the vehicles our heroes have armored for their escape.

It’s rare in horror movies of this nature for the cast to be of major importance, but that’s not true here. Sarah Polley usually appears in serious, independent films, including “My Life Withougt Me,” “The Sweet Hereafter” and David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ.” In the production notes, she reveals she’s been a zombie fan all her life, and was happy to be in the movie—in which, for the first time in her movie career, she flat-out runs. And runs a lot. Her performance, like the film, is sharp and focused; she’s a survivor, but it takes a toll on her.

Ving Rhames, who’s never given a bad performance, is terrific again here. Kenneth is a tough cop, knows his way around, but the new situation is WAY beyond his experience (of course). He’s hanging on by his fingertips, but his training keeps him focused on the situation. And as always with Rhames, he’s deeply likeable. Jake Weber as Michael is also very good; he’s been a kind of job drifter his whole life, but this situation brings out skills he never has had to use before. The supporting cast is also notable, and clearly very carefully chosen.

The sheer cohesion of the movie is awesome; there’s not a false note, not a failed idea. It is, of course, a horror movie, and an especially gruesome and violent one at that. But that’s the kind of story it is; there’s no grisliness for the sake of grisliness—it grows out of the situation, and never dominates the movie. The recent remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was brutal to its cast and to the audience in a way that “Dawn of the Dead” never is.

Except once. A very serious error is made regarding the scenes behind the end credits. These damage the film grievously, but not fatally. Someone made a serious misjudgment here, demonstrating a callous cynicism that is completely absent from the rest of the movie. My advice: when you see a boat and hear a single gunshot, walk out of the theater. Do not sit through the end credits even to find out what I’m talking about.

Technically, the film is masterful, too. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti uses rich, saturated, deep-toned colors throughout, and somehow keeps a kind of video-like edge to the images, so that they’re slightly grainy, with focus a bit sharper than normal. The movie has a very distinct look, also thanks to production designer Andrew Neskoromny, who rebuilt a mall scheduled for demolition into the somewhat depressing looking one here.

The sound is inventive and very, very loud. Surround sound is used judiciously, erupting primarily in the escape sequence that opens with one bone-rattling explosion and concludes with another one. Another sign that Snyder definitely knows what he’s doing.

In the original “Dawn of the Dead,” Romero had some fun with the idea that the zombies come to the mall because they’re still driven by vague consumerist pressures. This idea has been somewhat inflated in some writing on that movie, but it was definitely there. It’s not in the new “Dawn.” The zombies show up at this mall for one reason only: they’re very hungry predators. But this is part of the overall plan here: keeping the movie focused tightly on the story and the experiences of the characters.

This is, to a degree, a tribute to the original film, as the Philip Kaufman “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and the Cronenberg “The Fly” were tributes to the films they remade. A few actors from the first movie turn up. Scott Reiniger plays a General, Tom Savini plays a desperate sheriff seen on TV (“Just shoot ‘em in the head”) and Ken Foree is a televangelist who gets to say the original film’s famous ad line: “When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

Sure, “Dawn of the Dead” isn’t for everyone; you already know if it’s something for you. But anyone taking a kid under ten to see this movie is committing a form of child abuse. But keeping a horror-loving kid above that age from seeing it is another form of child abuse. This is one hell of a movie.







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