Dawn of the Dead
Grade: B
Year: 2004
Director: Zach Snyder
Writers: George A. Romero (1978 screenplay) & James Gunn
Genre: Horror
Rated: R
By Scott Spicciati

Like the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake, I view the two "Dawn of the Dead" movies independent of one another. On a nostalgic level, the new "Massacre" film is almost if not just as fun as the original. The new "Dawn" film doesn't match George Romero's 1978 cult classic nor does it feel related (other than a few inside reference jokes), but I sure as hell had a good time anyway.

The movie is about a town plagued with a mysterious virus that kills its victims and turns them into flesh-hungry zombies. When Ana (Sarah Polley) pulls into her neighborhood after a shift at the hospital where she works as a nurse, she is approached by the neighbor's adorable young daughter who boasts she can go backwards on her roller-skates. At this point we pray for a quick and painless death for the young girl.

When a zombie attacks Ana and her boyfriend the following morning, she barely escapes through the bathroom window and gets in her car to hear radio reports detailing the widespread plague that is taking over the city. She soon meets up with a small group of survivors including Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a buff cop who is once referred to as Shaq, gun-toting Andre (Mekhi Phifer), his oh-so pregnant wife Luda (Inna Korobkina), and a really nice guy named Michael (Jake Webber). Together, like in the original, the survivors find sanctuary in the large Crossroads Shopping Mall.

Once there, they are confronted by three inhospitable security guards led by CJ (Michael Kelly). They don't want to allow anyone in, even fresh humans who can help defend the mall. We later see his reasoning when a truckload of survivors come crashing in expecting refuge. Among the survivors are already infected victims just moments away from zombie-hood.

With the arrival of many new potential victims -- most of them are horror-film fodder like the "Blonde Girl" whom we can't wait to see chopped up (oh it's good) -- a few characters garner our sympathies. I especially enjoyed the newly formed relationship between Kenneth and Andy (Bruce Bohne), a stranded gun store owner barricaded on the roof of his shop that's binocular-distance away from the mall. The two communicate using large signs and posters; a strategy that suffices for a long-distance game of chess. I won't give away the other game they play which happens to be the funniest part of the movie, but it touches us so that when Andy holds up a sign reading "HUNGRY," I heard a surprisingly high number of "ahh's" from the audience that's usually absent in horror films.

As the number of zombies quickly escalate, it becomes more imperative that our gang of survivors defend themselves. Unlike the lurking zombies of the 1978 version, these zombies are as fast as the infected are in "28 Days Later." There intelligence is not known, but they instinctively know where all the human flesh is and cannot be fooled in that area. They're stealthy and can hide almost anywhere (which makes for a scare or two), and the only way to kill them is to severely impact the head, either by gunshot or instrument that impales.

The "Dawn" remake isn't as clever as the original, but the acting this time is superior. I also like how this version's characters cope with this disaster in a modern setting. The way characters interact is important and is crucial for a horror film to be successful.

The inexcusably bad "House of the Dead" of last year had zero character depth, no believable interaction and was devoid of any coming-to-terms human development. But "Dawn of the Dead" allows us to temporarily put ourselves with the doomed bunch. We see them at one point sitting together in the coffee shop talking about best/worst jobs and other facts of life as if they know they're all about to die, so they might as well have a little fun with what time they have left as rational humans.

I also appreciated the artful direction of first-time director Zack Snyder and Matthew F. Leonetti's (The Butterfly Effect, Poltergeist) creative cinematography. A car crash is just a car crash, but when you see it from a bird's-eye view it becomes that much cooler. And occasionally the film slows down enough to let us marvel at the sight of the zombies, such as during the scene when a group of them are set on fire as they try to climb a barbwire fence.

The gore splatters thick and much fun is had watching zombies get run over by trucks, chopped up with chainsaws, impaled with spikes and fire pokers, and seeing their heads explode when they meet shotgun shells. It makes up for the lack of scares, but let's be honest, the original wasn't all that frightening either.

I noticed some cameos: Tom Savini, the special effects artist of the 1978 version plays the televised sheriff, Scott Reiniger who was Roger DeMarco is now a General, and Ken Foree who was a character in the original is now a preacher. The name "Wooley's Diner" comes from the name Wooley, a SWAT team leader from the 1978 film.

The climax of the film involves an escape plan to a location that is believed to be free of zombies. How they get there -- or attempt -- reminded me a lot of the two spacecrafts used to get to the asteroid in "Armageddon," only the plan in this film is more believable…I guess.

I had a good time watching "Dawn of the Dead." It's quick paced, it's got zombies, it's got gore, and it's a lot of fun. It's not a film with a lot of scares and I would even say it's tamer than this week's "Taking Lives," but fans of Romero and zombie flicks won't be disappointed.

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