Dawn of the Dead (2004) ***˝
I had been thinking some years ago how odd it was that the great remake calendar seemed to cut off somewhere in the late 1960’s. While some films that had been shot for the first time back in the teens were on their sixth or seventh remake cycle, nobody seemed to want to revisit movies from the 1970’s or early 1980’s. But no sooner had that thought fully crystallized in my head than the 2000 version of Shaft appeared on the scene. Then came Rollerball and Red Dragon, and now it seems as though (at least as far as the horror genre is concerned) we’re in the opening stages of a full-blown 70’s remake explosion. Bear in mind, however, that my taking note of the erstwhile absence of new versions of 70’s films should not at all be taken to mean that I wanted to see such things get made. Indeed, the prospect fills me with dread, especially when the movie being targeted for remaking is something like Dawn of the Dead. Despite the fact that I’m primarily a child of the 80’s (which is to say that I was born in the 70’s, but don’t much remember them), it is 70’s horror that is now closest to my heart. The bleakness and grittiness; the almost obsessive emphasis on making a mockery of all previously agreed upon standards of taste and propriety; the sense of danger one gets while watching the horror films of that era, that maybe they really were as nasty and subversive and amoral as their detractors would have us believe— no other decade’s fright films possess those qualities in such reliable abundance, nor does it seem probable that today’s filmmakers could update that feel while neither slavishly copying nor losing something essential in the translation. Thus it was that I seriously considered giving the new Dawn of the Dead a pass. I pegged the odds at better than even that watching it would just make me mad, and there are enough things to make me mad simply floating around in the world that I really don’t need to seek out any more deliberately. But then a strange and surprising thing happened. People I knew, whose opinions I more or less trusted, started going to see the movie, and returned with almost uniformly positive things to say about it. And now that I’ve seen Dawn of the Dead myself, you’re going to hear more of the same from me.
Ana (Sarah Polley, from Blue Monkey and eXistenZ) is a nurse working at a hospital somewhere in Milwaukee. Early on the morning of her first day off in entirely too long, she and her husband are awakened by the little girl who lives next door, who has let herself into their house and who evidently is rather ill. Actually, scratch that. When the girl steps out of the shadows and into the bedroom, we see that something has torn her face to shreds, and there is an alarming look of all-consuming hunger in her eyes. No sooner has Ana taken this in than the girl lunges at her husband and tears his throat out with her teeth. Ana is able to subdue the girl only by cracking her hard on the head, and by that point, it looks pretty hopeless for her husband. But while Ana is dialing 911 (and having oddly little success in getting a connection), the injured man gets up off the bed and attacks her, seemingly unaffected by the gaping, spurting wound in his neck. When Ana escapes through the bathroom window, she sees that her entire neighborhood— and probably the rest of the city as well— is engulfed in chaos much like that which has erupted in her home. Police helicopters are zipping through the air in droves, crowds of people are fleeing down the streets in panic, and other crowds of badly mangled men and women are pursuing them, eating the flesh of anyone they can catch. Ana peels out of her driveway just in time to avoid another attack from her husband, and heads off down the road through scenes of ever-escalating havoc.
Her flight is cut short when she drives off the road and into a tree while trying to dodge a multi-vehicle wreck on one of the highways leading out of Milwaukee. Soon thereafter, she meets up with several people who share her predicament. The first of these is a police sergeant named Kenneth (Ving Rhames, of Jacob’s Ladder and The People Under the Stairs), who tells her that he’s trying to reach a nearby military base called Fort Preston. A bit later, the two of them are joined by Michael (Jake Weber, from Wendigo and The Cell), Andre (Mekhi Phifer, from I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Shaft), and Andre’s extremely pregnant wife, Luda (Inna Korobkina). These three are the last survivors of a group of eight who were decimated in their attempt to make precisely the same trek as Kenneth. Having learned their lesson well, they’re now on their way to the Cross Roads Mall instead, and after some arguing, they are able to convince Kenneth and Ana that they’d be better off to come along.
Our heroes find two kinds of danger awaiting them at the mall. The first, naturally, comes from the crazed cannibals who have brought life all over Milwaukee to a screeching halt. The second comes from CJ (Unbreakable’s Michael Kelly), Terry (Kevin Zegers, of Komodo and Specimen), and Bart (Michael Barry), the Cross Roads Mall’s security staff. CJ gives the impression that he’s been waiting all his life for something like this to happen, and now that it has, he’s taken up a stance about halfway between survivalist militiaman and Third World warlord, pressing his young subordinates into service as his private army. Given his druthers, CJ is inclined to toss the five refugees out to fend for themselves, but Ana is able to prevail upon the more reasonable Terry to talk his leader down. Meanwhile, Michael manages to steer CJ’s thinking toward a more productive course of action than waiting for people to wander into the mall and then waving pistols in their faces, eventually convincing him to lock up the building and fortify it against attack from the cannibals outside.
“Outside,” incidentally, proves to mean far more than just the greater Milwaukee area. As the televisions in the mall’s security headquarters reveal, the scope of the crisis is truly worldwide— reports of cannibal uprisings are pouring in even from such exotic locales as Istanbul. By the end of the day, authority everywhere is in a state of total collapse, and the eight inhabitants of the Cross Roads Mall know they’re entirely on their own.
The next morning brings more refugees to the mall’s doorstep— or rather, to its loading dock. A delivery truck being driven by a woman named Norma (Jayne Eastwood, of Videodrome and Resurrection) fights its way through the crowd of flesh-eaters, its cargo compartment filled with people rescued from a nearby church. Again CJ doesn’t want to let them in, but with Terry’s help, Ana and Kenneth seize control of the situation, disarming CJ and Bart, and locking them up the holding cell originally intended for shoplifters awaiting the real police. Norma’s passengers total seven: annoying yuppie Steve (Evolution’s Ty Burrell), his girlfriend Monica (Kim Poirier, from The Rats and Decoys), 50-ish working-class guys Tucker (Boyd Banks, from Jason X and Bruiser) and Frank (Matt Frewer, of The Stand and Lawnmower Man 2), Frank’s teenage daughter Nicole (Lindy Booth, from Teenage Space Vampires and American Psycho 2), and an older couple whose names we never will learn. Like the other mall refugees, many of this new crew have been injured to one extent or another, two of them having been bitten by a cannibal. The old woman is in the worst shape. Her injuries have apparently gone septic, as she is obviously in the grip of a life-threatening infection. The strange thing, though, is that she has no fever, and is in fact cold to the touch— despite her professional training, Ana doesn’t know what to make of it. But when the old lady dies, and then almost immediately reawakens as a mad cannibal, Ana and her companions figure out at last what’s really going on. The killers who have overrun the world aren’t merely sick. Whatever disease they’re carrying reanimates the bodies of its victims after doing them in, and imparts to them an insatiable hunger for the flesh of the living. Not only does that make perfect sense of what Ana saw happen back in her bedroom the morning before, it also explains why nothing short of a massive head-trauma seems to be able to stop the cannibals— if they’re already dead, it stands to reason that the only way to kill them again would be to destroy the brain and thereby disrupt the reanimated body’s ability to coordinate itself. And if the disease is spread through the bites of the infected, as the old lady’s resurrection would seem to suggest, then that means everyone who has already been bitten will be turning zombie sooner or later— Frank, Luda, and presumably Luda’s unborn child. Furthermore, there’s an even more serious, if also less pressing, concern. The food, water, and other provisions in the mall aren’t going to last forever, and the people holed up inside it already know that nobody else is going to be coming along to bail them out. Eventually, they’re going to have to brave the hordes of carnivorous dead and seek a more sustainable form of safety elsewhere.
The Zack Snyder-James Gunn Dawn of the Dead is going to make a lot of enemies, I’m afraid, simply because it isn’t the George Romero Dawn of the Dead. This is both silly and sad. After all, Romero already made his version, so what would be the point of having Snyder and Gunn make it again? What we should be asking of a remake is that its creators do something new or at least different with the basic setup from the original, and that is indeed what we get with this new interpretation. There are zombies; there’s a shopping mall; one of the central characters is a black cop. Otherwise, there isn’t a whole lot of overlap between this version and Romero’s, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the way things ought to be.
In any case, it seems clear enough that Zack Snyder saw 28 Days Later… before tackling this project. Dawn of the Dead uses the fast-moving, ferocious zombies that were that movie’s most distinctive— and possibly most controversial— feature, along with its ultra-sharp (and sometimes eyestrain-inducing) digital video cinematography. (Though it appears that the latter is employed only to add emphasis to certain sections of Dawn of the Dead; either that or Snyder tinkered with the rest of the movie to give it more of a celluloid look.) This resemblance to Danny Boyle’s take on the genre is another point on which the purists will surely attack the new Dawn of the Dead (demanding instead that any proper Romero remake use the shambling ghouls of the original trilogy), but to do so seems rather pointless to me. True, the “running zombies” approach has the effect of making the living dead seem more human— especially early on, when none of them are visibly decomposed yet— but as the film wears on, the increasingly heavy decay makeup more than compensates. And upon further reflection, the difficulty of distinguishing between a zombie and a living human who just happens to be homicidally insane that characterizes the first act is really a point in Dawn of the Dead’s favor. It makes it more believable that the mall refugees take so long to figure out what they’re really up against.
What most distinguishes Dawn of the Dead from the majority of the past decade’s zombie pictures (apart from its comparatively gigantic budget, I mean) is that, like its namesake, it focuses to a great extent on the personalities of its characters, and makes their emotional and psychological reactions to the horrifying situation in which they find themselves a central concern of the film. Like Romero before them, Snyder and Gunn devote a fair chunk of the movie’s midsection to examining how the inmates of the Cross Roads Mall keep themselves occupied within their drastically circumscribed world. My favorite moment here is the blackly hilarious scene in which the mall people amuse themselves by challenging the similarly trapped owner of the gun shop across the street to demonstrate his marksmanship upon zombies who bear a passing resemblance to certain especially contemptible celebrities. (Incidentally, this is the closest Snyder and Gunn ever come to repeating Romero’s serious misstep of playing the zombies for laughs. It is greatly to the current team’s credit that they never lose sight of the need to keep the zombies threatening.) But for the most part, this movie’s approach to its characters follows less from the original Dawn of the Dead than it does from Night of the Living Dead. Each of these characters has a flaw or two which could easily get them (or somebody else) killed, and in many cases that is exactly what happens. For me, the high point of the film from this angle is the subplot concerning Andre, Luda, and their unborn child, which eventually makes Dawn of the Dead probably the first movie ever to play the zombie baby card in a way that inspires more shivers than giggles. To be fair, there are some points at which this movie falls on its face with the “fatal flaw” stuff (among the many things upon which I’ll be laying down a ten-year moratorium when I’m an authoritarian dictator is the “get yourself killed while trying to save the goddamned dog” set-piece), but it definitely succeeds more often than it fails. And of even greater importance, this is one horror movie in which the death of a character is as serious a matter as it would be in the real world. Frank’s demise early on has a degree of kick to it that I haven’t seen in a horror flick in some considerable while.
Two final notes before I take my leave of Dawn of the Dead: First, pay attention while the characters are watching TV in security headquarters. The actors who played the two cops in Romero’s version both get televised cameos, as does Tom Savini. (The latter turns up in a sly riff on the “Yeah, they’re dead… They’re all messed up” interview from Night of the Living Dead.) Second, stick around for the closing credits. Interspersed among the names of cast- and crewmembers are a series of short clips that paint a completely different picture of the story’s conclusion from what you’ll get if you walk out at the end of the main action.