Dawn of the Dead (2004)


Laura Clifford 
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Robin Clifford 
Ana Clark (Sarah Polley, "My Life Without Me") gets home late one day after a grueling shift in the ER.  She leaves just as some mysterious cases are coming in, turns the radio dial away from a news report in her car and misses a television news alert while spending some time with her husband.  When she awakens the next day she is unprepared for a world gone mad in a reimagining of the 1978 George Romero classic, "Dawn of the Dead."

Laura:
Remaking a classic is always a risky venture, but award winning commercial director Jack Snyder shows a love of the horror genre with a sure footed debut featuring a classy cast.  Last year's "28 Days Later" was a popular updating of the zombie genre, but not particularly scary.  2004's "Dawn of the Dead" delivers the entire package, gripping you by the throat before the opening credits have run and never letting go.

When the alarm rings, Ana and her husband see the weird sight of a neighbor's child standing in in their bedroom doorway in her nightgown.  Within seconds, Ana is trying to save her husband's life after his throat is ripped open, then her own when he turns on her.  Scrambling out of an upstairs bedroom window, Ana find her neighborhood engulfed in chaos, gets into her car and flees in sheer terror.  She avoids a highway assault on her vehicle, but flies off the road and crashes. She awakens to a high-powered assault rifle being held by Kenneth (Ving Rhames, "Pulp Fiction"), a police officer who demands 'Say something.'

This is the harrowing introduction to the apocalypse.  The duo come across three more survivors who have decided to head to the Crossroads Mall.  The psychological game of survival tactics begins when they meet C.J. (Michael Kelly, "Black Hawk Down"), a security guard supervisor with a chip on his shoulder.  Group dynamics become more complex when a truck driven by Norma (Jayne Eastwood, "Welcome to Mooseport") unloads additional living, including the first bite victims to become undead within their midst.  A combination of television news reports from around the globe (featuring a cameo from makeup artist Tom Savini, an alumni of the original film, as the county sheriff) and Ana's medical observations inform the group that the bite of an infected will cause death before reanimating the victim to further spread the disease.

Snyder and screenplay adapter James Gunn ("Tromeo & Juliet") wisely focus on the horror elements, but do allow some black humor to slide into the mix.  Kenneth sits on the roof communicating via whiteboard and binoculars with Andy, the proprietor of Andy's Gun World across the mall's parking lot.  The duo play long-distance chess (with Kenneth using a Battle of the Alamo chess set) and a game of celebrity sniper (Kenneth holds up names of celebrities and sharpshooter Andy picks off the lookalike zombie).  One of the original five, Luda (Inna Korobkina, "The Ladies Man"), is in an advanced stage of pregnancy that just bodes bad news and when it is delivered it is both shocking and tongue-in-cheek tip-of-the-hat to the genre.  Soundtrack numbers are cheekily chosen from "All by Myself" for Andre's initial solo check of lower mall space to "People Who Died" over the film's closing credits. Yet the power of the film is in its sheer horror.  The film is full of zombie confrontations and all induce heart thumping.  Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti's ("The Butterfly Effect") overhead shots are used sparingly and edited into the whole with a devastating build, from Ana's car driving into her cookie cutter neighborhood when all is still seemingly well to escape vehicles engulfed in an ocean of undead.

This type of film requires a cast full of 'types,' but they're mostly relegated to support - the original group of five feature four performances which raise "Dawn of the Dead" to the very top of the horror heap.  Polley is a strong survivor who retains her humanity.  Rhames is the strong silent type who shows a sense of humor with his rooftop bonding.  Jake Weber ("Wendigo") is a big plus as Michael, a failed husband who scraped a living from one low-paying job to the next, who shows his true colors under crisis.  Polley and Weber have lovely, quiet chemistry together. Mekhi Phifer ("Honey") adds another level of human experience and reaction as a former street thug trying to do right by his expectant Russian bride.

"Dawn of the Dead" is chilling in its explorations of the horrors that can spring from a genericized world.  It's an instant classic.

A-

Robin:
In 1979 George Romero followed up his classic horror flick “Night of the Living Dead” with his tongue-in-cheek gore fest sequel about zombies invading a shopping mall. Now, a quarter century later, first time helmer Zack Snyder retells the supernatural survival story and puts his own spin on “Dawn of the Dead.”

This new millennium update to Romero’s classic sequel (and it is a classic in its own right) doesn’t have the benefit of originality but it does pay its predecessor due homage. The satirical fun of its canny observations of our mall-oriented society – “It’s some kind of instinct” one character intones of the zombies’ attraction to our new Mecca (reprising the line from the ’79 movie) – is crossed with action, humor and, like the original, lots of groovy gore.

The pre-credit prologue introduces Ana (Sarah Polley), an ER nurse, who questions why a patient with a bite wound on his hand would be given a brain scan. This thoughtful reflection is soon replaced by reality when her husband is attacked by a badly mutilate neighbor child, ripping his throat out. The child rushes at Ana only to be stopped by a slammed door. Just when she thinks she is safe her now dead husband comes suddenly to life and attacks Ana. She escapes with just a heartbeat to spare only to face a crazed world where the undead are slaughtering the human race. This opener runs a full eight minutes before the starting credits come up and sets the tone of the film.

“Dawn of the Dead” doesn’t attempt to remake the Romero film. Instead, it caters to the tastes and style of its new millennium audience. With so much time intervening between films a whole new set of schlock horror fans, well versed in the zombie genre, has been spawned. We are used to the mall metaphor and the filmmakers don’t dwell on the satire. Instead, Snyder and his capable cast and crew, go balls-to-the-wall with a rousing survival adventure.

Ana soon teams up with surly cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames) as they search for a safe haven. They are joined by an electronics salesman, Michael (Jake Webber), and a young tough, Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his very pregnant Russian wife (Inna Korobkina). Together, they battle the zombies as they head to the one place they can feel secure – the Crossroads Mall. Once there, they are accosted by three security guards, led by CJ (Michael Kelly), who are ready to kill to protect their shopping center turf. A battle of wills and turning of tables puts the more sensibly, humanitarian minds in charge

Once bonded, with their numbers increased by additional living arrivals, the oasis of surviving humanity make plans to escape to a, hopefully, zombie free island. It’s a group effort, with some of the survivors reluctant, that is supplemented by the distant help of another stranded soul, Andy (Bruce Bohne), a gun store owner barricaded – heavily armed but with little food – on the roof of his shop. He uses his sniping skills to thin the throng of undead mall-goers and entertain his still-alive neighbors. A rescue mission is tried, with the use of the obligatory cute and cuddly dog, Chips (thankfully, at a time in filmdom when cuddly pets are demised, he is a survivor). All of this culminates in the final, Herculean effort to overcome the enormous odds – oh, yeah, this time around, the bite of a zombie (not just plain old death) earns instant conversion to membership in the undead shortly after one, inevitably, dies from their bite.

The ensemble cast of “Dawn of the Dead” is well assembled with ingénue Sarah Polley giving credence to her role as tough and capable nurse Ana, rising above the usual gore splattered helpless female. She is a formidable foe to the mindless undead and keeps a cool head under the worst of circumstance. Ving Rhames is stalwart as the taciturn leader, and enforcer, of the rag tag group. Jake Webber shows good chops as Michael, the thoughtful, concerned member of the survivors. Ty Burrell is drolly amusing as the uncooperative Steve. The rest of the cast fits the bill – see if you can figure out which ones will join the undead.

The screenplay, by James Gunn, is full of action and humor. He reverses the trend of the usual, slow shuffling undead by giving them real speed, making the threat of getting a zombie bite more plausible.

Techs are first rate all around. The ghoulish makeup, designed by David Anderson, for the countless zombies is well done and akin to the work that Tom Savini put into the original “Dawn of the Dead”. Lensing, by Matthew F. Leonetti, is crisply handled and looks good.

“Dawn of the Dead” is a fast paced actioner that will please the fans of Romero’s work and attract a whole new gang of gore hounds. I give it a B+.

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