When there’s no room in Hell, the dead walk to the mall. That was the message of horror master George Romero’s 1978 anti-consumerism flick Dawn of the Dead. This 2004 remake by first-time director Zack Snyder takes away a lot of the social message, and fills it instead with plenty of head-blasting zombie-killing mayhem and a surprisingly unpredictable storyline that—while far from perfect—is a lot of fun to watch.
The plot loosely follows the Romero original. This time around, the star of the survivors’ crew is Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse who wakes up from a romantic night with her boyfriend to a nightmarish world gone undead. Her neighbor’s cute kid has turned into a flesh-eater, and has taken a big bite out of her sweetheart, turning him into one of her vicious kind. And, all over her idyllic suburban Wisconsin town, the dead are walking again; they’re hungry, and they can run like the dickens.
Ana stumbles across some other "living": a cop (Ving Rhames), a recovering bad boy (Mekhi Phifer), his pregnant gal pal (can you see where this is headed?), and a level-headed everyman (Jack Weber). They make for the safety of a well-stocked shopping mall, holing up with three security guards and hoping to be rescued by the military. Not a bad way to spend a zombie crisis! Much like the original, Snyder’s version shows our castaways indulging in the consumerist joys of the shopping mall and the company of each other—kind of like an apocalyptic Breakfast Club.
After more survivors make their way to the mall, it soon becomes clear to nurse Ana how the zombie disease spreads: by bite; and the only cure is a shotgun blast to the head or via a little taste of fire. So what do they do now? Wallow in their mall bounty until they’re starved out? Or find a way to escape? And to where?
The new Dawn isn’t short on fast-paced, extremely gory action, especially in the several awe-inspiring scenes of zombie masses overrunning city, state, country, and possibly even world. But there are also an excellent handful of comic touches thrown in, helping to keep the movie from droning downward into cliché. For example, there’s the rooftop conversation using dry-erase boards between Rhames and a gun-store owner islanded across a mall parking lot, followed by that same gun-store guy’s sniper-style shooting game, picking off zombie celebrity look-alikes for points. In total, this update has all the brutality of such recent undead favorites as 28 Days Later, but still maintains the humor that Romero worked into his Dead trilogy. Romero fans shouldn’t be too let down by that mix.
The talented cast, which includes such proven performers as Polley (The Sweet Hereafter, Go) and Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Out of Sight), are only icing on the cake. Let’s face it; zombie flicks don’t pose a serious acting challenge for some of these folks. But in the end, they help build the suspense and sustain the humorous elements. Much of Dawn wouldn’t have worked well without their efforts.
And finally, Snyder keeps the whole thing visually fresh with a range of shooting, from slick, commercial-like filming to cinema verite-style grainy DV. He even ventures to expand the movie into its closing credits (rather nastily, I might add), which further keeps this film from ever being dull.
The only warning I offer is that this is one gruesome blood-fest. Snyder establishes very early on, prior to the opening credits (set tidily to the musical stylings of Johnny Cash), that he’s not afraid to let the blood packs splatter. But once you get used to the carnage, you may just find yourself on a rather terrifying yet thrilling little ride. And if you’re already a die-hard zombie movie fan, you’ll leave your memories of the Romero version behind, just to indulge in the delights of Snyder’s wild, new, imaginary interpretation.
Review by Annette Cardwell © 2004 filmcritic.com