George Romero's 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead is probably the greatest zombie movie of all time, as well as one of the best horror movies of the last 30 years. Set mainly in a suburban mall, it was as much a critique/satire on rampant consumerism as it was a chilling gore-fest. Though our country's capitalistic nature has only escalated in the last 25 years, the satirical content has been slashed in Zack Snyder's 2004 remake -- but the zombies are more ferocious than ever. Unlike your parents' undead, lumbering around aimlessly in search of brains, these zombies are fast, mean, and -- relatively speaking -- smart. Otherwise, this hi-tech update sticks pretty close to the source material. A visceral, violent pre-credit sequence brilliantly sets the stage: A strange plague infects much of the population overnight, causing the dead to rise and attack the living. Those not infected manage to hole up in a mall while the bloodthirsty corpses converge outside like shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving. Among the group of survivors are Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer, and Jake Weber. Who are they and what do they do? They fight zombies, of course -- and therein lies the problem with this remake. The script is nearly as mindless as the zombies, heading down the predictable path of offing the leads one by one as they fight to escape. Snyder is a skilled visual stylist, however, and makes up for it with sheer thrills. Adrenaline levels run high the entire film, and the jolts come fast and furious with plenty of squeamish delights for gore fans. With a little more care and attention to story, Dawn of the Dead could have truly rivaled the original; instead we merely get a real good scare.
In terms of remakes of sequels, director Zack Snyder's cautiously anticipated Dawn of the Dead serves as a fitting follow-up to makeup effects-artist-turned director Tom Savini's underrated 1990 remake of George A. Romero's 1968 zombie classic Night of the Living Dead -- albeit with an aesthetic face-lift that owes just as much to the fast-moving "infected" of Danny Boyle's art-house horror hit 28 Days Later. Of course, this film isn't a "direct" remake of Romero's 1978 gut-muncher -- gone is the anti-consumerism and social satire that made the original such an ideal product of its time - though it still does manage to provide some gory and intense fun with the same central concept. In the end, however, it does deliver in terms of pure, visceral terror by successfully tapping into the apocalyptic suburban paranoia that has been so prevalent since the horrific events of 9/11. Where 28 Days Later opted to bring that angle to the forefront of the film thematically (thus keeping it closer in spirit to Romero's films and rendering it the more socially conscious of the pair), Dawn of the Dead simply turns the tension to a fever pitch early on and does its sincere best to keep things fast and scary. Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn also deserve credit for throwing the audience a few well-placed curveballs. Of course, those familiar with the general zombie film formula will find no surprise in the inclusion of the antagonistic "Cooper" character here (masterfully manifested in Michael Kelly's overly paranoid mall cop CJ), though instead of simply painting the character as a hastily drawn, trigger-happy villain, the filmmakers thankfully take the character in a surprising and unexpected direction. If the remainder of the characters suffer slightly from lack of development (an element to which a substantial portion of running-time in the original film was dedicated), solid performances by leads Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames -- as well as capable supporting performances by such supporting players as Kelly and Jake Weber -- inject enough personal detail to make them at least identifiable and sympathetic. So, now that both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead have been remade, it will be interesting to see what happens to Day of the Dead, the third film in Romero's original zombie trilogy. Even if the die-hard Romero fan can't quite come to terms with the concept of remaking a film that was such a carefully-crafted product of its time, at the very least they can take solace in knowing that the successful box-office run of this remake very well played a deciding factor in convinging sceptical studio heads to greenlight Romero's long-rumored Land of the Dead.
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