March 20, 2004

Dawn of the Dead (Review)

“There is no safe haven…”

On the heels of the gory The Passion of the Christ comes a bloody film filled with violence, the damned, and resurrection.

How do you judge a zombie film? It doesn’t have to be complicated. You judge it on how shocking it is, the level of gore, the humorous moments, the human tension, and whether it makes you squirm.

Again, I’m talking about the zombie film, not “The Passion.” Just to keep things clear.

Dawn of the Dead(2004) is a remake of the original George Romero1 film from 1978. The practically-unknown-to-IMDB Zach Snyder directs this time around. I could only find a few references to his previous work. Romero is still credited with the screenplay, and this film does follow the basic story that the classic 1978 film covered.

Nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) wakes up one morning to find the world has gone insane. People are ripping each other apart with their teeth, and it’s spreading. From nearly the very beginning of the film, the main characters pursued by scrambling, lurching and, (most disturbingly) running zombies. Our main character encounters a number of frightened people and, like the original film, eventually holes up in a mall. (Ving Rhames is the tough ex-marine cop, Mekhi Phifer is the guy with the pregnant wife, Michael Kelly is the control-freak security guard, etc.)

In a parody of life, the zombies seek out the mall, making it clear that the folks cannot stay where they are. They and you know that things are going to get worse before they get better. Before the TV stations go dead it’s made clear… there is no safe haven.

Unlike many sub-genres of horror film, the Romero-style zombie flick is a movie with no hope. A number of times you look out over the crowd of zombies, or see how fast a person can turn and you realize that this is pretty much “game over.” Near the beginning of the film, wide shots of the area show the destruction that has occurred in just a few hours since the infection began. Life doesn’t end just because the world offers no hope. Living is about sound and fury, and these people are not ready to give that up yet. Action ensues.

Zach Snyder’s direction and cinematography puts us in the action. We don’t necessarily see everything, but we do feel it. You can put many films into the broad category of Dawn of the Dead—films in which the main characters are pursued by a menace. Many recent offerings along these lines have lacked any excitement whatsoever. Stereotypical characters, predictable situations, outrageous behavior, and a focus on the gore alone teamed up to suck the life out of these films. In zombie-movie parlance, they’re “twitchers.”

Zach’s efforts are a disgusting and disturbing move in the right direction for horror fans, breathing some afterlife into the genre with a film that chases you like it really wants to eat your brain. Dawn of the Dead is a respectable remake, and I hope it means we’ll see some innovative films from this director in the future.

1 I met George Romero once. In a mall, too, as it would happen. He was there with Stephen King for the opening of their film Creepshow. My friends and I were avid horror fans, and we made ourselves up as bloody accident victims because we were told this would get us into the movie for free (it did).

When we got close to them in the crowd for an autograph, the two of them looked pretty weirded out by our avid movie-freak efforts to get noticed. We were well-versed in the arts of gore thanks to Fangoria and other genre magazines. We looked bloody and banged-up.

King, for his part just signed our items and moved us along. When my friend Rob presented Romero with a skull to sign complete with a tube out the back, he got curious.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a skull”

“What’s it do?”

“It spits blood.”

“Gross.”

At least, that’s the way I remember it.

Posted by James at March 20, 2004 1:16 PM
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