By Vic Holtreman
Short version: Not so much a remake, as a different take on the original that is actually more horror movie and less social commentary than George Romero’s film.
This is actually a review of the unrated director’s cut of 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, and not having seen the theatrical release I have no basis for comparison to that version. So let’s move on, shall we?
Right off the bat, you have to be a fan of movie gore effects if you’re going to watch this movie. If not, please don’t even bother, because there’s quite a bit of it and what there is, is quite explicit and bloody. Being a long time fan of the genre (although my tastes have mellowed a bit) there was quite a bit of “ick” factor, but I couldn’t begin to gauge what it might be like for the “average” movie viewer.
Another major issue, at least for die hard fans of George Romero’s original version of Dawn of the Dead, is that in this film the zombies move blindingly fast as opposed to the (thanks to Romero) long accepted convention that the undead move rather slowly and awkwardly. I must admit that I had a problem with this and it did affect my enjoyment of the film. As portrayed, they almost seemed like the zombie effect was akin to steriods, turning them into super athletes.
Setting aside the obvious, doesn’t a slow, plodding movement make more sense? After all hasn’t the brain supposedly died (like I said, lets set aside the obvious)? It makes more sense that the undead no longer have higher brain functions but are instead reduced to primal instincts and very basic motor functions. Agile, pouncing zombies might make them more of a threat, but it didn’t work for me. I like the idea that despite the fact that they moved slowly in the original they were still scary due to their sheer numbers and the fact that they continue to move inexorably and mindlessly forward no matter what.
On the flip side there are various tips of the hat to Romero’s version, including cameos by Tom Savini (who did the awesome special effects in the original) and by Ken Foree (who played the deadly serious African American in the original) who also quotes the line “When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” The scene in the original where a zombie receives a screwdriver in the ear is replaced by a quite well done croquet mallet handle through through the skull.
The film effectively dives right into the action within minutes of starting, and prior to said action the opening used short segments of ominous music and sound effects very effectively, punctuating innocuous moments. This tended to add to the dread of what you knew would soon be coming.
We start out with the point of view of a nurse (Sarah Polley) who goes home from her shift on the day that for some reason quite a large number of people are coming into the emergency room as bite victims of other people. On the drive home and while at home that evening, the movie points out the importance of listening to the news, which has been covering the spreading situation.
She has a rude awakening in the morning when the little girl from next door shows up at the bedroom door hungry, and it isn’t for Fruit Loops. She manages to escape her house and what was a quiet suburban neighborhood the day before looks like a war zone early in the morning. She gets away by car and sees more and more chaos as she drives along.
Eventually she hooks up with a police officer (Ving Rhames, whose work I enjoy no matter what) and another small group of folks who are on the run. With other avenues cut off, they decide to head for the mall. Once at the mall the film deviates quite a bit from the original as far as characters and situations… and I must say that it does make sense that more than four people would think of hiding out at the mall.
They need to secure the facility and eventually figure out if they want to live out the rest of their lives (which would be short, since they would eventually run out of food) in a mall. There is also an additional character stranded across the parking lot in a gun shop, with whom they build a friendship just through the use of handwritten signs and binoculars.
So we have the interpersonal conflicts which arise from the stress of the situation and confinement, albeit moreso than in Romero’s version due to the fact that there are more characters. There is an interesting subplot concerning a young pregnant woman and the father of her child (ER‘s Mekhi Phifer), and a good performance from Jake Weber, who is one of those actors that you know you’ve seen before but can’t remember where.
The direction and editing was (thankfully) not too jarring, and about the most stylized thing I saw was repeated shots of shells hitting the floor in slow motion, which became tiresome by about the third time. There was also some fun involving propane tanks that is probably the kind of thing that would be done on MTV’s “Jackass” show.
Overall, lot’s ‘o exploding heads, splattered blood and a fair bit of suspense make this one worthwhile viewing if you’re into this sort of thing (which I am happen to be).