George Romero’s 1979 masterpiece “Dawn of the Dead” is one of the greatest horror films of all time – a brilliant horror-satire that combined gruesome effects and exploding body parts with a social commentary about Vietnam, racism and urban decay in America in the 1970s. “Dawn of the Dead” was a wicked end to that decade and there’s no way a film like that could be made again, as evidenced by Romero’s 1985 sequel “Day of the Dead,” a film that set new standards in gruesome special effects, but which had an uninspired story, no matter what “Dead” apologists claim.
As the curtain rolled up on the remake, the “re-imagining,” of “Dawn of the Dead” circa 2004, I thought about a test for remaking classic films, particularly horror films. Why is there any need to remake a film as great as “Dawn of the Dead?” If you were to walk into a video store, twenty years from now, would there be any reason to see this film instead of Romero’s? The answer for director Zack Snyder’s new version is a surprising yes. “Dawn of the Dead” is one of the best horror remakes ever made – it’s familiar, but unfamiliar, and you can’t predict what’s going to happen next. What would be the point of a straight remake? Is there any reason why the zombies have to be as slow as they were in the previous films? The problem with most remakes is that, as the viewer, you always find yourself ticking off scenes from the earlier film. That doesn’t happen in “Dawn of the Dead.”
“Dawn of the Dead,” Snyder’s film, immediately catches our attention with its portrait of peaceful suburbia in Wisconsin as, again, we’re expecting the film to mirror the opening of the 1979 film when the cops were exterminating zombies in a ghetto. We meet Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse, and her loving husband in their suburban paradise until the husband’s attacked by a zombie and Polley’s character’s forced to run for her life – eventually teaming up with a rag-tag group of fellow survivors led by Ving Rhames who plays a cop and former marine named Kenneth. In “Dead” speak, you could say that he’s the Ken Foree character – the man who spoke the famous words, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth,” and Polley’s Gaylen Ross. That kind of nostalgic familiarity is fun for gore-hounds, but the film has a lot more surprises.
As with Romero’s film, the main action in “Dawn of the Dead” takes place in a shopping mall, yes, but the dynamics of the plot are exciting and fresh because there’s more characters this time around – seven as opposed to the four human characters in “Dawn of the Dead” – and the zombies are lean and mean eating machines. It was always kind of silly – but funny and full of sad irony – that the zombies in the previous films were so clumsy and slow and easy enough to outmaneuver. I think Romero did this, in “Dawn of the Dead” especially, to illustrate the predictable and sloppy monotony of us humans particularly when it came to the zombies’ neural consumer impulse to flock to a shopping mall long after their brains had been turned to mush. We all follow the same routine.
But in this film, the zombies are fast and deadly monsters – aggressive and downright diabolical – and even though Rhames and the other survivors seem safe inside the indestructible glass of the shopping mall, there’s a real sense of menace. The varied characters – a rich guy, redneck, a pregnant woman and her loving but desperate husband – adds a neat dynamic not visible in the stiff characterizations in Romero’s film. Those characters – most of the original cast members have fun cameos in this film – weren’t that varied, especially since Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger played cops, but these characters are different and unpredictable and, again, it makes the film different. It’s as if we’re watching “Dawn of the Dead: A New Beginning” as opposed to “Dawn of the Dead 2004.” The film’s a rebuke to imitative garbage like Cabin Fever.
The film is also very gory and gruesome – shockingly so for a studio release. “Dawn of the Dead” has more exploding heads and ripped-off body parts than any studio film I can recall. The gore has a purpose in that it establishes the film’s credibility as a horror film – like the scene in “Jaws” where the kid got his leg ripped off – and how could a true zombie film not have mass decapitations? This film gets the audience’s attention with its sense of mass carnage and extreme violence – most notably in a scene where a kid gets killed – and makes us believe that the most horrific things are possible which is the main reason, I think, why the film works so well. There’s a sense that anyone can be killed at anytime which is a very effective storytelling device in horror films.
There’s a lot of stuff in “Dawn of the Dead” that we haven’t seen before, including the strange possibility that zombies and animals share a psychic link. The film’s fresh approach extends to the ending which I wouldn’t dream of giving away except to say that fans of “Day of the Dead” will have big smiles on their faces. In a genre full of so-called “balls to the walls” horror films – like Cabin Fever and House of 1,000 Corpses – that have no balls, it’s refreshing to see a horror film – from a big studio no less – that takes risks, in terms of bad taste and violence, and wins.
The least interesting part of the film is the actors, most notably Rhames who takes a character – a brave cop anguished over the fate of his loved ones – that should’ve been a slam-dunk for the actor – as it would’ve been for Ken Foree – but ends up being a disappointment because Rhames never really defines the role. Sarah Polley’s also kind of cold and icy which might be appropriate for the material but makes for a boring heroine. Mind you, it’s hard to watch Polley in the film and not dwell on the irony that Polley turned down the plum role in Cameron Crowe’s film “Almost Famous” and yet agreed to be in a blood-soaked, disreputable zombie movie. I don’t know how you explain that, but it’s certainly amusing enough to see someone as respectable as her – I’ve heard her described as the poor woman’s Canadian Cate Blanchett – “lower” herself to appear in a film as entertaining and gleefully gruesome as “Dawn of the Dead.” Good for her. Basically, the actors serve the purpose of providing warm bodies – and more of them – for the film to dispose of.
Is this film as good as the original? No, of course not, but such comparison is moot. I don’t think these are similar films – or they’re different enough that any hardcore “Dead” fan could watch both films, back to back, and not be bored. This is one of the best horror films of recent years – a great triumph for Snyder and even the anti-Christ himself, screenwriter James Gunn, who did a good job bringing Romero’s tale to this present day. “Dawn of the Dead” is the kind of joyous horror-viewing experience where you yell at the screen and cheer for the victims and the zombies with equal venom. It also makes me wish that, just once in my lifetime, I could blow a zombie’s brains out. Looks like fun.
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