Zombie movies are generally not art, and must be critiqued on a special bell curve. When I go see one of these pictures, I require only the following things: 1.) The zombies will look physically threatening; 2.) There will be an elevated “ugh” factor (Ugh is the sound I instinctively make when presented with a pleasurably gory special effect); and 3.) The human characters won’t be too stupid. In other words, I want cool zombies munching down on people who cleverly try to outrun them. Do that right and I’m hooked. Dawn of the Dead - a remake of George Romero’s 1978 sequel to his own Night of the Living Dead - accomplishes these three missions in high style. To my ever-lasting surprise, this is one of the best horror flicks in recent memory.
The film begins with pretty Anna (Sarah Polley) returning home from her shift at the local hospital where she is a nurse. She settles in for a quiet night with her husband and young daughter. Something peculiar happens the next morning: her daughter enters the bedroom and takes a bite out of her husband’s jugular. Hubby dies for a few seconds, then springs back to life and tries to bite Anna. She manages to escape, only to discover a world gone amok right outside her door. Zombies are on the loose everywhere.
She hooks up with some other survivors including a cop named Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a soon-to-be-father named Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant wife, and a lonely divorcee named Michael (Jake Weber). They hide in the local shopping mall, where TV broadcasts talk about the “plague” that is turning innocent people into flesh-eating zombies. Trapped inside the mall, the group attempts to find ways of keeping the zombies out. It is not an easy task, as the parking lot is soon crammed with them. A few manage to get in and sink their teeth into the humans. The only way to kill them is to shoot them in the head. Everyone is armed to the teeth as they monitor the situation from the rooftop. Eventually the group formulates an escape plan that involves reinforcing the mall’s shuttle busses, driving to the town marina, and hopping a boat to a desert island.
The action in Dawn of the Dead starts in the first five minutes and never stops. The early scenes show the horror of the zombie flood, as well as the characters’ attempts to find a place of safety. The middle scenes depict their attempts at survival. The mall is safe, but not foolproof. Zombies get in; people get bit. There’s tension in not knowing who’s going to, as the song says, “get down with the sickness.” The ending is a great big old-fashioned zombie-thon, as the humans race through zombified streets trying to reach the marina. Basically, what we’re getting here is one intense action sequence after another. My favorite is a planned attempt to rescue a gun shop owner stranded across the street from the mall. The group needs his arsenal, but getting across the crowded parking lot without becoming zombie food is tricky. Just when they think they’ve got it figured out…
For all the gore, there’s also a sense of humor in the film. In one scene, the humans try to make the best out of their predicament. That includes hitting golf balls off the mall roof, trying to nail the zombies down below. Romero’s original version of this story was, as countless critics have pointed out, a satire of America’s consumer-crazed lifestyle. There’s nothing here as biting as that, but the humor provides a nice counterpoint to all the carnage.
For those of you into such things (or at least into them within the context of a zombie movie), the carnage here is first-rate. It’s graphic without being sickening, and there’s a wittiness about it as well. Example: on one of those reinforced shuttle busses, Michael leaves a slit down the side. That way, if any zombies try to hang on, he can slide a chain saw across the slit and cut ‘em in two. Yes, we do see this happen. Yes, it rocks (again, within the context of zombie movies).
The characters are rather interesting, too. Each of them has his/her own little back story that explains their motivations. Anna, devastated by the loss of her husband and daughter, takes a kind of revenge-minded approach. Kenneth believes that his brother is located at a military outpost that is supposedly safe, so he wants to make his way there. Andre has perhaps the most interesting character arc. Despite all the horror going on outside, he’s content on keeping his family together and bringing a baby into the world. The way this motivation plays out is quite interesting. I think the actors are called upon to bring something to their roles in order to help flesh out the ideas; this is generally successful as we do maintain a rooting interest in their fight against the creatures.
Dawn of the Dead is ultra-violent, excessively bloody, and extremely gory – all in a good way. I left the theater feeling pumped full of adrenaline. Director Zack Snyder shows a real talent for breakneck pacing and eerie atmosphere. The film effectively conveys a sense of great menace spreading uncontrollably. It’s easy to make a horror movie, difficult to make one well. On a picture such as this, there’s no way to really justify liking it except to reiterate that it meets my criteria for zombie movies. If you know what I’m talking about, this is a movie for you. If not…well, you probably wouldn’t line up for it anyway.
Note: Be sure to stick around for the end credits, which provide a creepy coda to everything that has just happened.
( 1/2 out of four)
Dawn of the Dead is rated R for pervasive strong horror violence and gore, language and sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.
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