Dawn of the Dead
Cynthia Fuchs, 20 March 2004
Don't call it a remake. While
Zack Snyder's zonky fun zombie flick is properly respectful of
George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (which means that it's not
trying to update or improve on the original), it does come with its
own energetic innovation. Starting with the infamous premise
(flesh-eating zombies at the mall), the new version then twists it
up into increasingly perverse knots.
The plot you know begins simply,
even innocuously: Ana (Sarah Polley) is coming off an extra-long
shift at the hospital, where a patient has been admitted into ICU
with "a bite." It sounds odd, but she's tired, and the doctor who's
supposed to be in charge is too busy. And so Ana heads home to the
burbs, the camera tracking her progress from so far overhead as
reduce the houses and backyard pools to little abstract shapes. She
exchanges sweet hellos with a neighbor girl on roller skates, has
shower sex with her husband, and misses a tv news bulletin that you
imagine warns of the coming threat. Early the next morning,
following a sudden and gruesome neck-gnawing, hubby turns on Ana.
Squeezing through the bathroom window, Ana looks out on the chaos --
houses burning, cars crashing, people screaming and bleeding.
Ana's escape is narrow, of course.
It's also nerve-wracking and, for an instant, as her lurching
getaway is filmed from the hood of her car, creepily comical. Teary
and dazed, she's also resilient in the way that slasher films' Last
Girls tend to be, enduring a few more brutal assaults before she
makes her way to the Crossroads Mall. Here she meets up with the
sundry types who will comprise the film's core survivors: surly cop
Kenneth (Ving Rhames), practical-minded electronics salesman Michael
(Jake Weber), and erstwhile banger Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his very
pregnant Russian wife Luda (Inna Korobkina). Inside, this group
meets a trio of security guards, headed up by bossy CJ (Michael
Kelly), who initially tells newcomers, "Find someplace else!"
When CJ finally agrees to let the
bedraggled band stay in the mall (and only after the three white
guards disarm the two black guys), he decides to maintain order by
forbidding them from "stealing" from the stores where no one will
ever shop again. This question of order is at the center of Romero's
Living Dead films, where inadvertent teams must contend not
only with the undead fiends looking to rip them up, but also the
tensions and antagonisms among themselves. Here, with the formula so
well established, the set-up is minimal, and the action is more
elaborate, and considerably faster. (Not so hyper-fast as in 28
Days Later, but more certainly vigorously than in the first
Dawn, where they rode escalators just like ordinary consumers:
here, they crouch, leap, and slam up against glass doors, to leave
artful bloody smears.)
This action is complicated by some
clever incorporations of images and ideas from other horror movies
familiar to the new Dawn's presumed audience, including
It's Alive! (1974), Road Warrior (1981), Aliens
(1986), and (yay!) Tremors (1990). Such reshuffling is
indicated early on, when CJ and his boys first reveal their massive
tv monitor bank to the newcomers. All stand rapt, exhausted from
their own recent escapes and awed by the extensive atrocities before
them. Along with the flaming piles of zombie bodies, the newscasts
feature on-the-spot interviews with authority figures, the same guys
who pronounced procedure in the first Living Dead films, the
General (Scott Reninger), the televangelist (Ken Foree), and the
Sheriff (Tom Savini), who declares one unstill undead body a "twitcher."
The Sheriff's brusque attitude
impresses Bart (Michael Barry), the security guard most in need of
macho self-definition by way of naming others other -- the twitcher
calls for an immediate finish by the Sheriff's preferred method:
"Just shoot 'em in the head." This last initiates a brief debate
between the guards, over whether you can believe what you hear on tv.
Lacking other sources of information, the mall-bound viewers are
stuck with the screens in front of them, just like you. And these
screens put on the only imaginable show, wherein, as CJ notes,
"America always sorts this shit out." (Patriotism can serve the most
bizarre of purposes.)
That said, the mall-squatters are
soon beset by a series of outside forces: throngs of zombies out in
the parking lot and a truckload of other survivors, to introduce new
potential victims into the mix, among them Frank (the great Matt
Frewer), good-hearted -- and already bitten -- father to pretty
Nicole (Lindy Booth). Most of these latecomers are quickly
dispatched, with the terminally cynical Steve (Ty Burrell), so mean
and ambiguously sexed that he's plainly targeted for grisly death.
This is too bad, though, as his nasty wit zaps up the mostly
straightforward dialogue: asked if the last people he saw "outside"
were dead, he snaps, "Deadish. They sort of fell down and then got
up and started eating each other." It's as good a description as any
of these humanish monsters.
For, aside from claims that they're
walking the earth because there's "no more room in hell", the
zombies' most obvious function is to critique the consuming
practices of their previous selves. Lost in the suburbs, they spent
their precious time alive driving from one point of purchase to
another, with the mall offering the most bang for any given buck.
Now, as zombies, they swarm and stalk, unable to imagine any
activity beyond eating, an activity that by definition can never
satisfy their endless hunger.
As admirably spunky as the
survivors may be -- Ana, Kenneth, and Michael are especially
sympathetic and challenged, as they figure out what their previously
unknown talents -- they're only putting off the inevitable. (And the
film's snarky comedy and impressively visceral violence is
relentless, even through the final credits sequence.) This insight
into cultural ends is the most disturbing aspect of this sort of
film, and what Dawn of the Dead gets so right: their efforts
to survive make them human, but they can only, finally and
perpetually, confront more of the same, deadish or aliveish.
PG-13 - Parents
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.