Dawn of the Dead (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It takes guts to remake a movie that is commonly considered a classic. Of course, that hasn't stopped filmmakers in the past - attempts have been made to modernize such "untouchables" as Casablanca and It's a Wonderful Life, with predictably unfortunate results. George Romero's 1978 followup to his classic Night of the Living Dead is not in the same class as either of those titles, but it is viewed by many horror fans as a seminal genre feature. In addition to Tom Savini's groundbreaking blood and gore, Dawn of the Dead is often cited for its allegorical aspects (zombies equating to mindless consumers). Pardon me if I stray from the mainstream in my opinion of the movie. I am not a fan of the original Dawn of the Dead. I find it to be badly acted, overlong, and silly instead of scary. (And it's not that all '70s horror leaves me cold - the original Halloween, released at just about the same time, has withstood the passage of years.) Putting aside the satire of consumer consumption, freshman director Zack Snyder's remake is superior in many ways.

Actually, calling this version of Dawn of the Dead a remake is applying a misnomer. It's more of a re-imagination. The premise and circumstances are similar to those of Romero's picture, but the specifics are different. Having seen the 1978 movie doesn't mean that you will be able to predict the outcome of the 2004 version, since very few of the same things happen. The ending in particular is different - especially the unprecedented way in which Snyder arrives at it. Those who bolt from their seats the moment the closing credits begin will leave with a much different impression of the resolution than those who stay to the bitter end. Interspersed between screens filled with names are Blair Witch Project-style video clips that extend the story. Shame on multiplexes that bring up the house lights early!

The movie transpires in the city of Everett, Wisconsin, where a mysterious epidemic is running rampant through the population. No one knows who the first victims are, or how the virus started, but anyone bitten by an infected individual dies, then is born again as a mindless ghoul. A group of five surviving humans - nurse Ana (Sarah Polley), cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames), ordinary guy Michael (Jake Weber), and expecting parents Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and Luda (Inna Korobkina) - seek refuge in a local mall. There they encounter a pugnacious security guard, CJ (Michael Kelly), and his sidekicks, Terry (Kevin Zegers) and Bart (Michael Barry). Later, they spot a truck circling the mall parking lot and rescue the passengers, including smart-ass Steve (Ty Burrell), sexpot Monica (Kim Poirier), father and daughter Frank (Matt Frewer) and Nicole (Lindy Booth), tough-as-nails Norma (Jayne Eastwood), and ever-practical Tucker (Boyd Banks). Banding together, these people try to outrun and outgun their undead opponents.

As in the original, we never learn much about the origins of the virus. We see glimpses of TV news broadcasts providing coverage of the spreading epidemic, but eventually all that remains on the air is static. The 1978 movie left open the possibility that the outbreak was confined to a geographical area. This Dawn of the Dead offers no such illusion of comfort. The view here is apocalyptic. The only way to escape the ravages of the plague is to find a place the zombies can't reach.

One of the things that annoyed me about the original Dawn of the Dead - and it's a seeming requirement of horror films - is the flagrant stupidity exhibited by the characters. Although the men and women of the new installment are not defined by their idiocy, there are times when they show a lack of common sense. For example, if you recognized that the quickest way to a horrible death and an even more horrible re-birth is to be bitten by a zombie, would you (1) wear heavy clothing and/or some kind of body armor to protect your flesh, or (2) venture into the midst of a swarm of undead dressed in a flimsy, short-sleeve tee-shirt? The people inhabiting Dawn of the Dead choose option (2), making us wonder whether they have all undergone frontal lobotomies.

With so many characters, it's inevitable that most of them end up as one-dimensional throw-aways whose sole purpose is to increase the body count. But there are exceptions. Ana, Kenneth, Michael, and Andre are developed to a point where we care about them. And several touching subplots are handled with a deft hand: Andre's concern about his unborn fetus, Frank and Nicole's sad farewell, Kenneth's long-distance friendship with a man on the roof of a nearby gun shop, and Ana and Michael's halting attempts at intimacy. Of course, not many people go to a horror film looking for character development and drama, so there are plenty of good scares, and a moment or two of gut-wrenching terror. The movie even crosses the PC line and allows children to do demonic things.

The creatures in this film move a lot more quickly than those in the original, whose slow, staggering gait was ripe for parody. Here, their swiftness proves to be the undoing of more than one character. As zombie films go, this one is a small step beneath Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, which was darker and creepier, but it's still a respectable effort. Adherents of the original may be annoyed by some of the changes, but cameos by Tom Savini, Scott Reiniger, and Ken Foree (who once again makes the dire pronouncement: "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth") should build some goodwill. For those who enjoy tight, tense, graphic horror, this movie offers an ample helping.

Dawn of the Dead (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2004-03-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1