Call me a blasphemer, but George A. Romero's cult classic zombie trilogy1968's "Night of the Living Dead," 1979's "Dawn of the Dead," and 1985's "Day of the Dead"never impressed me in the way that it did most other horror fans. Maybe my lack of interest is linked to the speed of the undead. In Romero's world, the villains lumbered along weakly, daft looks plastered on their faces, and never seemed to pose much of a serious threat. And while "Night of the Living Dead" does hold some worth in that, when it was released in the late-'60s, it was considered a groundbreaking story idea, "Dawn of the Dead" always struck me as a curiously outdated product of its times, filled with cheesy make-up effects, groan-inducing humor, an overblown music score by Dario Argento and The Goblins that was just asking to be ridiculed, and mostly amateurish acting. Watching it just one day before the release of its remake, "Dawn of the Dead" did not scare me, did not make me laugh, and dragged itself out to an interminable 127 minutes. Indeed, the film's one notably strong point is its sharp satire on consumerism.
A reimagining more than a direct update, 2004's "Dawn of the Dead" misses that potential satire altogether, but gets just about everything else, including all the glaring faults of the original, exactly right. In the world according to screenwriter James Gunn (2002's "Scooby Doo
") and director Zack Snyder (in his auspicious debut), the undead are fast and powerful, perhaps more so than live humans, and so the threat that they bring to the proceedings is very real and exceedingly palpable. Aided by stylishly saturated cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti (2004's "The Butterfly Effect
"), who lends the picture a wide scope, and urgency-drenched editing by Niven Howie, the speed and rabid nature of the zombies raise this "Dawn of the Dead" to an unexpectedly high plateau in the annals of modern horror movies. It also achieves the unthinkable, greatly improving upon the original in a way that 2003's remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
" failed to.
The ten-minute pre-credits sequence is a showstopper, an adrenaline-fueled nightmare come to life as downright horrifying as any movie opener since 1996's "Scream." Young nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) leaves the hospital she works at and drives to her home in the middle of Milwaukee's idyllic suburbs. She makes out with her boyfriend in the shower and goes to bed, missing all of the signs around her, including a news report, that something dire is afoot. When Ana awakes to find her boyfriend mortally wounded (a neighbor child has ruthlessly bitten him on the neck), only to have him suddenly attack her after his heart has stopped, she narrowly escapes. Pure chaos has rang out on the streets, leaving Ana fearful and perplexed as to what is happening in the world. Cue Johnny Cash's haunting "The Man Comes Around" and a marvelously innovative and atmospheric opening credits scene, and you have a flawlessly rendered setup to a superior, graphically violent horror picture.
The pulse-pounding pace at the onset slows down soon after so the rest of the premise and characters can fall into place. After totaling her car in an accident, Ana finds herself joining police officer Kenneth (Ving Rhames), Michael (Jake Weber), and Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant wife, Luda (Inna Korobkina), to hide out in the Crossroad Mall. "When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth," a television evangelist says before the broadcast suddenly ends. That is, until it becomes clear the real culprit is a fast-acting virus spread through bites that will reanimate the carrier once they have died into a bloodthirsty zombie. Soon joined by some more humans, including three security guards and several other refugees, Ana watches as the days tick by and the number of zombies increase at the mall entrances. In lieu of waiting for their own doom, the group devise a plan to escape to the nearby marina and sail to a hopefully deserted island. First, however, they will have to get past the hoards of dangerous, angry zombies clustering the streets.
This new "Dawn of the Dead," even more so than its 1979 predecessor, is an unremittingly bleak motion picture, a gory, frightening portrait of what is, in essence, the end of the world. As much as these characters, including resourceful heroine Ana and tough nice guys Kenneth and Michael, try, there is ultimately no true escape from the inevitable. And while there are a handful of genuinely funny moments that naturally come out of the dialogue, things are more or less played relatively straight. Romero's "Dawn" used broad, corny comic strokes in the midst of its carnage, while Snyder's "Dawn" more appropriately deals with the reality of the situation. The latter effort, no surprise, enormously holds more scares and effectiveness. Speaking of the dark and hopeless conclusion, do not dare leave before the end credits are over. Everyone in my theater cluelessly ransacked the exits the second they saw the first end credit; what they missed was the entire conclusion of the film, including the ultimate fate of the characters.
Sarah Polley (1999's "Go
"), a Canadian-born indie staple who rarely ventures into the mainstream, is exceptional as Ana, a young woman devastated by what is happening around her, but who refuses to give up hope. Polley brings to her lead role the stark, honest emotions and no-holds-barred reality that goes along with the situation. In the process, she elevates what could have been a standard-issue horror heroine part to one with three dimensions and worth rooting for. All other performances, save for the grating Michael Kelly (2000's "Unbreakable
) as stubborn security guard CJ, are concentrated and unfailing. Nonetheless, most of the characters could have afforded the depth and care brought to Ana, who is the only one we see with a life before things literally go to Hell.
Amidst the heightened suspense and skillfully created terror, director Zack Snyder does make a few key errors that keep the film from being the masterpiece it often flirts with becoming. For one, it is suggested that what is occurring is strictly virus-based, but if this is the case, then it is implausible that the entire town would fall apart overnight. Where did the virus come from to begin with? And if he wants us to believe that the long-since dead have risen from their graves, then the film is missing any such clarification (a brief scene where Ana drives by a cemetery and witnesses the dead rising would have cleared this up, but is nowhere to be found). Any way you look at it, It is an unavoidable and clumsy plot hole. Likewise, a stronger sense of the interior mall setting should have been rendered, instead of the majority happening in front of the same store over and over. If anything, 1979's "Dawn of the Dead" did do a more satisfying job of this.
Nitpicks notwithstanding, "Dawn of the Dead" is creepy, smart, classy moviemaking. The film takes no prisoners in its sole goal to scare you silly. And what the viewer is left with by the end is an unshakable sense of both pure despair (at the narrative's outcome) and adulation (at the film's well-made nature). If George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" remains a classic of zombie cinema, then Zack Snyder's version deserves the same label. Despite what prerelease naysayers and skeptics might have thought, it defies lowered expectations. Superior in almost every way, "Dawn of the Dead" is an unforgettable, nerve-tingling ride through the American Dream gone hideously, gruesomely wrong.