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Dawn Of The Dead (2004)
Director: Zack Snyder

review by Paul Higson

George A. Romero's 1979 Dawn of the Dead (and its shorter UK Goblin-remix release version Zombies: Dawn Of The Dead - of which British fans are more familiar and fond) had it all. It was an allegory at the same time that it was a gung-ho action flick, it was gory and had a sense of humour, it was low budget yet an epic, independent and commercial, a tragedy, a love story, had characters that were real that resided in and reacted naturally to a fantastical premise. It was the sequel to the film that upset the horror genre rulebook more than any other before or since, and was succeeded by the perfect closing chapter. It was the longest horror film in release up until that time, too. So how do you meet that? You don't... because you can't! It doesn't mean you can't make a good film drawing on the original... it simply can't be bettered.
   Zack Snyder's re-imagination is full of well-squeezed squeals, has that hit-and-run digital jitter that gets you chasing the action and it chasing you. It isn't chaptered like the original, the episodes in the tenements and the airstrip replaced by a pre-credit episode in suburbia and the sections of the Romero original that took the form of arrival, clean-up, ennui and biker invasion are removed to be replaced with nothing of clear delineation, merely the stepping up of the number of survivors and their predictable removal. It was the astounding skill and acumen of Romero that enabled him to imbue the foursome of his original with enough character (helped inordinately by excellent performances from Ken Foree, David Emge, Scott Reinegger and Gaylen Ross) that they could carry the body of the two hours of screen time. Snyder on the other hand begins with five and bumps up the number of mall sanctuary seekers to eight with the surviving security personnel, then invites a truckload of survivors to double it to 16. Bonus zombie fodder is found in the gun-store man who befriends them from a neighbouring street roof, communicating with them using binoculars, cardboard and paint. Every stereotype is onboard this bus, the good and the bad, none of them significantly well drawn. And in the first two paragraphs of this review lies the biggest problem... those who are familiar with the original cannot help but draw comparison, and on points Romero is winning hands down almost every time. Neither does it help in the early stages when the in-jokes are thrown in, when it should be concentrating on bringing some degree of separation between the two.
   The retake provides certain chills, is a successful thriller, has impact and makes you squirm at its grisliness. Movies are made from moments and this has many of them. Some of it is subtle. The opening sequence in the suburbs is a suitably grim sequence. The tenderness of the lovers cuts to its further depiction in a photograph of the couple as a shadow traverses it, the shadow of death, a zombie but an exactly zombified child. The sweet kid from next door that only hours before was excited only by the challenge of skating backwards, is now smacked back down the hall, leaping to her feet, something feral, picking up on the co-signals of the living. The gentle lover is next transformed, into something unfamiliar, intent only in ripping his girlfriend open. The trick aerial landscapes are impressive but Romero achieved this scope and more on half a million dollars 25 years earlier. The CGI smoke only closes the film in, and makes a computer game sans controls of it.
   The mall does not seem to equip them adequately for the apocalypse. There has been a clamp on the open sale of bullets just about anywhere since the comedown by Walmart and the armoury, as previously mentioned, is on the other side of the supermarket car-park in a shabby neighbourhood made scarier. This mall feels small, is not explored or exploited successfully enough. In the 1979 film the shopping mall was a fifth character, the cerebellum of the consumer inside which the frantic living and brainwashed dead run and lumber respectively. In the 2004 film the mall is a Tardis, the roofs lower on the outside than is suggested by the inside.
   The dead hurtle and much has been made of it, though the sprinting corpses were first introduced in Incubo sulla Citta Contaminata (aka: City Of The Walking Dead), found since in The Return Of The Living Dead and 28 Days Later. This is the reason for the increase in the number of mall rats and why the shopping centre is almost clean of the living dead upon arrival. It would have been unlikely that a small group could have survived or evicted this quick menace. The dead are ferocious no matter what the shape or size, and a 300-pound woman racing towards you with her teeth bared is doubly threatening. There is uniformity to the dead and they do have docile moments, when the smell of the living is not in their noses.
   The survivors' plan to leave the mall is one of supreme daftness, an armoured convoy to the harbour and the yacht of one of the number to sail it to a fantasy island; well, it served the survivors of Day Of The Dead, but they didn't have a mall. Why don't they stay and make the most of the contents of the mall first, give the dead time for their carcasses to denigrate to the degree that the muscles won't support them and they collapse? Why do they think there might be an island free of people or come to that free of living dead people? How do they know where to find his yacht, identify it when the owner is killed on route? We're given yet more stupid Americans. Are they the norm now, or was Romero deceiving us in giving us intelligent protagonists the first time out? Sadly, the kids have been rating this over the original for no other reason than that the zombies are blue. I have every faith that the nippers will go back eventually and discover which film truly impresses.
   It would be indignant of me to wrap up the review without mentioning some of the performers, especially as I have been compelled already to namecheck the principle cast of the 1979 film. Jake Weber comes closest to finding a character in the role of Michael, initially mistaken for this film's answer to 'flyboy' but hardier and more commanding. There is no real development of the characters. We learn nothing more about any one of the survivors, little or no history, no connections, not even Sarah Polley's Ana beyond the pre-credits sequence. Ving Rhames is no more than a bloody great muscle, though as a cop he reads more of being a stolen uniform, and you could swear that Michael espies the big fellow's tattoos on their first encounter and thinks the same.
   It is in the horror action thrills that adequately dominate, pepper and then dominate again, that the new film comes up trumps. It suffices the demands of enthusiasts of grim full-throttle horror. The Dead franchise, though alternative sequels and budgetary upgrades, continues to entertain, but like the zombie majority (fictional here on film, real there in Hollywood and cinemas), it has ceased to think.
Dawn of the Dead poster

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Dawn of the Dead


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