Dawn Of The Dead Review

In 1968, a young director from Pittsburgh made a black-and-white horror movie on a shoestring budget that changed the course of cinema history. George A Romero's Night Of The Living Dead blew away the cobwebs that had covered the genre. Here were monsters that didn't lurk in spooky Transylvanian castles but besieged a contemporary farmhouse filled with credible, human characters, pulled their victims' guts out and ate them onscreen. Audiences who came expecting cheesy graveyard ghouls left genuinely stunned. Ten years later, Romero secured funding for a bigger-budget sequel, in which four survivors escape the zombie infestation by barricading themselves inside a shopping mall. Dawn Of The Dead eclipsed Night with its nail-biting tension, grisly special effects and rich black humour and is widely considered one of the best horror films ever made. Twenty-five years after it was released, it's been remade by first-time director Zack Snyder with a $28 million dollar budget and a cast that includes Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction), Mekhi Phifer (8 Mile) and Sarah Polley (Go). Arriving amidst a flurry of remakes of classic movies, it's attracted a lot of scepticism so it comes as a pleasant surprise to find that, against the odds, Snyder's remake is actually a pretty good film.

The new film opens as the zombie epidemic is just beginning. Ana (Sarah Polley), a young nurse, notices a few weird cases as her shift is coming to an end but, exhausted after a long day's work, she pays them little mind, goes home to her boyfriend and turns off the TV. The next morning she wakes to find one of the neighbours' kids standing in their bedroom. Her boyfriend goes to see what's wrong with the girl and she pounces on him and bites a chunk out of his neck. The next thing Ana knows, she's climbing out her bathroom window with the blood-soaked thing that used to be her lover in hot pursuit, clawing at her feet. As she drives away at high speed, she sees her quiet suburban neighbourhood has turned into a blazing, riot-torn vision of hell.

Ana falls in with a small band of survivors - a pragmatic middle-aged man (Jake Weber), a Christian cop (Ving Rhames) and a young couple expecting a baby (Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina). Together they head for the Crossroads Mall, which, having been shut since the plague began, is relatively free of zombies. It is occupied by a mean redneck security guard (Michael Kelly) and his two deputies, who don't take kindly to sharing and hold the newcomers as prisoners. Despite the tension, everyone expects the authorities will get the situation under control and rescue them so they sit, glued to the emergency broadcasts on television, waiting for help to arrive. But no one comes. A solitary army helicopter surveys the mall and then leaves. One by one, the TV stations go off the air. Outside, the living dead gather in greater and greater numbers.

Wisely, screenwriter James Gunn has taken only the most basic premise of Dawn Of The Dead (survivors take refuge from a zombie plague in a shopping mall) and he's come up with new characters and a new story. He's also gone to lengths to avoid copying the memorable set-pieces from the older film. The new mall is already virtually empty so the survivors don't have to clear out any zombies. The modern glass doors are strong enough to repel the creatures outside so there's no need to use trucks as barricades. There's no biker gang, no climactic bloodbath inside the mall and the new ending owes more to Clint Eastwood than George A Romero. Like last year's remakes of The Italian Job and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the new Dawn is different enough to be judged on its own merits. If you must remake a well-known film, this is the way to do it, not reproducing it scene by scene like the pointless 1990 rehash of Night Of The Living Dead.

Snyder and Gunn have come up with some strong new ideas of their own. An interesting human element is added when the survivors spot the owner of a gun shop trapped on his roof across the parking lot. They communicate with him by holding up placards and play a sick but funny game with him that I won't spoil. Later, they find an ingenious way to get supplies across the lot. The morality of the situation is constantly raised. There's heated debate about what to do about people who have been bitten when it becomes clear that the bites are fatal and the victims will become zombies. Early assumptions about characters are neatly subverted. One guy you're sure will be a hero goes nuts and others who seem like thugs or psychos early on turn out to be decent and dependable underneath. This is spot-on: life-or-death situations can not only test peoples' characters but turn them around 180 degrees. The film's positive portrayal of guns and gun owners may offend the sensitive but frankly, if the dead did rise to eat the living, all of us, Michael Moore included, would be falling over each other to get to the nearest 12-gauge.

Other elements are not so good. The computer effects are some of the worst I've ever seen. CGI-enhanced crowds of zombies gathering outside the mall look distractingly fake, as do cityscapes with the odd unconvincing explosion or fire in them. There's a scene with an army helicopter hovering over the mall that looks so digitised, I half expected one of the characters waving at it to drop their arms and groan, "Guys, it's just bad CGI". I can understand using computers to add explosions and hundreds of extras but would it have killed them to film a real helicopter? Another irritation: the zombies' behaviour changes all too obviously for dramatic effect. Generally they'll run towards any living human they spot, shrieking like banshees, yet at other times they'll stand motionless in doorways or lurk out of sight in the shadows, depending on what the scene requires. And while the finale is exciting and skilfully set up, its conclusion comes as an anticlimax. The film just comes to an end like a video game when you've reached the end of a level. The brief clips shown over the end credits, which are supposed to continue the story, are cheap and pointless.

Gorewise, the remake is bloody but not on a par with the original. The exploding heads are there, the spilling entrails are not. Along with Freddy Vs Jason and Cabin Fever, it represents a liberalisation in what's acceptable in mainstream horror cinema while not coming close to the boundaries Romero pushed. OK, I'm biased. I regard George Romero's trilogy as the greatest horror films ever made and Dawn as the best of the three. Every zombie film made since has stood in their shadows. Even 28 Days Later, an impressive re-invention of the genre to be sure, still borrowed heavily from Romero, particularly from Day Of The Dead. So to get the inevitable comparison out of the way, no, the remake is not as good as the original, not even close, but it's no disgrace to its namesake either. Viewed as a horror movie in its own right, it's a tense, fast-paced and imaginative adrenaline ride that overcomes its flaws and its cynical origins and deserves to be seen. If it gets a new generation interested in the Living Dead trilogy and maybe even allows Romero to make another film, so much the better.

Overall

7

out of 10

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