Dawn of the Dead

(2004) *** R
105 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Zack Snyder. Cast: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell.

As needless remakes go, Dawn of the Dead ain't half bad. George Romero's 1979 original was a B-movie masterpiece blending brutal terror and sick humor. If Zack Snyder's "re-envisioning" "improves" on anything, it's the production value and ensemble acting. Snyder adds nothing substantial in the conceptual department and, in the process of mining Romero's ideas, pulls the original Dawn's thematic punches. But the somewhat diminished return of Dawn gets substantial mileage from one of the best movie-movie premises ever: zombies surround a mall, clamoring to get in and eat what remains of humanity.

Snyder--working from a zesty screenplay by James Gunn--begins with a terrifying, apocalyptic sequence during which suburbia learns the meaning of the films' famous tagline: "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth." The great Sarah Polley (My Life Without Me) plays Ana Clark, a nurse who narrowly escapes her neighborhood when the zombies strike. Soon, she puts in with two small bands of survivors--among them Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, and Mekhi Phifer--and heads for the questionable sanctuary of Crossroads Mall, where plenty of plot devices line up to sustain the action.

I can think of few more delicious symbols of American consumerism than Romero's nasty images of lobotomized throngs and dog-eat-dog violence. Snyder recognizes the value of the imagery, replaying more than once the absurd joke of mortal terror accompanied by musak (like an instrumental cover of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" in an ancient Chinese vein) and dubbing the all-important Starbucks-esque coffee shop "Hallowed Grounds." The zombies themselves, curiously, lose much of their memorable character in Snyder's translation, owing mostly to shifting them into a higher speed. At least one zombie scene--target practice on shambling, celebrity-lookalike creatures--should please fans of Romero's irreverence.

Of course, the zombies must be at least as scary as funny, and the filmmakers make their choice to emphasize the dread. One unfortunately overbaked plot thread involving the misplaced hopes of an expectant couple fills out the foreboding midsection but nevertheless reaches a anticlimactic foregone conclusion. Otherwise the revved-up creatures' feral ferocity pumps up each confrontation. As in Danny Boyle's sort-of zombie flick 28 Days Later, the characters here face the horrifying prospect of losing their self-identified autonomy and becoming base monsters of the id.

This perennial zombie theme is mostly implicit in Snyder's Dawn, though Gunn explicitly focuses on the sinking feeling of those infected souls who must choose suicidal sacrifice over endangerment of their peers. One character poses the reasonable question, "Is this the end of times?" Gunn sees humanity's response to crisis as a half-full glass, as long as the zombies don't shatter it. A surprisingly touching relationship--forged with binoculars and signage--evolves between Rhames's police officer and a gun shop proprietor a few blocks away. One asshole character, who would be gleefully offed in most horror movies, survives long enough for personal redemption (don't worry, a couple of other assholes bite it for good measure). The message is obvious: if we hope to survive disaster, "all for one and one for all" trumps "every man for himself."

Snyder infuses the film with a punk sensibility that nicely counters the film's glossy sheen: fragmented title sequences frame the picture (and a semi-satiric montage of life in a mall rests in the middle), each accompanied by ironic musical commentary (Johnny Cash's guttural "The Man Comes Around," for one). Snyder has the bad fortune to follow Romero's and Boyle's richer outings, but the new Dawn of the Dead earns its stripes with snarky style and kinetic action.

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