It only took a mall full of zombies to knock Jesus from the top slot at the box office this weekend (even though Mel and company have already made just under $300 million, just passing “Matrix: Reloaded” as the highest-grossing R-rated film ever and coming in at 18th most successful film of all time). And to the dismay of naysayers and handfuls of back-in-the-day horror die-hards, 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” turns out to be a solid remake of the 1979 George Romero classic.
Any horror aficionado can tell you how important Romero’s original film was, combining Tom Savini’s mammoth contributions to gore and special effects (also see his scintillating, ground-breaking work on “Friday the 13th” and “Creepshow”) and Romero’s sharp eye for social commentary. The new “Dawn of the Dead” gives Savini his props with a minor role as a county sheriff, but first-time director Zack Snyder drops the social wit that propelled Romero’s version from the stigmatized murk of horror and into the genre-bending transcendent realm it occupies in the world of film today.
Snyder may not take any chances criticizing American consumerism, but he doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to intestine-biting wit and an unstoppable slew of genuine scares.
The film begins with a nurse, Ana (Sarah Polley, “Go”) as she goes about her day. She returns home to her husband and they unfortunately miss a special television broadcast while in the shower. The next morning all hell breaks loose. We know it can’t be good when Ana’s sweet little girl next door is ripping out her husband’s jugular. Inexplicably, zombies are everywhere, and one bite turns you into the undead.
The film’s most breathtaking scene occurs as Ana flees her suburban Wisconsin neighborhood. Houses are burning, ambulances are raging through the streets and PJ’ed zombies are feasting on every dazed human in sight. The scene is at once real (possibly the most believable horror sequence in recent years) and dazzling (you can’t help but chuckle as Ana’s husband jogs after the car only to quickly lose interest and find a slower victim). Two cars collide and set off a chain of explosions at a gas station, but just as Polley’s hazy-eyed protagonist seems bewildered and distanced, the audience feels a vague disassociation with the calamities onscreen, instilling more realistic impulse-driven frights.
Polley leads an interesting cast of survivors as they band together inside the shelter of a mall (look for multiple Muzak jokes). She’s joined by a large group of other healthy humans, most notably the hard-ass cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames, “Mission Impossible”), the rudeboy security guard CJ (Michael Kelly, “Unbreakable”) and the screw-up good guy hero Michael (Jake Weber, “Wendigo”). Mekhi Phifer (“Eight Mile”) rounds out the group as the troubled father-to-be Andre. Phifer lays on the desperation and comes out with “Dawn of the Dead’s” most sick and chilling scene. But one flaw finds the movie overloaded with extra characters (expanded well beyond the minute pocket of survivors from Romero’s film) that the audience can’t help but be apathetic toward.
A second flaw finds CJ, the one possible remnant of human evil, floating (with little, if any, motivation) into the realm of heroic martyr toward the film’s climax. Without the human motorcycle gang of the ’79 version bringing about chaos as a result of humanity’s tendency toward self-inflicted tragedy, Snyder’s film comes off more like a dry epic of men against a separate entity — like a natural disaster movie with an excessive amount of exploding heads.
But “Dawn of the Dead” delivers the scares and the gore. High points include a devastatingly dangerous escape plan (albeit with a completely unneeded rock-out montage sequence), a celebrity look-alike shooting contest when the pent-up humans get bored (“Tell him to shoot Burt Reynolds”) and a thousand or so moments when revved-up zombies (which the cast dubbed “caffeinated zombies,” as opposed to Romero’s slowly lurching ’70s undead) jump out from offscreen.
“Dawn of the Dead” starts the action immediately and doesn’t even let up during the credits. A punk nihilism and enough gore to excite Peter Jackson will have horror fans rejoicing over this deserving remake of a genre classic.