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Dawn of the Dead   B-

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Zack Snyder
Writer: James Gunn (based on a screenplay by George A. Romero)
Cast: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell, Michael Kelley, Kevin Zegers, Lindy Booth.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's hard to be nitpicky about a zombies-take-over-the-world flick, but when the title reads Dawn of the Dead, our standards go up a few notches. George A. Romero's seminal horror classic is the Sistine Chapel of the genre, leaving some mighty big shoes for director Zack Snyder's new remake to fill. Ultimately, it's found a little wanting. Whether that makes any difference to you probably depends on how much you hold it to its predecessor. The current Dawn of the Dead isn't as edgy, subversive, or clever as Romero's version. It lacks the underground quirkiness, and the corporate thinking which assembled it displays some serious lapses in judgment. That it still delivers a decent fright show is more a testament to Snyder's technical expertise than any fresh approach to the material. Nevertheless, deliver it does.

Horror fans know the scenario well. Infected with an unnamed virus, the dead begin rising from the grave, forming shambling mobs of mindless killers that gradually overwhelm civilization. A band of survivors takes refuge in a shopping mall, feeding on the remnants of consumer culture there while holding the ever-growing army of undead at bay. Those are the generalities. The specifics speak volumes about each respective version. In the original, the "heroes" were effectively looters, claiming the mall as personal spoils. Moreover, they consisted of two SWAT team deserters and two fugitive newscast workers -- the very people we depend upon for safety and information in a crisis. In the new version, that fiendish cynicism is replaced by some safe, dependable clichés: a tough-guy cop (Ving Rhames), a brave nurse (Sarah Polley), a quiet type who turns out to be the natural leader (Jake Weber), and so on. There are more of them too, which means increased amounts of zombie snacking, but also fewer opportunities to know and care about them. Dawn of the Dead compounds their by-the-numbers feel with the sometimes-trite dangers in which it places them. Characters are afflicted with an annoying case of the Stupids (specifically, the Split Up And Wander Alone In The Dark Stupids, the Open The Door That Clearly Has Gibbering Undead Behind It Stupids, and the Don't Check On The Pregnant Woman Even Though Her Boyfriend Is Being A Little Too Evasive Stupids), which makes the resulting scares hard to swallow at points.

So too does the funhouse atmosphere take precedent over the original film's subtler notions. Though Snyder & Co. gleefully send the world straight off a cliff (which for most zombie fans is worth the price of admission alone), their efforts lack the subtler class and racial tensions that Romero was so good at exploiting. Oh, they pay lip service here and there, but the need for adrenaline fixes clearly trumps the more ambitious "re-envisioning" to which the press kit lays claim. This is particularly apparent in the post-credits conclusion, an appallingly glib coda that settles for MTV trashiness while its precursor had the courage to leave us hanging.

And yet despite its often-shallow draft, Dawn of the Dead works as simple horror. Snyder understands the pacing of the genre quite well (notably in the terrific opening where Polley flees her suburban cul-de-sac gone mad) and not all the points of departure are detrimental. The zombies themselves follow the new "fast and crazy" motif, lifted straight from 28 Days Later, but still more than serviceable here. For all their pat qualities, the characters veer away from expectations often enough to keep our interest as well (Weber is quite good, and it's nice seeing Matt Frewer again; I wish he'd stuck around longer). Perhaps the best new element involves a nearby gun store owner (Bruce Bohne), cut off from the mall but maintaining tenuous communication through binoculars and written signs. These are the moments where Dawn of the Dead really hooks us, and where its ambitions deliver more than just bumps in the night. A few more of them and it may have scaled much higher than it does.

Then again, there's nothing wrong with bumps in the night. Snyder definitely has a knack for it, and this spring has been devoid of horror's usual straight-to-video escapees. Dawn of the Dead has far more than that on its mind, and it achieves a lot within its scope. Its only real hindrance is the name on the marquee -- providing a strong foundation to be sure, but also reminding us of a shadow it can't hope to escape. There are scares aplenty in Dawn of the Dead; enjoy them and be well. Twenty years from now, though, I know which version I'll still be watching.

Review published 03.18.2004.

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