Dawn of the Dead Redux

In 1978 George A. Romero wrote and directed Dawn of the Dead. That film used the outer edifice of the zombie genre to satirize American society, and specifically consumerism. Romero’s zombies were fascinating mirror images of us. It was a deeply nuanced film that mixed real scares and loads of gore with meaningful commentary.  It is, by turns funny, moving, terrifying, smart and exciting. Dawn of the Dead is the Platonic ideal against which other zombie movies must be judged.

So, what kind of idiot would want to mess with that? The answer is Zack Snyder.  In 2004 he chose to helm a remake of Romero’s classic.  He chose to jettison the satire and focus instead on more standard horror-action movie tropes.  He also drops most of the plot of the original.  Snyder takes the elevator pitch: people trapped in a shopping mall during the zombie apocalypse and runs with that.
Zombie films have come in many shapes, and forms. From the films of Dario Argento, to the weirdness of Lucio Fulci, to the outrageous (and often funny) films of Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness). Zombie films can be smart (Night of the Living Dead), or stupid (The Dead Hate the Living), but they are nearly always effective. The new Dawn of the Dead isn’t all that smart, but it is fun. 

The bare bones plot is simple enough. For some reason (which is wisely never explained) the dead begin coming back to life and attacking the living. Those they kill quickly become zombies themselves and set to work making even more zombies. A small band of survivors hides out in a shopping mall and attempts to wait out the nightmare. Along the way there are obligatory zombie attacks, and internecine strife. Of course, they will decide to flee the mall, and that’s when the action will really pick up. The story moves out into the streets, and involves armored buses, and a boat.
 The action also involves a cute dog. Normally it is a bad sign when the adorable pet shows up, but this dog at least serves a purpose within the plot. This cast handles the material beautifully. Sarah Polley stars as Ana, a nurse who saw her husband killed by a zombie early on. Ving Rhames (of Pulp Fiction fame) plays a tough cop, and Jake Webber is the sort of hyper-intelligent loser movie-goers have come to expect. There are great cameos by Tom Savini, and Ken Foree, who were featured in the original film. Foree’s dialogue contains the single best in-joke in the film . Ms Polley shows that she can elevate even this level of material with her acting talent. Audiences should watch her in the future. She manages to imbue what could be a stock character with some real depth. Ving Rhames plays his role mostly in silence, yet comes across well. He is able to elicit more with a gesture or a look than most actors can with a monologue. Rhames has become a powerful actor, and will be with us for a long time. Jake Webber (who in my mind will always be the guy who isn’t Tim Roth (don’t ask)) is a gifted actor, and carries his role well.

The crew fights zombies, boredom, and each other. To kill time, they communicate via signs with Andy, the fellow trapped on the roof of a gun store across the street. It is interesting that Andy becomes a compelling character, despite the fact that we never really see him close up or hear him speak. The film is short on “cat scares” (this is a good thing). It earns the jumps it gets from the audience. There is some real tension, and quite a bit of suspense as we hope against hope that some of these people will be able to survive. The film’s FX are great. The state-of-the-art FX help to create a realism that lends to the horror. Dawn of the Dead also has a great use of music. I was quite pleased to hear the song choices the film makers made. This film came out at a moment when zombies were resurgent. That moment has never really passed.  Although it is no match for Romero’s original masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead (redux) is a great pop culture movie. In the vein of pure entertainment, it works as well as one would hope. The film is genuinely frightening. It plays by its own rules and does not disappoint the audience.  Watching it, one forgets that this is a Zack Snyder film. It lacks the heavy-handed didacticism, and dim-witted Randian Libertarianism of his later films. I suppose we can thank the screenwriting of James Gunn for saving this. While it lacks the intelligence of its progenitor, it functions marvelously as a fright film. This isn’t great art, but judged against other recent films in the genre, it is actually very good DotD Redux is a fine horror film with solid action beats.  

 Be sure to sit through the end credits, as more footage is intercut with them. Anyone who loves before the last of the credits flash on screen will miss important information and some final scares.