Heretical statement: George A. Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead is a plodding, overlong, absurdly overrated horror flick that made its mark by combining a whole lotta fake blood and entrails with not-very-deep social satire. (Zombies in a shopping mall? How can you tell the difference?) Its success probably had more to do with the former than the latter (there are horror fans who still haven’t figured out that Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs was a satirical attack on Reagan and Bush Sr.). Romero’s zombie flick gave viewers the illusion of weightiness by virtue of its sheer elephantine size — the film runs anywhere from 119 to 126 (the standard theatrical print) to 139 minutes, depending on the cut — and the presence of a strong black star (reliable exploitation horror actor Ken Foree, who has a cameo in the new version).
Examined in the cold light of day and outside of hardcore horror-fan circles, Romero’s original is a clumsily constructed zombie flick that’s simply not very well acted (Foree to one side), but boasts an above-average ranking on the gore-o-meter. Yet remaking it with more talented actors, heightened production values, sharper direction and a better script is likely to seem like blasphemy in certain pockets of horror fandom. And that attitude’s apt to be exacerbated simply because the update is getting pretty positive reviews (the more adamant fans seem to resent broad acceptance of genre films). But for those who were never that sold on Romero’s film, the new version emerges as a contender for the year’s best horror picture.
The idea of remaking a sequel (the original is a follow-up to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead) may sound a little screwy; in reality, it’s really not — even the original works as a stand-alone film. After all, what do you really need to know except that a mysterious virus is reanimating the recently dead and turning them into infectious, cannibalistic zombies? Face it, it’s not a very complex proposition.
There’s a certain irony to the fact that first-time feature director Zack Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn (a graduate of the Troma school of exploitation filmmaking and writer of — dear Lord — Scooby Doo) manage to get the same story across in 109 fast-moving minutes when it took Romero an extra half hour to tell it, even after having a previous film for a jump-start.
Gunn’s script cleverly fills in the holes by dropping back to the day before things go wrong for the human race. At that point, he has the film’s lead, Ana (Sarah Polley), wake up to find the little girl next door turned into a ravenous monster, who then offs Sarah’s husband — only to have hubby get back up seconds later to launch an attack on Sarah, who goes out through the bathroom window into a world gone mad with increasing numbers of zombies and stupid vigilantes. From there, it’s an easy matter to have her meet up with the other characters and take refuge in a shopping mall. (OK, so the script doesn’t bother to tell us exactly how they get into the mall in the first place.)
What follows is pretty close to the original in terms of events — though, blessedly, Gunn and Snyder omit the absurd zombie-and-biker-gang pie fight. However, the new film’s overall approach is different: Directorially speaking, the new Dead is just plain more stylish. Plus, it’s more concerned with filmmaking and plot than was Romero’s original.
Yes, it’s gory — that’s in the nature of a modern zombie film. Yet unlike Romero’s movie, it doesn’t dwell on the gore — there aren’t any self-indulgent moments where the film lingers over the ravenous dead chowing down on entrails. That’s not only better filmmaking, but it’s a common-sense choice, since the shock value is long gone.
What’s perhaps most surprising here, though, is the amount of violence that takes place offscreen. Rather than beat the viewer over the head with nonstop bloodletting, Snyder realizes the value in having many of the atrocities be conveyed simply by off-camera sounds — a gunshot, a scream and, in one memorably chilly sequence, a disembodied radio voice claiming the speaker has gotten away from the zombies, but commenting on the power of their biting (not realizing that this means he’s infected). The new film also replaces the shambling Romero zombies with something more like “the infected” in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later …. The walking dead here move like lightning, becoming much more daunting as a result.
A few things don’t quite work: The grotesquely obese woman who turns into a zombie and a zombie baby, for instance. While the concept may have looked good on paper, in execution it plays too much like something from Peter Jackson’s splatter comedy Dead Alive, and is unintentionally funny.
Probably the best thing about the updated Dead is the screenplay’s commitment to characterization. There are perhaps too many characters (there’s an obnoxious bubble-headed bimbo who seems to exist only to be inadvertently cleaved in twain with a chainsaw) and the villain of the piece (Ty Burrell, Black Hawk Down) is purest cardboard. Yet the roles played by Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames (who is incapable of being anything but great), Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Kelly and Lindy Booth are very well conceived. Even the cameo by Max Headroom himself, Matt Frewer, is nicely drawn. And that’s the key (and something the film shares with 28 Days Later …): The suspense is heightened by the fact that the viewer genuinely cares what happens to these people.
The new Dead also largely — and thankfully — eschews the usual death-metal soundtrack, opting for something more creative. The opening credits, for example, are backed by Johnny Cash’s apocalyptic “When the Man Comes Around.” (True, William Friedkin used the same song for the end credits on The Hunted, but it makes a good deal more sense here.) Only at the very end does the movie resort to the generic metal that has come to be associated with the genre — and, frankly, you would do yourself a favor to miss the stupid, cliche-ridden junk that takes a lot of life out of Dead by being intercut with the end credits.
Trust me: These final moments seriously cheapen the whole movie.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke