28 Dawns Later
When the remake of George A. Romero's acclaimed 1978 horror film Dawn of the Dead was announced, outcries erupted from horror fans everywhere. How dare Universal even ponder the idea of redoing any of Romero's Living Dead trilogy? How could studio execs hire the guy who wrote Scooby-Doo to pen the screenplay and put a first-time feature director at the helm? But I, on the other hand, didn't mind at all. Like many moviegoers who hadn't seen the original flick, I went into Dawn of the Dead with no expectations other than wondering whether or not it would replace Resident Evil as my favorite zombie movie.
Fortunately, this remake is a thoroughly intense, jarring, and grim horror opus, and I think even fans of the original will get a kick out of it. Perhaps they'll be disappointed with the extra characters, music video atmosphere, and lack of emphasis on social commentary, but if it's buckets of blood and well-executed terror they're looking for, the new Dawn delivers.
It's a quiet, peaceful evening in Everett, Wisconsin. Ana (Sarah Polley) is a nurse heading home after a long shift at the hospital. She greets the little girl next door, spends a bit of down time with her husband, and goes to bed, completely unaware of the carnage taking place when she wakes up. By
morning, some unknown disease or virus has caused living beings to die, return to life as cannibalistic zombies, and pass the curse onto anyone else they bite/consume. After her hubby and the neighbor girl become members of the undead, Ana hightails it out of the suburbs and makes her way through the chaos engulfing the city, coming upon a handful of survivors, including hard-nosed cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames) and cool-headed Michael (Jake Weber).
Together, they hole up at the local mall, where the zombies try breaking in while the paranoid security guards (Michael Kelly, Kevin Zegers, and Michael Barry) demand control. As more survivors enter the fray, clashing personalities and mounting tension among the living prove difficult obstacles to overcome while trying to escape the ever-growing horde of ghouls outside.
As I see it, Dawn of the Dead emerges as the movie most people think 28 Days Later is. The latter film is easily mistaken for a zombie flick (it's really more of a runaway virus movie), whereas Dawn of the Dead automatically sets out its ground rules. Once you're bitten, you die, come back, and embark on a eating a smorgasborg of flesh. The film has a similarly relentless approach toward depicting the carnage surrounding the characters, but this time, there's little room for underlying social themes or character development -- which both takes away from the movie and adds to it. I like the vagueness surrounding the origins of the zombies; none of those trapped in the mall know what happened and the government is clueless, but the point is that the dead have returned to life, and survival against the ghouls depends on how quickly one can draw a gun.
Using fast editing, gorgeous colors that contrast with the horror occurring beneath them (the first ten minutes spare no expense in plunking the viewers right in the middle of suburban hell), and a breakneck pace, director Zack Snyder does an admirable job of capturing the desperation in the air, the tension of knowing that terror is all around and can strike at any second. Not only do the zombies pose a threat, so do dwindling members of the living, from tyrannical security guard CJ (Michael Kelly) to Andre (Mekhi Phifer), a young man whose dedication to his wife and unborn child amounts to one of the more somber moments in a film wracked with blood, gore, and pitch-dark comedy. Snyder keeps the film's many tones and touches in check, loosening the atmosphere with a little dark humor (I loved the "shoot the celebrity zombie" game between Kenneth and a gun store owner stranded on his roof) while still maintaining a caustic atmosphere, relying on the occasional jump scare and an almost cartoonish Kill Bill level of violence to keep viewers
shocked into their seats.
On the downside, Dawn of the Dead falters in the area of character development. I understand the original movie contained four characters who barricaded themselves inside the mall. The remake continues this tradition with four well-developed primary characters (Ana, Kenneth, Michael, and Andre), but it goes off-track by introducing too many others. Once the guards, a dying man, and a handful of other survivors are added to the mix, Dawn of the Dead loses some of its effectiveness. These supporting characters pale in comparison to the convincing, likable leads, mostly because the actors playing them build up their presence almost immediately.
Polley, who has appeared mostly in indies like Go and The Sweet Hereafter, makes a solid translation to larger-budgeted studio movies here as Ana, the heroine who starts out as a woman wondering what in the world is going on before quickly adopting a tough, survival attitude not unlike Sigourney Weaver's Ripley facing the title creature in Alien. Kenneth, a character with 100 % presence and attitude, is a stoic figure who's not without emotion. Thanks to Rhames's performance, he comes off as a classic tough guy. Weber does an effective job playing the logical, good-thinking
average Joe caught up in all the zombie madness, and so does Phifer as a father-to-be looking out for his family. It's a shame the characters played by other cast members didn't receive as much thoughtful development. Also somewhat disappointing is the film's limited emphasis on themes regarding consumerism and human behavior -- themes I've read were so omnipresent in Romero's Dawn.
In the end, though, Dawn of the Dead succeeds as gripping, exhilarating, and all-around freaky horror entertainment. While not out to change the world, it shows what might happen if the world were given a wake-up call, and that we ourselves can be our own biggest enemies. Slick, well-acted, and certainly giving viewers enough blood for their money, Dawn of the Dead kicks off what I hope to be a string of horror flicks as great as last year's line-up.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "R" for pervasive strong horror violence and gore, language and sexuality.)
Review also posted on www.ajhakari.com.