Dawn of the Dead

There are certain signals in a man’s life that remind him that he’s not getting any younger. In my case, I’ve started noticing that when I go to the multiplex on a Friday night, I’m just about the oldest guy in the lobby. Some of those fresh young starlets who regularly inspire impure thoughts are roughly half my age. The neighbor kids have started calling me “Mister.” And, just this weekend, I faced the fact that lumbering zombies are totally uncool. Rage zombies are in.

At 34, I feel so old.

See, there’s a whole generation of kids now who don’t know how a zombie is supposed to behave. Since when is a zombie a wild-eyed hyperactive punk, rather than a shuffling, single-minded eating machine? Does it make sense that the undead — whose flesh is, likely as not, just hanging limp off their bones — move like the dancers in a Busta Rhymes video? No, it doesn’t. But that doesn’t matter. Zombies as I know them are dead; long live the new zombies.

The target audience for this Dawn of the Dead remake has spent an entire lifetime living in a pop-culture world where the influence of the 1978 original is a given. George Romero’s classic is one of the most socially incisive horror movies, following the Vietnam-era gunshot disquiet of Night of the Living Dead with a sardonic vision of me-decade consumerism and barbarism. (Dawn was itself followed by Day of the Dead, which was hampered by budgetary shortcomings but had something real to say about the military-industrial complex of the 1980s.) It’s full of black comedy and character-driven humor that mixes with the truly bleak stuff to deliver a desperately humanist tract about the evil that men do to each other and themselves. It feels like the end of the fucking world, and that’s because its vision is one of existential despair.

Given its level of influence, not just on the hardcore horror genre where it is a touchstone but on the wider category of action-horror best exemplified by Aliens, it’s a bit ironic that Romero remains persona non grata in Hollywood, where he’s been unable to find financing for his long-planned Twilight of the Dead. Instead, the torch is being carried by videogames in the vein of the very popular Resident Evil series and by new-Hollywood brats like Paul W.S. Anderson, who turned that videogame into a movie. As a matter of fact, Anderson’s sci-fi inflected Resident Evil may be the critical link between old-school and new-fangled zombie action. When Danny Boyle rolled out 28 Days Later and its hopped-up infected-by-the-rage-virus (whatever the fuck that is) zombies last year, he made it clear that the zombie shuffle was old and busted. So it’s no surprise that, when Universal decide to pony up for its very own zombie flick, it bypassed wise old Romero and instead handed the project to youngster Zack Snyder, an erstwhile music-video director with some hot TV commercial work under his belt.

The good news is that Snyder’s remake is an enjoyable piece of work in its own right, although it would take a director of considerably more genius than he evinces to do justice to the source material. His chief asset is a solid cast led by Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames, distinctive performers who invest their generic character types with a little vigor. In some places, Snyder’s budget and access to CGI give him the ability to really flesh out the nightmare world that Romero had to leave partly to the imagination. Where Romero put across a sense of doom by imagining the last-gasp news broadcasts of a frantic, strung-out media establishment, Snyder is able to go all-out with aerial shots depicting smoldering chaos and confusion. And where make-up FX guru Tom Savini had to painstakingly wire up every squib and splatter for the original, the new version is a veritable playground of precision-timed gore.

But what it gains in slickness, it loses in visceral impact, and what it gains in imagery, it loses in narrative coherence. Gone are the memorably tense, giddy sequences from the first film where the protagonists would dash out of security-gated safety to make a supply run. Also missing is the sense of malaise and deterioration that characterized the first film, with the characters becoming progressively more bored of and dismayed by their isolated existence. This is an impatient film, keyed to the tempo of short attention spans, relying on quick setups and quicker payoffs.

Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was subversive because it existed so completely outside of (and, therefore, as an alternative to) the mainstream. It was an independent film at a time when movies could be successfully distributed independently. It rejected the MPAA’s X rating, opting instead for a warning that while it contained no explicit sex, it did feature “shocking” scenes of violence and children would therefore be barred from theater doors. By contrast, the major-studio remake is subversive only inasmuch as it can make this sort of material match the look and feel of the mainstream multiplex fodder with which it will compete for box-office dollars. In other words, when you play with Universal’s dollars, you’re expected to make a crowd-pleaser.

Do Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn (a veteran of the Troma schlock factory and also the scribe behind both Scooby Doo movies) have anything like social commentary on their minds? It barely shows. If they’re out to skewer anything, it may be the new obsession with children as fashion accessory — one cute youngster is dispatched within the first 10 minutes, and later there’s an impressively grisly sequence that takes place inside one of those retail stores that celebrates impending childbirth as a consumer opportunity.

Still, the film seems eager to shrug off such uncomfortable moments and return to straightahead zombie action. As far as it goes in that direction, it’s not bad at all — bracing bloody fun — although it tends to collapse stylistically toward the end, when Snyder cranks up the Saving Private Ryan shutter effects and starts to edit the action in an almost elliptical style that makes it difficult to figure out what the heck’s happening. At least it’s a cut above the mostly redundant Texas Chain Saw remake unloaded on us last year. And now that it’s bumped that other zombie movie off the top of the U.S. box-office charts, does George Romero have a better shot at getting the money he needs to make the long-gestating fourth film in his zombie cycle? Probably we’re more likely to see Day of the Dead remade by Marc Klasfeld.* But with rage zombies.

* 2007 UPDATE: Actually, this project was handed to Friday the 13th impresario Steve Miner.

Directed by Zack Snyder

Written by James Gunn

from the 1978 screenplay by George A. Romero

Cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti

Edited by Niven Howie

Starring Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames

USA, 2004

Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Screened 3/19/04 at City Center 15 Cinema De Lux, White Plains, NY

Reviewed 3/20/04

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