Like most seasoned horror movie fans, I grew up on George Romero's seminal seventies classic of satirical horror, Dawn Of The Dead. When I heard it was to be remade without Romero's involvement (though he is credited with a 'based on a screenplay by George Romero' line in the opening) and to be rewritten by Jamie Gunn (who has done some interesting work at Troma but has also written dreck like Scooby-Doo) and directed by Zack Snyder, someone I'd never heard of before, I was expecting the worst. It seemed like yet another instance of Hollywood raping its past rather than making an even minute attempt at coming up with something fresh and original. Shades of Gus Van Sant's near-blasphemous remake of Psycho or Jan De Bont's unbelievably bad retelling of The Haunting immediately sprung to mind and I had a bad taste in my mouth before I sat down in the theater with my bag of stale popcorn and cup of watered down Pepsi. I was sure I'd hate this movie, no matter how open I tried to keep my mind. I just didn't think a modernized remake of a film that I personally hold such an affinity for would work.
The film begins when a nurse named Ana (Sarah Polley) of Cronenberg's eXistenZ) gets off work and comes home for a romantic night with her husband. That doesn't last too long though as one of the girls from the neighborhood shows up covered in blood and bites her husband on the neck. Ana thinks he's dead until less than a minute later his corpse gets up and attacks her. She escapes out the window of the bathroom only to find her suburb erupting into total chaos.
She hops into her car and hightails it out of there only to drive off the road and collide with a tree. When she gets out of her car and wanders through the woods she meets up with a police officer named Ken (played as a total bad ass by Ving Rhames), a man named Michael, and a couple who are expecting their first baby. The five of them head to the mall together in hopes of holing up there and waiting for help to arrive.
When they arrive, they find a trio of security guards have taken over the second floor and don't want anyone else moving in on their territory. The five of them convince the guards to let them in on the condition that the guards, led by a hotheaded jerk named CJ (Michael Kelly), get to take their guns and call all the shots. When a truckload of other survivors shows up, CJ doesn't want to let them into the mall as it's now surround by hoards of flesh eating zombies but they soon turn the tables on him and wrestle his gun from him. Soon enough, he and his cohort are locked up in the mall's holding cell. The other group of survivors are let in, though two of them have been bitten by the zombies and need to be taken care of quickly lest the infection spread inside the mall and kill them all.
Eventually it's decided that the group has to do something – they can't stay in the mall forever and even if the could, would they really want to? The world outside has gone to Hell around them. The only thing they can do is hope to escape to somewhere remote enough that the zombie plague hasn't reached yet.
Dawn Of The Dead is an extremely fast paced film – from its opening eight minutes, seen the other night on TV during a showing of Final Destination, the film starts off with a bang and doesn't let up until the end save for a few quieter moments of much needed character development. It makes for a fun and gory popcorn film and if you check your brain at the door, you'll probably have a good time with it.
It's not without its flaws, however. One of the most important aspects or Romero's original film was that you cared about the characters. With only four main protagonists in the film you were able to get to know them and develop an understanding for them. As a result, when one of them died, you felt for them. You really wanted them to make it out alive because you'd gotten to know them over the last hour and a half. With Snyder's remake, that doesn't happen. There are too many characters introduced too quickly to get to know any of them and even Ana, who is the central female lead in the film, is underdeveloped and rather flat. When her husband dies and she escapes, she shows no remorse and never mentions him again for the rest of the film. We see them very much in love in the first scene, shouldn't she at least be feeling some sort of angst over the fact that he turned into a flesh eating corpse and tried to kill her?
The film also comes dangerously close to being too funny for its own good. Some of the humor works really well and is quite effective (the 'Burt Reynolds' scene comes to mind, where a lone survivor who owns a gun shop across from the mall plays a target practice game on the zombies with the mall crowd, communicating by writing messages on boards) but other times it feels contrived and it's almost like it's trying to be a little bit hipper than it really needs to be.
The film does get more right than it gets wrong though, and there are a lot of nice little touches throughout that fans of the original will enjoy. Tom Savini and Ken Foree (heard uttering the tagline from the first film) both have clever cameo appearances and there's a store in the mall named after Gaylen Ross who played the female lead in Romero's original film. The gore is very strong for an R-rated mainstream Hollywood studio produced film and was quite a bit nastier than I'd anticipated, though it comes nowhere near the levels of the first film (which was released to theaters unrated back in the days before that meant financial suicide).
Paying close attention to the soundtrack reveals a few interesting details – from the opening credits with the late great Johnny Cash's When The Man Comes Around playing, quite appropriately, over news clips of the dead wreaking havoc upon the living to the muzak version of Don't Worry Be Happy playing on the mall's public address system when our band of survivors make their way into the complex. The dreaded nu-metal only plays over the end credits and doesn't take too much away from the movie. Dave Lombardo of Slayer fame supervised the percussion for the films soundtrack so there is a nice heaviness to it that works in its favor.
There is also an interesting, if a bit predictable, scene towards the end of the film where life and death collide, providing an interesting contrast from a visual and moral stand point. It also supplies what is arguably the films darkest and most serious moment. On the other side of the spectrum, an amusing homage to John Woo occurs without being too obvious during a flight from a horde of zombies in the sewer system below the mall.
If you go into the film expecting the slow moving zombies that serve as a metaphor for the American consumer that you found in Romero's film you'll likely be taken aback by how quickly the infected turn into the undead in this version, and how fast they move. This allows the filmmakers to work in a few good jump scares in a couple of scenes, and the make up effects used on the masses of undead participants is quite effective.
Overall, 2004's Dawn Of The Dead lacks the originality of its predecessor but still manages to be an exceptionally entertaining film, even it's at its most brainless. It works really well as a slam-bang action/horror hybrid and if you're looking for a fun night out at the movies, it fits the bill perfectly. Just make sure you sit through the end credits...