Worth A Look: 22.34%
Pretty Bad: 9.62%
Total Crap: 10.31%
16 reviews, 195 user ratings
|Dawn of the Dead (2004)
by David Hollands
If you ever wondered how terrible a horror movie can get, look no further than Zack Snyder's abysmally boring Dawn of the Dead. It's a film obviously meant to scare you as well as give you a thrill. To say that it fails miserably at both would be a compliment. This film is so hideously bad, that I'm surprised it hasn't threatened to destroy the entire zombie flick sub genre.Things start out like any zombie film. The dead begin to rise, and two characters are oblivious. One of those characters ends up as a zombie and chases the other character halfway across a neighbourhood gone to Hell. If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned the characters' names, I honestly care so little of this movie that I couldn't even bother to remember. Pretty soon, there are about ten people held up in a shopping mall, and zombies proceed to attack out of nowhere at various intervals for seventy minutes. Then comes a plan to escape to an island. Then it ends.
"The ugliest dawn I've ever seen."
This movie could easily have been successful. The opening is quite suspenseful, and a title sequence near-brilliantly scored to a Johnny Cash tune sets the audience up for a fun ride. Unfortunately, the screenwriter James Gunn has made a fatal mistake in writing up his best sequence at the beginning of the film. The rest of the movie is running on empty in terms of interesting sequences or ideas. Gunn has made the mistake of having his zombies simply pop out of nowhere in order to startle. After about the fifth time this happens, it begins to grate one's patience. Instead of the audience knowing where the zombies are throughout the movie, so suspense can be built based upon the knowledge that characters are approaching danger, we instead have long sequences of characters wandering about the mall with zombies literally seeming to materialise out of thin air.
The film is essentially structured so one sits through about ten minutes of banal scenes designed to "build character", before a zombie suddenly shows up and attacks for about three seconds before being killed. Since nothing really comes out of these sequences save for zombies being killed, they are obviously filler meant to pad out the running time and appeal to those who like cheap thrills instead of sustained tension or atmosphere. In fact, these sequences shatter any tension, because after the second time a zombie attacks with no development occurring in the plot, we know that this will be the formula for most of the attacks. When one can predict what the next BOO! moment will be some thirty minutes before it happens, it's obvious that there's a problem. Also, most of the suspense sequences involve the first-billed actors, so anyone who's seen even two horror films will know that these characters won't die until the end, if ever.
Get a load of this. After a long while, the characters' plan is to escape to an island because the mall feels too closed in and dull for them. While I can understand their feelings, I can't comprehend why they would be stupid enough to leave. They are in a location which could support their needs for a long time, and it's also a closed-off area with bullet proof glass. Seriously, what makes more sense during a zombie crisis? Stay inside a completely well protected location that will be able to properly hold and feed you for practically years to come, or try to escape to an open area like an island where anything wanting to attack you can do so without fail? This collective of characters must of been in one of those special schools for most of their lives, cause I can't explain their sheer stupidity. For crying out loud, the first thing the characters do when they enter the mall is split up. These people are set to win Nobel Prizes in the near future.
Now, you may argue with me that I do like films in which this same thing happens, and I wouldn't be able to disagree with you. I would, however, be able to say that the ones I tended to like didn't take themselves very seriously. Dawn of the Dead is a movie that seems to think it's the next 28 Days Later. It treats the situation without even a hint of playfulness, making many of the flaws stand out at least twice as much as the horror pictures smart enough not to do it. Logic errors begin to pop up, as they also do in 28 Days Later. We're meant to believe that the world has been overrun by zombies. So how come when the characters encounter any outside the mall, they're usually in groups of two or three? Aside from a huge wide shot revealing many zombies, you'd be hard pressed to wonder why this crisis is so severe. There appear to be only two or three attacking our characters at a time until the conclusion, when the realism the filmmakers are striving for does start to come through. Up until then, our characters are able to spend five minutes out in the open getting to the mall without trouble, and our main heroine spends quite a bit of time unconscious in the middle of an open field. The reason James Gunn tries to push on us is that they aren't around, as said by a few characters at times. It's established that the zombies are everywhere, and yet whenever the characters need to get to certain places, they conveniently aren't. I could get over maybe one instance of this, but ten? Give me a break.
I do think that fast zombies are a good idea; I just don't think any film has used the idea in a good manner. The usual trap filmmakers tend to fall into is that faster monsters immediately means more terror. While this has occasionally worked (I still think Aliens is the best example), in Dawn of the Dead, it does not. No matter how fast or slow the monsters are moving, there is no suspense, because most of the sequences follow a strict structure. Even though the monsters appear to be moving at lightning-fast speed, they never seem to be able to catch up to their victims until the screenplay calls for it. James Gunn establishes the speed, and yet he never uses it well. The wave of moving zombies is rendered completely un-frightening by the fact that our main characters also appear to be Olympic athletes. Their supply of breath never seems to run out, and they are only really in danger when their predictable death moment occurs. We are always aware that a certain character won't die at a certain time, because we've seen this formula so often. Thus, even monsters that run two-hundred miles an hour can't get the audience to be scared, because the formula still overrides the terror.
There are numerous inner logic errors concerning the zombies. For most of the film, the transformation time from human to zombie is half a minute. Then, for the sake of a subplot, it's a few days. The strength of a zombie is established as immense, yet most of the main characters who fight zombies are easily able to hold their heads back in order to kill them. Why even establish that these creatures are superhuman if you aren't going to follow up on it? It makes for very boring cinema.
James Gunn is completely at a loss of what to do for most of the running time. He adds a subplot of a gun shop owner across the wave of zombies from the mall, and yet that predictably ends with another zombie attack and death. And would you believe Gunn attempts to have dramatic impact at the conclusion of that subplot? To say that it backfires would be the understatement of the year. There's also a subplot of a pregnant woman slowly becoming a zombie that not only seems completely ripped off from David Cronenberg's The Fly, but the execution of the sequence almost completely mirrors the same one from Cronenberg's immensely superior film. In The Fly, the scene of grotesque birth had a point; here, it's thrown in as an afterthought. Once the scene here concludes, we're back to business as usual, which begs the question: is Gunn so lacking in talent as to not see that setting up a subplot for half the running time, and then doing absolutely nothing with it is pointless? That's basically the whole movie: an excruciatingly long set-up with a payoff that even Edward Wood wouldn't like.
Gunn couldn't create good characters to save his life. He tries to go for three-dimensionality. It backfires, as Dawn of the Dead began to remind me of a third-rate soap opera. There are a few scenes of character interactions that sound like they come right from low budget 1930s movies. The dialogue reminds one only of sh*t throughout. At least seven of the ten characters could have been written right out of the movie, and nothing would have been sacrificed at all. There are scenes that even James Cameron would deem too corny, such as a too under-developed daughter character saying good bye to slowly-becoming-zombie father character. Shortly after, she appears to have completely forgotten about this incident, and begins dating one of the other characters. Our main heroine loses her husband in the beginning of the film, and yet a mere day after this "terror" has surrounded her, she's already kissing someone else, and acting as if the whole thing never happened. I would faint if I heard that realistic character motivations were the first things on James Gunn's mind while writing the film.
The technical aspects of the movie also fall flat. Director Zack Snyder does manage to direct the action pretty well in the early goings, but he then falls back on quick-cut editing and visual camerabatics that makes the action completely incomprehensible. Every action scene in the film is shot with the 45 degree shutter, a contraption that makes action seem much more sharp. The problem with it though, is that action becomes even more blurry as a result of the extreme motions of the camera. I was wondering if it would have been that hard for Snyder to leave a shot on the screen for more than half a second, but then again, he is targeting his film to a generation that, inexplicably, likes that kind of thing. Even if one were to look past this distraction, the action scenes would still be terrible. Snyder never has his camera in a position to properly capture a moment, and his direction constantly calls attention to itself, which distracts hideously from the film. Some of the edits here are so choppy, you'd think you were watching Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 all over again.
Since this movie relies on jump scares, one would expect that they would be good. They aren't. Snyder just doesn't have enough talent to pull them off. He is constantly revealing who will be attacked and when way too early. When the jump occurs, we're already made too aware of it for it to surprise us. No sequence in the film fares worse, though, then the one that takes place in a parking garage. While the atmosphere is pretty creepy, the suspense is poor. The scene falls back on the old "animal making scary sounds" false scare, and Snyder even sets that one up way ahead of the reveal. Not only does one wonder why the horde of zombies only show up when the characters start running, but when a zombie attacks, Snyder shows it in the background at least five seconds before the attack comes. It also strikes us that a zombie with no legs would definitely make more noise when crawling along pipes; you would hear the noise miles away. And a dog would not sound like a tiger. This is usually acceptable in horror flicks, but since the style of this movie is serious, we notice the flaws all the more.
If that weren't embarrassing enough, Snyder also falls back on things like doors slamming, people jumping into the frame, and get this, one of the loudest gunshot cocks in the history of film. Even when a jump isn't about to occur, and Snyder focuses on the character scenes, things still fall flat due to the fact that Snyder couldn't direct anything to save his testicles. During dialogue, the camera is either moving needlessly or is constantly in the wrong position. Snyder falls back on repetitive close-ups so much, that I felt I was watching Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs over again. There's nothing visually interesting going on in this film, and even if a shot could possibly entice, it's usually cancelled out by the horrible editing.
The cinematography by the dependable Matthew F. Leonetti has been growing increasingly hard to look at these days. Leonetti has used a high contrast approach for some years now, and I usually don't like that look because the extremely bright whites in the image burn my eyes out. After watching this movie, I feel like going into a depression. This just has to be one of the worst photographed movies I've seen in five years. The image looks like vomit, as someone in the digital processing stage obviously went way overboard on too many levels. At times, light shifts brightness levels within the same shot, a flaw I've only seen when using home video cameras. The image's contrast is so high that it threatens to make anyone watching it go blind. There is some creative use of different coloured gels in spots, but everything mostly looks like trash.
The music for the movie couldn't be worse. It's a collection of popular song tracks that attempt to go against the mood of certain scenes. As an example, a happy song with grim content is played over a scene that is supposed to be terrifying. While I'm not necessarily opposed to this sort of thing, I can definitely say that most times, even to create an irregular contrast between the music and the actions taking place, it just doesn't work. Playing lighter music during a darker moment usually reduces tension. It calls attention to itself in a lacklustre fashion, announcing that something of its nature is taking place. That distracts as well, and the film tries for ironic moments in this way. Even though irony is achieved, that doesn't mean it's necessary. Plus, some of the songs in this movie are awful, and make up what one would find in a modern, hip horror movie: a loud, distracting track.
Even the original music by Tyler Bates fails. It's a mostly synthesized track that is way too loud in the overall mix, and it nearly overpowers a lot of the dialogue in spots. Tyler appears to have taken an electric keyboard and let the demo run for most of the movie. The score lacks subtlety; it's even too loud during the moments when something explosive isn't occurring. It's also one of those highly annoying synthesized scores that sounds like something rejected from the 1980s.
Some of the performances are good. Jake Weber is fantastic as Michael, a television salesman who has to become a serious version of Ashley J. Williams throughout the film. He has talent, and is able to take a bland character and inject something more into it. He isn't a selfish performer. He feeds off his fellow actors, and yet he doesn't steal the whole show. Ving Rhames as Kenneth the security guard is sensational in his role. He exudes amazing screen presence throughout, even during moments when he is put in the background. Rhames gets completely into his character. It's a fantastic performance in a sub par film; but it's also one of the main reasons I stuck through with the rest of this dreck.
Then, there's Sarah Polley. After watching even five seconds of this actor, it's obvious whoever cast her should have been fired. She's horrible throughout, exuding this air of self-importance that never seems justified. She honestly never has a single convincing moment in this entire movie, and one could also say the same about her career up to this point. She's either overplaying or underplaying a scene, and her face makes a whopping two expressions throughout the entire running time of the movie.
The supporting players in the film are pretty ho-hum throughout. With such a limited, cliched character base, it's not surprising that the supporting actors decided to fax their roles in from Antarctica. Even Kim Poirier, already having played an extreme b*tch of a character in the far superior Decoys, is slumming it. She was having fun in the other film, so what the Hell happened here? I will say, though, that Mekhi Phifer does a great job as usual in his limited role. He's able to make us feel for this cliche of a character, because he has always played the character rather than himself.Dawn of the Dead stands as yet another typical modern horror movie. It's a loud, poorly executed affair which prefers to give its audience every-few-minute pay-offs instead of...gasp...trying to actually frighten us. With a better thought-out script, this could have been a pretty good movie. As it currently stands, it's as if I was watching the ugliest dawn in the history of the world.
link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=8887&reviewer=355
originally posted: 01/05/05 16:14:33
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