by Mel Valentin
"Dawn of the Dead," a remake of George A. Romero's classic zombie horror film of the same title, is tailor made to meet audience expectations: in providing a steady stream of visceral shocks and thrills, high levels of gore (mostly of the exploding head variety), tightly edited action/chase scenes, the occasional awe-inspiring shot (an early God's eye view of the city at peace, and moments later, under attack; later still, a wide shot of the zombies at night attacking two vans), and a quickly ratcheting up a sense of apocalyptic doom. Add a bitter, bleak denouement for a central character, and the end result is one the best horror films in recent years.Dawn of the Dead opens in media res. The virus that causing the infected to die quickly, only to re-awaken as feral zombies has already spread throughout the city. The initial action centers on a local hospital, with the newly infected carted in on gurneys (the medical staff is unaware of what's about to befall them). After introducing the audience to Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse just finishing her shift, the action slows, as Ana goes home, relaxes, takes a showers, and spends time with her husband. As the two of them blissfully make love, they miss the evening news, which notes the recent upsurge in random violence. The next morning, as chaos swirls outside their home, a neighbor, a young girl, knocks on their bedroom door. Within moments, Ana's husband is infected, doomed to an afterlife as a flesh-eating zombie.
"Finally, A U.S.-made horror flick worth recommending."
Ana escapes from her zombified husband, only to drive her car into a nearby ditch. Ana quickly meets other survivors, Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a police officer, Michael (Jake Weber), Andre (Mekhi Phifer), a drug dealer, and Andre's pregnant wife, Luda (Inna Korobkina). With the roads blocked, the group hikes over a hill, discovering an abandoned shopping mall, their new "home" for most of the film's running time. Before they can call the mall their own, however, they have to contend with CJ (Michael Kelly), a trigger-happy security guard, as well as his two, inexperienced assistants. Later, after the personality conflicts between the central characters are more or less resolved, an entirely new group of survivors is added to the volatile mix. Eventually, of course, either the zombies massing outside the mall get in (the zombies can obviously smell human flesh) or the survivors break out, for some other, safer sanctuary.
The zombies in the new Dawn of the Dead are feral; they run fast (as opposed to the better-known, slow-moving variety); they're essentially operating with only their reptilian brains, with only one goal, to appease their insatiable hunger for human flesh. For zombie horror purists, "fast" zombies completely subverts a major element of the sub-genre. Remakes, despite being made with the bottom line in mind, should, at minimum, provide the audience with more than a shot for shot remake (e.g., Gus Van Sant's exercise in postmodern masturbation, Psycho). Of course, the influence and impact of the recent 28 Days Later shouldn't be underestimated (transforming the slow, shambling zombies into feral animals, as well as the editing, desaturated color palette, grainy photography, and open aperture camerawork in the later action scenes familiar from Saving Private Ryan and Gladiator).
The new Dawn of the Dead, however, stumbles in several ways. First, the screenwriter, James Gunn, included far too many characters: the first group of five, Ana (who emerges as the presumptive protagonist), Michael, Kenneth, Andre and his wife, find each other too quickly; within minutes, the narrative expands to include three security guards who are safeguarding a now deserted mall, and later, another five or six characters, most of them generic, stock characters added to the film presumably for one purpose, as zombie fodder. Out of the second group of characters, only Matt Frewer (TV's Max Headroom) makes an impression in a limited role. The other superfluous, generic characters include a farmer, an old man, an old woman, another old woman in the last stages of the infection (to disastrous, bloated effect), an arrogant television personality, a slutty woman in heavy makeup, and a teenage girl. Part of the problem can be traced to the central characters finding the shopping mall within the first ten minutes. Instead, they should have encountered more obstacles, more hair-raising escapes, perhaps attempted to locate an evacuation shelters first, followed by the retreat to the shopping mall (which could have eliminated the need for additional characters).
Oddly, Dawn of the Dead never settles on a protagonist. The film opens with Sarah Polley's character, Ana, as the likely protagonist, but once Kenneth is introduced into Dawn of the Dead (followed closely by the introduction of Michael, Andre, and Andre's wife), Ana devolves into a passive, supportive character since she is, after all, a nurse. Given the history of horror movie (and sci-fi/horror) heroines who prove themselves equal to, or better than, their male counterparts (and villains), Ana's near disappearance after the first half hour is a major disappointment. With plural protagonists, screen time and character arcs (as well as contributions to major plot points or plot turns) have to be balanced properly to keep audience interest nearly equal across the characters. Introducing the additional group of characters in the second act leaves the other characters scrambling for screen time and narrative purpose."Dawn of the Dead's" problems don't stop there, however. Gunn and Snyder indulge in a totally wrong-footed end credits coda. The coda simultaneously gives too much away (leaving too little to the imagination), ending "Dawn on the Dead" on the bleakest note possible. The coda is composed of gimmicky, MTV-style quick edits that closely follows one of the worst films in recent history, "House of the Dead." Still, for the visceral shocks and action set pieces (not to mention a fair level of top-notch gore for a major studio release), "Dawn of the Dead" deserves a strong recommendation, especially for horror fans.
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originally posted: 05/27/05 15:12:16