And now some fool has decided to give us a new take on 1978's Dawn of the Dead, the second in Romero's zombie trilogy and a movie that has long been hailed by both critics and cultists as one of the few great "splatter" flicks ever made. With the original held in such high esteem, expecting anything but harsh words for a rehash would be wishful thinking on the part of its creators.
But hold on. This new version, likewise titled Dawn of the Dead, is that rare bird: a remake that actually succeeds on its own terms. Director Zack Snyder and writer James Gunn clearly knew that simply offering a lumbering retread of the original would be a fatal mistake (obviously, they saw the 1990 Living Dead and the indefensible Psycho remake). The original Dawn, in which four humans hole up in a shopping mall that's surrounded by the undead, has been lauded for its satiric bent -- watching mindless creatures lumbering through the mall is perhaps the final word on consumerism and conformity. Yet the movie is also deft on other fronts, particularly in the way it "humanizes" its zombies (we certainly root for them against the bikers who appear late in the film) and the way it details the survivors' efforts to create an ordinary existence within this sterile shopping center.
The new Dawn pays only fleeting lip service to these ideas. Instead, it finds its own direction, retaining the mall setting but offering different characters, different situations and a different outcome. The result is a crisp horror flick, a fast-paced picture that's exciting, icky and often quite funny.
Whereas the original was comprised of no-name actors, this version features a cast of familiar faces. Indie darling Sarah Polley, best known for The Sweet Hereafter and Go, plays a nurse who loses her husband and daughter to the epidemic in the film's opening moments; Ving Rhames, the boom box-voiced actor from Pulp Fiction and Mission: Impossible, co-stars as a no-nonsense cop; and Mekhi Phifer, Eminem's best friend in 8 Mile, appears as a street-smart kid trying to protect his pregnant wife (Inna Korobkina).
They're among the large group of survivors who barricade themselves in a suburban mall, their only contact with the outside world being the gun shop owner (Bruce Bohne) who's trapped on the roof of his store across the street. After contending with internal struggles between men with conflicting personalities, the group members eventually while away the time by engaging in various extra-curricular activities, the most amusing being a game of "shoot the look-alike zombies" (flesh eaters who bear resemblances to Burt Reynolds and Jay Leno are among the chosen targets). Meanwhile, the number of zombies congregating outside the mall continues to grow, forcing the group to decide whether to stay shacked up or try to flee the city.
The original Dawn was so gory that Romero knew not to even waste his time securing MPAA approval, instead releasing the picture in an unrated, unedited version. Since it was produced by a major studio (Universal Pictures), this new film had no such option, but it still manages to stretch the limits of its "R" rating with its graphic violence (including its own mini-Texas chainsaw massacre, as witnessed in one imaginative if unsettling sequence).
Still, what makes the film work isn't its shock elements as much as the care that Snyder and Gunn place in their storytelling, making sure not to trivialize the characters and insuring that both the humans and the zombies behave in consistent ways. It's because of the meticulous attention to detail these men provide that Dead is able to truly come alive.