Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2010-02-25 08:43

Written by: James Gunn (screenplay) and George Romero (original screenplay)
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, and Mekhi Phifer

Reviewed by: Brett G.

"And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts.
And I looked and behold: a pale horse.
And his name, that sat on him, was Death.
And Hell followed with him..."

By the time the final strains of Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” close out the film’s opening credits, viewers have been appropriately introduced to an apocalyptic world that’s going to hell and fast in Dawn of the Dead. Like its 1978 predecessor, Zack Snyder’s redux of Romero’s seminal undead film takes very little time when it comes to making everything fall apart. It’s also in no particular hurry to put things back together again, as the film rarely takes the foot off the gas as it embarks on an action-packed road full of undead speed-bumps and other gruesome thrills. The end result is a film that can stand on its own merits as one of the better zombie films ever created, and a firm reminder that remakes can be effective when they aren’t content to merely shamble aimlessly through the motions.

Anna (Sarah Polley) has finished a grueling shift as a nurse, and can’t wait to get home to her quaint suburban home. There to greet her is the nice neighbor’s kid eager to show off her roller skating prowess; also waiting for her is her husband, Luis. The next morning, the latter is awakened by the young girl standing in their bedroom doorway and bleeding profusely. The girl inexplicably bites Luis, which causes him to transform into a similar ravenous, flesh-eater. Anna narrowly escapes, but not before crashing her car. There to rescue her is a police officer, Kenneth (Ving Rhames), and they soon meet up with other survivors: Michael (Jake Weber), Andre (Mekhi Phifer), and his pregnant wife, Luda (Inna Korobkina). The group decides to head for the mall, where the parking lot is overrun with the undead creatures. Waiting inside is mall security in the form of the prickly C.J. (Michael Kelly) and his two young lackeys. After a fair amount of tension, everyone involved reluctantly agrees to fortify the mall against the zombies. Before long, another group of survivors finds their way to the mall, and all involved manage to carve out a complacent existence that’s almost oblivious to the horrors of the outside world.

Of course, all good things must come to an end, and it’s here that Snyder’s vision of Dawn of the Dead diverges from Romero’s. Whereas Romero’s protagonists find their mall paradise to be destroyed by the living (in the form of a biker gang), Snyder’s survivors can never quite escape the dead, who are much more ravenous and feral than their original counterparts. There’s been a fair amount of teeth-gnashing at this interpretation of the zombies, but moving in this direction is a nice choice that allows the film to shift its focus and overall aesthetic. While the original film had its share of action, Snyder embraces this aspect to create a film that feels like Dawn of the Dead by way of Aliens. The zombies here are vicious and unrelenting, and the film doesn’t allow viewers to forget it, as it moves along at a breakneck pace (and clocks in 20 minutes quicker than Romero’s version). As a pure, action-packed zombie gore-fest, the film is almost peerless.

Such a paradigm shift might lead one to believe that the heart and soul of Romero’s film is lost in all the carnage, but that’s not exactly the case. While much of the consumerism satire of the original is missing, the film still manages to do a very good job of revealing mankind’s tendency to sow the seeds of its own destruction. The presence of the mall security and their distrust of outsiders demonstrate our propensity towards maintaining some sense of order and power over each other even when the chips are down. Snyder also does a good job of showing the type of oblivious complacency we can build even in the face of inherent danger. Released only two years after Americans were essentially told to go shopping after an appalling terrorist attack, Snyder's irony-charged montage featuring the survivors hanging out in a mall while their world falls apart rings true. This version also manages to carry over the original's sense of humor; while it’s not as satirical and biting as that film, there’s some clever gags to be found here (which isn’t a surprise coming from Troma vet James Gunn). For example, listen out for an ironic use of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in Muzak form when the group descends on the mall. Likewise, our survivors have a good time playing “Shoot the Zombie Celebrity Look-alike” with a nearby rooftop gunman.

Of course, one must wonder if we actually care about all these people. Since the film features such a large ensemble, the answer is a bit of a mixed bag. In many ways, the characters work in tiers, with the first level being our initial five survivors. By far the most developed and empathetic, the film is mostly built around them. Rhames brings a strong, central presence to the film as Kenneth, and he even develops a believable bond with the aforementioned gunman (despite sharing no screen time with him). Mekhi Phifer’s ex-con character is more sympathetic than you might expect, though this is very much tied into his very pregnant girlfriend. Polley is lovely in front of the camera and brings a sense of conviction to Anna; though the fleeting romance that develops between her and Michael feels obligatory and tacked on, you care just enough about this woman who has been put through an emotional hell by the film's end.

Our second and third tier characters fare a little worse, for the most part. C.J and his lackeys are serviceable in their roles as being a bit of an initial road block for our protagonists. The leader here does have a nice character arc that shows a bit of development, however. Finally, our last group that arrives is generally made up of clichés (the sweet girl, the blonde bitch, the asshole, etc.), and most of them exist only as zombie meat, to be honest. Thankfully, the actors here do manage to inject a sense of believability in their roles. Many of them are very much caricatures more than characters, but they work to keep the plot moving. Though there are some admittedly weak plot devices to keep things going (for example, a girl chases after her dog in a zombie-infested street), the film does use its characters well as fuel for the carnage.

And what a carnage-filled romp this one is. Bodies (living and dead alike) are hastily and recklessly strewn about in every way imaginable. If bodies aren’t being riddled with bullets, then heads are exploding or being impaled; likewise, limbs are hacked off with chainsaws, throats are ripped out, intestines are disemboweled and devoured, etc. There’s even a disgusting birth sequence and an even more disturbing scene following it. While Snyder’s direction is much more stylish and a bit more polished than Romero’s, it’s not afraid to get its hands dirty when it has to. The sheer brutality of the original film is very much maintained here, if not amped up (there’s no fluorescent, comic-book blood being splattered about here). There aren’t as many stand-out individual zombies in this version, but the designs as a whole work very well: the undead are appropriately grotesque and look to be falling apart. Their aforementioned running ability also allows for some menace and suspense here; one scene in an underground parking garage especially feels inspired by Aliens, and it’s a fairly action packed and memorable sequence.

Rather than feast on the corpse that is Romero’s original film, Dawn of the Dead accomplishes what every remake should set out to achieve: it remains just faithful enough to the original film, but isn’t afraid to be its own experience. It certainly does not choose to cast aside the original, what with the numerous references and cameos by the original cast. Look out for Tom Savini as a badass zombie-hunting sheriff, Scott Reiniger as an army general, and Ken Foree as a televangelist reciting his famous “No More Room in Hell” tagline from the original film (this part also serves as the most creepy, unsettling, and atmospheric scene the film has to offer). There’s even a department store named Gaylen Ross in the mall. While the film might have been made in an attempt to cash in on a well-known name in horror, it’s hard to tell that here, as Snyder and crew exhibit such devotion to the project. It’s also quite a directorial debut for Snyder, who has gone on to direct well-received adaptations of 300 and Watchmen.

Universal, who would later produce and distribute Romero’s Land of the Dead due to the success of Snyder’s film (how’s that for a bit of irony?), has treated the film with care on home video. Featuring an unrated director’s cut, the film’s DVD boasts an impressive transfer that accurately reflects the film’s rich visual palette. The 5.1 soundtrack will also rattle your living room and immerse you in the carnage. The disc also features an audio commentary from Snyder and producer Eric Newman, a “special report” comprised of mockumentary footage detailing the undead outbreak, “Andy’s Lost Tape,” and eleven minutes of deleted scenes. The film is also available on Blu-ray for those who need to see it all in glorious high definition. As far as zombie films go, one can do a lot worse than Dawn of the Dead, and by the time the end credits arrive, you feel as if you’ve made quite a grueling trek through a hellish, undead world yourself. However, even here, the film doesn't let up, as the end credits are intercut with a frenzied, chaotic sequence accompanied by The Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died." That's appropriate. Buy it!

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