Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Tagline: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”
I’d like to start this review by committing horror movie blasphemy. Ready? Here goes. George Romero’s original three Dead movies are overrated (I’m not even going to comment on the train wreck which is Land of the Dead). While entertaining, they are also low-budget flicks with average acting and pacing about as slow as the shambling zombies depicted therein. Hardly the holy trinity which they’ve been made out to be.
And let’s not forget the much-lauded social criticism. Racism? Rampant consumerism? It’s all handled with the subtlety of a hammer to the back of the head. Listen, if I want social commentary in a movie, I’ll watch Gandhi or Norma Rae. When I sit down for a zombie movie, I want non-stop action and buckets of gore. Period. Anything else is just a bloody cherry on top of my horror sundae. It’s for these reasons (and others, which I’ll detail later) that I find the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead to be more satisfying than the original.
Adapted by James Gunn (Scooby Doo) from the original 1978 George A. Romero screenplay, Dawn of the Dead opens by allowing us to get briefly acquainted with the movie’s central protagonist, a pretty young nurse named Ana (Sarah Polley). But her safe suburban lifestyle is short lived, and a mysterious epidemic ensures that Ana is fleeing from ravenous zombies before the movie even hits the ten minute mark. She soon meets Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a tough-as-nails cop, and moments later they come across Michael (Jake Weber), a soft-spoken but natural leader, Andre (Mekhi Phifer), a man with a questionable past, and Luda (Inna Korobkina), Andre’s pregnant girlfriend.
They take refuge in a sprawling shopping mall, but quickly run afoul of the less-than-hospitable security guards C.J. (Michael Kelly), Bart (Michael Barry), and Terry (Kevin Zegers). More characters are added later, notably Steve (Ty Burrell), a smart-ass yuppie, and Andy (Bruce Bohne), the owner of a nearby gun shop. As the horrible infection spreads across the globe, and the situation becomes increasingly desperate, the characters come to realize that no help is coming from the outside. If they are to survive, they must take matters into their own hands. Luckily for us, that involves chainsaws, armor-reinforced parking shuttles, and propane tanks rigged into makeshift bombs.
The action comes fast and furious throughout, and director Zack Snyder (helming his first feature film) does a nice job of pacing and getting us right into the thick of things. He does tend to overuse the slow-motion effect whenever there’s an explosion or cartridge ejected from a gun, but this can be forgiven because (a) it’s his freshman effort, and (b) it doesn’t really take away from this particular story. We’re also treated to some solid camera work, editing which maintains a fast pace but doesn’t confuse the viewer, and excellent special effects with plenty of brains and blood to go around.
The soundtrack also plays a pivotal part in the film, adding an extra dimension to several key scenes. From Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” during the opening credits sequence (which, by the way, is better than many full-length zombie movies), to “People Who Died” by The Jim Carroll Band and a lounge version of “Down With the Sickness” by Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine, it’s beyond me why the studio chose not to release this soundtrack.
The acting is very strong for a film of this genre, and Jake Weber and Sarah Polley are particularly impressive in the roles of Michael and Ana. They both manage to bring a quiet sincerity to their roles, something not easily accomplished in a movie dominated by flesh-hungry ghouls and belching shotguns. The cast is much larger than the original, but each character is given a few moments to shine and let the audience identify with them.
True, nobody is fleshed out to the extent of, say, George C. Scott’s Patton or Denzel’s Malcolm X, but what do you expect from a horror movie? This isn’t Biography, folks.
Fans of the original Dawn will be happy to see cameos by Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, and “Sex Machine” Tom Savini. There are several other nods to the original movie scattered throughout, and one gets the sense that the filmmakers had a great affection for their predecessor. But make no mistake, this movie stands on its own with a different cast of characters, different climax, and completely different ending. Comparisons between the two are inevitable, but ultimately unfair to both pictures. It’s like comparing the original Atari to the Xbox. Both are a blast, but one is simply hopelessly outdated when held up to modern standards.
It should also be noted that the movie continues through the end credits, so don’t run off as soon as the lights start to come up. If you do, you’ll probably leave the theater with a much different idea of what happened than those who stayed behind.
Dawn of the Dead updates a classic and improves upon it along the way. The action is faster, the zombies are faster, and the overall product just looks better. It’s a zombie movie for the modern generation and well worth watching.