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Film review

Raised from the 'Dead'

A sly remake of Dawn of the Dead improves on the original horror film by keeping the humor, heightening the gore and losing all pretense.

By STEVE PERSALL
Published March 18, 2004

  photo
[Photo: Universal Studios]
Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames bust out of the shopping mall. Can zombies be far behind?

The problem with 1978's original Dawn of the Dead was that filmmaker George A. Romero believed the reviews for Night of the Living Dead a decade earlier. Armchair sociologists kept patting Romero on the back for creating such a potent satire of U.S. culture in the form of a cheaply produced, flesh-eating zombie yarn.

As a result, Romero wanted to make Dawn of the Dead bigger, better and redder than before, piling on social commentaries about our zombielike consumerism (an inspired shopping mall setting) and the notion that mankind is already monstrous (a motorcycle gang nastier than the flesh eaters). Romero created an epic when it wasn't necessary or deserved, a movie of memorably gory sequences and a lot of dramatic flab.

Zack Snyder's remake of Romero's film doesn't make that mistake. Leaner, meaner and grossly funnier than its inspiration, the new and, yes, improved Dawn of the Dead should thrill horror fans. Like last year's remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this movie zeroes in on what made the original fun, not "important" in an outdated era.

The premise remains intact. A contagious virus has suddenly engulfed the world, turning people into zombie killers and resurrecting their victims to be the same. The folks we hope will survive are new: The key ones are Ana (Sarah Polley), who watched the virus consume her husband and daughter, the no-nonsense cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a pregnant couple (Mekhi Phifer, Inna Korobkina) and a bland hero-to-be (Jake Weber).

Again, they wind up hiding in a deserted shopping mall while throngs of zombies sniff the place like it's a giant food court. Instead of a motorcycle gang, the darker side of humanity is represented by those dumb, dangerous mall security guards enjoying true power now that the shoppers are gone. The brilliant touch added by screenwriter James Gunn is a lone survivor named Andy (Bruce Bohne) atop a gun shop hundreds of yards away from the mall. Andy's relationship with Kenneth - communicating with binoculars and a message board - is an amusing running gag adding a surprisingly touching element to the inevitable gore.

Of course, there's plenty of that. Dawn of the Dead generates some truly unsettling uses of chainsaws, shotguns and firebombs, punctuated with inspired sick humor: a sniper game of picking off zombies resembling celebrities such as Jay Leno and Rosie O'Donnell and trucks plowing through zombies like traffic cones. Snyder keeps viewers on their toes with references to Romero's films (cameos by actors from the original Dead trilogy) and other horror classics such as The Shining, Alien and It's Alive. Stick around through the end credits for a nifty nod to The Blair Witch Project.

Yet none of this seems like the recycling efforts of a spoof or the toadying of gorehounds. Dawn of the Dead is very much its own movie, and a disturbing one at that. But it also realizes we're in the theater to have fun, either grotesquely or cleverly, as in that insidious mall Muzak or one terrific early shot proving how arbitrary and intense a zombie's taste for flesh would be. We're laughing as we cringe, wondering if it's possible to tie a tourniquet around the screen.

Dawn of the Dead

Grade: B-plus

Director: Zack Snyder

Cast: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell, Michael Kelly, Lindy Booth

Screenplay: James Gunn, based on a screenplay by George A. Romero

Rating: R; graphic violence, harsh profanity, brief sexuality

Running time: 100 min.

[Last modified May 5, 2004, 10:53:33]


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