Dawn of the Dead (2004)
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Director: Zack Snyder. Cast: Sarah Polley, Jake Weber, Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer, Inna Korobkina, Michael Kelly, Kevin Zegers, Michael Barry, Ty Burrell, Lindy Booth, Matt Frewer, Jayne Eastwood, R.D. Reid, Boyd Banks, Kim Poirier, Bruce Bohne, Justin Louis, Hannah Lochner, Ermes Blarasin. Screenplay: James Gunn (based on the 1978 film and script by George A. Romero).

Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead is one of those movies that deeply unsettles the whole act of leaving the theater. Having just watched the world descend, literally overnight, into a slash-and-burn mosh pit of frenetic, cannibalizing zombies, your first steps back into the outside world are a little tentative, even if you think you're a bit too adult to be frightened this way. The lingering fear isn't helped at all if you walk out of Dawn of the Dead and head immediately, as I did, into a shopping mall. Given the central locale of this movie and what happens there, the venues mostly likely to be playing Dawn of the Dead are the last places you want to be when it's over.

That was the first time I saw Dawn of the Dead, in March, when it opened. I returned to it this week, in July, as the film made its tour of my local college cinema, and I wanted to take my mind off of other things, which Dawn of the Dead more than amply manages to do. In fact, just try thinking about anything else while watching this lean, mean, hugely enervating movie. For a while, you think the film's going to let you stay a step or two ahead. As Ana (Sarah Polley), a twentysomething nurse, drags herself through the overtime hours of a hospital shift, you overhear that a bite victim has been unaccountably moved into the intensive care unit. As she drives home, she switches the radio dial just as some anonymous anchor says "confirmed it is not an isolated..." We know what this means, especially if we've seen George Romero's 1978 original, itself a sequel to Romero's 1968's Night of the Living Dead and a precursor to 1985's Day of the Dead. Ana doesn't know. She seems like an optimistic person, kind to children and good at her job, self-possessed enough to watch a gruesome horror movie, I'd conjecture, but happier to come home and flop on the bed with her husband, Luis, as the latest reality-TV opus winds itself up. She doesn't know.

She finds out quickly, at 6:38 the next morning, as the cute girl down the street—named "Vivian," of all things—leaps into her bedroom and chews quite a chunk out of Luis' neck. As the little zombie cooties almost immediately galvanize his bloodstream and he, red-eyed and agile, makes a leonine pounce at Ana, the movie enjoys its first great moment: this swift chick gets a one-second reaction-shot to assess what's happening, thinks to grab the car keys, and lunges into the bathroom, locking the door. (No girl or woman played by Sarah Polley, the cerebral hottie from Go and The Weight of Water, is ever a dim bulb.) The overhead shot of Ana, stumbling into her bathtub, is straight out of Psycho; a soon-to-follow shot of Luis' face as he breaks through the paneling of the bathroom door has The Shining's stamp all over it. Ana is stronger than Shelley Duvall, and more importantly, she has better luck than Janet Leigh. That is, she's dressed, and her shower has a window.

Here's one of those thoughts that immediately passes through a film critic's synapses during a promising set-up like this: in two quick scenes, Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn have established that a) Ana is happily married, and b) the instant her husband goes nuts, she's outta there like a shot, without forgetting to swipe the keys. That's bliss to bye-bye in five seconds or less, folks. It's not that Ana doesn't care about Luis, or doesn't palpably grieve him later in the movie, but Dawn of the Dead.v.04 is speedy, and things happen speedily to people who've gotta be speedy to stay alive. Slow-pokes and sentimentalists are goners. This is Dawn of the Dead for the age of fiber-optics, a world where information, paranoia, and nasty viruses travel quickquickquick, and dangers, like pleasures, are instantaneous. The movie is ruthlessly pragmatic about the implications for who can get by in a world like this and who can't.

Snyder, a first-time feature director, and Gunn (whose penning of the Scooby-Doo movie's shouldn't unfairly bias you) have taken a lot of heat for, among other things, making their zombies quite so jet-propelled and making their characters quite so un-characterlike. Ana is the person we know best in this movie, and here's what we know about her: she's a nurse, her husband's dead (or, in a later character's parlance, "dead-ish"), her orderly suburban-Wisconsin street is trashed, she feels bad for chubby mailmen who get voted out of Survivor, and she doesn't think you should shoot people who aren't provably zombies. This is not a lot to go on, but it's perfectly suited to the film's purpose, where basic, improvised survival doesn't lead to a lot of sharing, nor does it accommodate a lot of diverse, character-revealing approaches. Because the remake has been thoughtfully cast, the acting is clever enough to make these characters seem like people we aren't quite meeting, rather than simple cyphers. For the same reason, when personal info does roll down the pike, as when we find out that so-and-so has a brother and so-and-so has kids (all of them, doubtless, dead-ish), the movie has been built to make those moments pop. They hurt. Dawn of the Dead isn't dillying around on-screen forgetting to "round out" its characters; it's a movie about characters who are unlikely to feel rounded out under the circumstances, and who may not be so "rounded" to begin with.

Romero's version was also famously skeptical about the roundedness of modern personalities. His small troupe of survivors were, by design, not appreciably more compelling than the sludgy, brainless zombies they were garrisoned against. I am perplexed that so many of the same reviewers that knock Snyder's version get all choked up at the memory of Romero's, endlessly praising its "satiric" value. Yeah, the original Dawn of the Dead works pretty well as a poke at the mindless zombism of consumerist culture, but whether this is enough of an insight to power a film that, at 126 minutes, is at least a quarter-hour too long strikes me as an open question. Particularly since I can't help noticing that a lot (not all) of the reviewers reiterating this line of well-known praise cry foul at the slightest suggestion of embedded cultural content or "overreading" analysis in pop films made today.

Romero's movie is not a slam dunk (though I think Night of the Living Dead is). There's plenty of room to remake it, especially since it functions well as a mood piece about timely anxieties, a sense of the world coming unhinged. The same anxieties obviously underline the present cultural moment, and Snyder's Dawn of the Dead so cunningly capitalizes on rampant social unease that it both embodies and feeds into that much-ballyhooed "culture of fear" at least as well as something like Fahrenheit 9/11 does. And Snyder is a smart, resourceful filmmaker, borrowing often from his idols but wholly proficient at giving this picture a tenor and a style of its own. For one, it's framed by the two most remarkable credits sequences of the year so far. The opening montage, which actually plays out about fifteen minutes into the movie, is a scalpel-sharp blend of televised mayhem, gruesome stock footage, and enervated video feeds: mass prayers, explosions in the streets, toppled buildings, all interspersed with jagged and blood-streaked credits, all of it scored to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around," from the American recordings. Is this a whirlwind of recent news footage, or have Snyder & Co. built it from scratch? It's precisely to the point that either scenario is possible; we can't fully distinguish our own world from one overrun by zombies. (The final credit reel is even more of a doozy, but you have to sit through all of it to know why.)

This Dawn of the Dead seems to know, maybe better than Romero, that the material can support a generalized read of the culture but not any complex or sustained statement; the movie lives or dies (sorry!) as a style exercise, and by that standard, it is more than admirable. Matthew F. Leonetti, cinematographer of Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days, that underseen gem of a techno-millennial romantic action blowout, works comparably well here with bold, high-contrast colors and controlled shots even of frenetic motion. The speed of the zombies would only seem like an MTV-era cheat if the camera, too, were racing and restless, but Dawn of the Dead favors mostly simple set-ups. The energy comes from the choreography of the set-pieces, the sequencing of the action, and the conviction of the actors, not from dizzying pans or Edward Scissorhanding in the editing room. The makeup and stunt work of the zombies is impressive, as are the purposefully graceless trips and falls of the main actors and the stunt people playing them. Characters are constantly knocking their heads or twisting their ankles in this movie, crashing their vehicles or losing their balance. Such clumsiness, occasioned by sheer panic, is perennially missing from horror films, except when a buxom young girl can't undo a door-lock in time. Here, though, almost as many people get hurt or killed by chaos associated with the zombies as by the zombies themselves: a totally non-diegetic car crash seen in an overhead shot when Ana first flees her house is an example of this collateral damage, to which all the characters remain vulnerable throughout the film. (One unforeseen demise toward the end of the movie is especially grisly, but just as true to the logic of what's happening.)

There's very little if anything in the movie that plain doesn't work. Yes, some of it is over-familiar. True, a lot of conversations in the final third reiterate time-honored formulations of "We can't just sit here while..." or "We need to do something." A monstrous pregnancy and delivery are pure murder to watch, but you see the payoffs coming for too long in advance; the wit and unexpectedness of so many other moments in the movie refract badly on the rare instants of heavy foreshadowing. When the survivors outfit a couple of security vans into armored transport for plowing through the leprous crowd outside, Snyder films their preparations in a semi-pointless shot beneath a rote rock soundtrack, and the actual barnstorming out of the parking garage is straight out of Aliens.

Still and all, you have to look pretty closely for elements one might have cut—and what a contrast to the glut of mall movies, in this genre more than most, where entire plotlines feel unnecessary and entire movies might as well be skipped. Look at how much devilish glee is taken in the blink-and-you-miss-it moment when the cast first use the shopping mall's elevators, and we notice that the doors are the kind that pause for a second before closing: uh-oh. Note the presence of two black guys in the headlining cast, so that all bets are officially off for who dies first. Relish the combination of comedy, pathos, and small-scale characterization that derive from an element added from Romero's blueprint, the mall crowd's telegraphed interactions with a nearby store owner who's stranded on his roof. (This is also, by the way, a pretty great joke: a small business called Andy's Gun Works that thrives across the street from a boutique mall...and improbably enough, Andy's Gun Works actually has an Andy in it!) Dawn of the Dead feels well-plotted, well-designed, and well-executed, the best American movie from Spring 2004 short of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's an impressive piece of machinery with a hot sense of real dread at its core, and a keen tension between isolationism and involvement threaded through its scenes. Genuine weight is afforded these deliberations, and we care what is decided, yet the dark imputation of the film is that none of it may really matter. Grade: A–

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