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In retrospect, all the warning signs were there. A patient had been sent to ICU for a simple bite after he suddenly became unresponsive. Who's that they're wheeling into the hospital? Is that another bite victim? And the ambulance driver, busy already? Don't want to listen to the news right now. Let's find some music.
Yes, it would be easy to scream at Ana (Sarah Polley - THE SWEET HEREAFTER, GO) for not catching the clues, for not getting out while the getting was good. But like everyone else, she was too wrapped up in her own life to care about anything else. She was late from a long shift at the hospital and wanted nothing more than to get home to her husband and plan a three day weekend at the end of the month. Sure, people say you should stop and smell the roses, but the world moves too fast. Besides, the roses would always be there, right?
It's easy for the horror film viewer. All he or she has to do is watch. But how could anyone really see the catastrophic events of DAWN OF THE DEAD coming? In short, you can't. We didn't see 9-11 coming, the closest thing America has had to an apocalyptic event in the last fifty years. That was a single strike with a definable enemy and we are still feeling waves of fear and loathing in regards to such a horrible tragedy. Much like the World Trade Center bombings, the people in DAWN OF THE DEAD go to sleep to one world and wake up to another. Making things even crazier are all of the unknown variables. The plague comes without any clear reason or warning and it changes our global landscape forever.
Ana escapes her hometown, after narrowly surviving an attack from a neighborhood girl and then her own husband. She is found by Kenneth (Ving Rhames - MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 1-2), a police officer short on communication and big on intimidation. The group continues to grow on that day and in a few of the days following. The protagonists wait out the zombie plague in the Crossroads Mall, until they can either find out more about what's going on, or wait for help to arrive. Throughout their time together, allegiances are tested and destroyed, priorities are rearranged and life as anyone knew it starts from scratch.
Hopefully, I shouldn't have to remind anyone out there that this is a remake to George A. Romero's 1978 classic, DAWN OF THE DEAD. Let me just say that this film never really stood a chance of topping that masterpiece. No, I didn't go in biased (although I was a bit upset when the project was brewing). But the fact is that no one has been able to top that film for the past 26 years. Even more than it's predecessor, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN is the most influential film to ever come of the zombie sub-genre. In my opinion, it's also the most terrifying film ever made, tying only with THE EXORCIST. DAWN is to blame for a good number of my sleepless nights. Could the remake ever hope to recapture that brilliance? Well no, but that doesn't mean it's completely terrible either.
This is as good a place as any to address the horror community's hesitance to accept the wave of countless remakes that continue to be developed. I can only speak for myself. I often get infuriated when I hear about a remake. The reason behind most remakes is pure greed. A studio sees an established name and wants to milk a new generation for it as it goes through the necessary hurdles. But that is all at the studio level, and if they had their way, there wouldn't be a single original idea out there. The filmmakers are best left on their own to make something worthwhile. They should not be held responsible for what brought them to this job. Their only responsibility is to create something worthwhile.
My wariness over remakes is often a deep love for the original material. I don't worry about the remake effecting the original for me. I've seen the original film, I've often cherished the original film. It's something no one will ever be able to take away from me.
I do worry about the next generation of horror fans. Will this be the only DAWN OF THE DEAD they know? Last year's remake of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was surprisingly good, but there already those who embrace the remake and don't intend to see the original because "it's old." More people seem to be unaware that THE RING is a remake than not. And at least those remakes were good. I feel truly sorry for the millions who will say, "THE HAUNTING? That was that crappy film with Liam Neeson, right?" We really just pray that the films will be decent, that they won't embarrass the original too much and most of all, that audiences will still check out the originals.
There are three main things the new DAWN OF THE DEAD has in common with its predecessor.
1. Both films are called DAWN OF THE DEAD, and the remake has various nods and winks to the original in subtle things like snippets of dialogue, actor cameos and prop labels.
2. Both films deal with the opening moments of a zombie plague.
3. Both films take place mostly in a shopping mall.
That is essentially where the similarities end. As a remake, it's setting itself up for a fall, but as it's own horror film, it's not too bad. The less you think about the original and the more you accept the film on it's own terms, the better off you'll be. Admittedly, this is not always an easy thing to do since the film tries to draw a comparison at certain stages, even if the situations in each film are completely different.
Things that are different in this film - there are plenty. For one thing, there are more victim- er, that is survivors. Five people initially enter the mall - already one more than in the original's group. They are met by three rent-a-cops already in the building and before long are joined by even more survivors. This gives the opportunity to see even more human blood spilt in the film. Good news for gutmunching horror fans is that the film does not skimp on the violence or gore. The violence is more stylized and ironically less effective than it should be (can we please get a moratorium on the "shutter-cam?"), but there are several moments that will make some of the most jaded viewers jump.
You'd expect the abundance of new characters to open the film up for more character development. Unfortunately, what it does is spread the characters too thin. We only really get to know a handful of the characters, and for those lucky few, James Gunn's script does a great job. As for the rest of the meat on the zombie smorgasboard, it regulates them to the sidelines. Some characters are given no more than a few scenes of dialogue, even if they survive into the third act. Others are so ridiculous that they should have been rethought from the beginning, if not left out entirely.
And that is probably the biggest flaw of the film, the unbelievable way in which some people behave in the midst of the epidemic. As I mentioned earlier, the five people that make their way into the mall do meet up with mall security. What I did not mention is that they introduce themselves to the quintet at gunpoint. Naturally, they don't want to let a whole bunch of people in who are going to bring in some zombie baggage. These guys go beyond that, immediately setting up their own little regime.
The ridiculous way in which mall security behaves is a severe blemish on the film. Even though the world is going to hell in a handbasket, this group of rent-a-cops still have a hierarchy. C.J. (Michael Kelly) is the boss, he has his redneck associate and the trainee. They give orders and in a laugh-out-loud touch, are even concerned about their guests leaving a mess in the sporting goods store.
Never once is it mentioned what is painfully obvious to the rest of us. No one has a paying job anymore. They have no bosses, no employment and any seniority that existed before is null and void now. Nevertheless, they order people around and in one line, Kelly accidentally recalls Ben Stiller's character in HAPPY GILMORE with shocking accuracy and a complete lack of irony. It should be noted that C.J.'s character does go through some nice changes in the script. I will not say whether he is redeemed or not. Suffice to say, if the script needed that character, at least they did something unexpected with him.
But as for the rest of mall security? Well, there's the Terry the trainee (Kevin Zegers of WRONG TURN and amusingly enough, the AIR BUD movies) who has the hots for one of the surviving girls. That's basically his whole character. A nice guy? Sure, I guess, but not a very deep one. As for the associate Bart (Michael Barry), he is given the worst dialogue in the entire film. - "You know what really sucks," he says. "You know that fat chick at the Dairy Queen? I would have hit that shit." When Terry mentions that the woman is probably dead, along with everyone he ever knew or loved, Bart replies "Yeah, that sucks too," shortly before calling the trainee a "faggot." Whether this is meant to merely illustrate this character's screwed up priorities or whether it's a lame attempt at humor is unclear. It's a complete disaster no matter what you make of it. Remember the punks who kept their mall jobs in the apocalypse film NIGHT OF THE COMET? It's the exact same thing and that's probably where James Gunn got the idea. But in NIGHT OF THE COMET, it was played for laughs. Here, we're expected to take it seriously.
There's also the other jerk of the group, Steve (Ty Burrell), who exists mainly to provide comic relief and a segway into the climax of the film. Picture Isaac Mizrahi combined with the character Matthew Perry plays on FRIENDS and you won't be far off. The fact is that when characters need to be selfish and obnoxious, they do so in such broad ways that it becomes impossible to empathize with them.
But stupid behavior is not limited to the idiots of the group. Some of the people we would expect to lead make some lamebrained moves as well. At one point, in order to pass the time, they make a game out of shooting the zombies in the parking lot that look like celebrities. Now, on one level, this is a nice touch and one of the few moments that really recalls the dark comedy from the original film. On a much more apparent level however, this makes no practical sense. They are already low on ammo. Wouldn't you want to preserve every last bit of juice you had in case you needed to defend your fortress, or perhaps make a quick dash? Well, they don't let that get in the way. And although the lack of ammo is brought up, no one is chastised for taking part in the game.
If you are hoping to find any of the original's scathing satire on rampant American consumerism, don't hold your breath. Let's face it, even on a low budget ($28 million is low for Hollywood. And yes, I find that ridiculous as well), this is a studio picture and was birthed thanks to rampant American consumerism. Now, there's an irony George would just love.
So, there is no subtext here. No big statements to be had. Nothing beyond what the viewer can draw on his/her own, such as the previously mentioned correlation to the 9-11 bombings.
There is an attempt at gallows humor, but without the bleak and accusing undercurrent, the humor comes off as being a hindrance to the growing feeling of dread that should be permeating throughout the film. So, what is the gag factor here? Well, the groups throws little barbs and jabs at one another. There are also little winks to the audience. This is sometimes in passing references to the original film (also making it hard to separate the two). Also, there is the placement of "aren't we clever?" gags on the soundtrack, like the music which consists of such tunes as "All By Myself" and "Don't Worry Be Happy." I've got to tell you something, I hate winks. I hate it when films go out of their way to show you how clever they are. It reeks of desperation. I would much rather see a film that comes off as clever, just by giving us a good solid movie to enjoy. It's something John Frankenheimer was able to do with his films that now seems almost lost.
And then there are the parts that could just be seen as musical numbers. That's right, musical numbers. No one gets up and sings thank God, so you can put your Bollywood zombie nightmares to rest. But we are given the standard montages that just aren't as meaningful as you would like. The worst one of these is a lounge version of Disturbed's "Down with the Sickness." In fact, Disturbed's original version of "Sickness" is played at the end, meaning this already overplayed nu-metal anthem gets two more appearances in the same film. The humorous moments, and to be fair there aren't many, are meant to alleviate the audience's fears and call attention to the "it's just a movie" aspect of the film. To me, that shows a lack of confidence in the material. If they wanted the film to be more memorable, they should never let up for a second. At the very least, director Zack Snyder should have handled the lulls much better than he did.
Something horror fans will notice immediately is that the zombies are no longer the lumbering, pasty folks that they would expect. Instead of mindlessly shuffling forward, not reacting to any bodily harm or physical obstacles, we get something much more peppy. The zombies in the new DAWN OF THE DEAD run like a pack of wild animals. They sprint and pounce, which gives them an unusual new sense of urgency and instinct. I have mentioned in the past that I have no problem with this. Who says zombies has to be slow? George Romero? Well yes, and his zombie films are the greatest ever made. They are the most terrifying vision of the undead we've seen, a tradition that was proudly carried on in films like Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE (which was actually called ZOMBI 2 to capitalize on the original DAWN's title overseas). But let's remember that Romero is just one guy with one vision. If we can play fast and loose with vampires and werewolves throughout horror history, why not zombies? Although it's certainly different, I have nothing wrong with running zombies.
I should mention something DAWN does I do have a problem with though. Zombies can run, jump and do anything the person could do while they were alive. But that's it. There are some moments that have the zombies doing some pretty intense gymnastics that you just couldn't see the people pulling off during their waking lives. In that respect, the running zombie thing doesn't ring true. I can believe the little kid creeping up before pouncing and running. I don't see the kid getting slammed into a wall then rebounding off the wall, catching air and landing in a perfect, insect-like crouch.
Now, I've focused on some of the things I was not thrilled with in DAWN OF THE DEAD. Let's mention some of the things I did like. When the characters were allowed to grow, they proved themselves to be embodied by some very talented people. Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber and Mekhi Phifer all turn in great performances. Although he's only in a bit part, Matt Frewer also turns in some of his best work here. All of these actors portray real people who find themselves trapped in an unreal world. They all deserve credit for remaining true to their characters. Far from phoning in performances as many actors are apt to do when they find themselves in "another, lowly horror film", they do some amazing things with their roles here, approaching it with true professionalism.
Surprisingly, no one in the main group has those air-brushed good looks that have adorned the cover of many a teeny-bopper horror film. Any pretty boys and girls are regulated to the background and when they do speak up, aren't as attractive on the inside as they are on the outside. Even Polley has a certain down to earth beauty. If I saw Polley walking down the street and had no idea who she was, I would have no problem pegging her as a registered nurse. An attractive nurse, but someone far from the trappings of La-La Land.
There are little touches and flourishes throughout the film that are very effective. Kenneth is distant, but not mean-spirited. He gets to know the people he's stuck with, not because of any kind of agenda, but simply because that's the way things work out. Kenneth does develop a meaningful relationship with an unlikely neighbor, however. As he is on the rooftop of the mall, he notices another person on a rooftop kitty corner from the shopping complex. They have no way to get to one another and there doesn't seem to be any way to talk to each other. Their only means of communication is through the dry erase boards they scrawl messages on. It's just that kind of emotional touch that prevents the film from sinking into a sea of mediocrity.
Even better is the subplot involving Mekhi Phifer. Guilty over the things he has done in his own life, he finds himself the protector of a pregnant woman. He now seems unconcerned with himself. His mission in life becomes to see the baby born, even through all the chaos and start a family. This would at least prove that there are some things that cannot be destroyed. This little part of the script is responsible for the absolute best moments of the film.
There are lots of great little touches that can be found in equal parts thanks to James Gunn's script and Zack Snyder's direction - so see, they don't do a completely bad job of it. The third act of the film is much more exciting than you would expect. Think a crazy prison break in the midst of Zombie Armageddon and you have some idea of the pulse-pounding conclusion. Being a studio film, they can actually increase the carnage here. Snyder gives us a vast landscape of seemingly impossible odds. The sequence is filled with a number of real jolts, some inventive flourishes and lots of big things that go "boom."
In fact, I'll close the review by saying that I really wish they had left the ending alone. Had it ended when it did, DAWN OF THE DEAD would close on a positive note. But when the credits begin, the story does not end. I would suggest that you leave the theatre the second you see the end credits come up. They'll try to get you to stay in your seats through use of a quick gratuitous breast shot, but don't be fooled. Run for the exit so the last image of DAWN OF THE DEAD is a poignant one. Sadly, the extra footage shown in brief spurts during the end credits is just trash. It actually succeeds in trampling on much of what came before in the film. Further research has shown that this is pretty much what the filmmakers completed when they did re-shoots a couple months before the film's release. I guess they felt that the ending needed a boost. Personally, I think they should have left well enough alone.
There are several things to like about the new DAWN OF THE DEAD and several things to despise as well. Ending as it does, and containing enough stand-out moments of pure insipidness, moments that would cause you to rip your hair out in frustration, it might be hard to find the good stuff. But the good stuff is there. Even piled under some sloppy character development, misfired humor and Hollywood glitz, there is plenty of good old fashioned horror mojo to make the new DAWN OF THE DEAD worth at least one look. It manages to dodge a bullet and become just watchable enough to recommend. I would have liked more of what made the film work and less of what didn't of course. But the greatest parts of the film are handled so well, that it almost evens itself out in the end.