Dawn of the Dead (2004)

An effective thriller... but not a masterpiece
Zack Snyder
Ving Rhames, Sarah Polley
The Setup: 
Remake of the Romero classic in which a few strangers try to ride out a zombie apocalypse in a shopping mall.

his movie is good. Is it as good as the original? Not by a long shot. The original is one of those horror movies that was seminal in opening up the genre and making people take it seriously, because it took time to create atmosphere, create characters and a character dynamic, and create a situation that raised all three to something more than the sum of their parts. This new film is about getting you the thrills and getting them NOW. Nothing wrong with that, it's just a different movie. This one is a good thriller, but it won't stay in your mind like the first one does.

To me the opening scene of the original is VERY unsettling… there's something that just says `the world is coming apart' about a newscast, normally so controlled and scripted, devolving into chaos. The opening of this film is cool, but from the start the focus is on one woman, not starting with a wider society, THEN focusing on individuals. They get to the mall a LOT sooner than in the original, and there are almost no zombies in the mall. Once they get to the mall, this film follows its own course, with only minor ideas transposed from the original. The consumerist critique the first film had is alluded to here… but over the intervening years the public HAS become so consumerist and genuinely excited by gadgets that I don't think the threat of losing one’s humanity to products carries much weight with anyone anymore. The irony here--not exploited as it could have been--is that many people during this movie's theatrical run WOULD walk out of this movie into a shopping mall. But there are many missed opportunities.

The original had a great dynamic between the few survivors… I especially admired the genius of including a nerdy guy who wanted to be cool and shoot guns like the others, and the hotshot who wants to take flashy risks, seemingly unable to comprehend the seriousness of the situation. Come to think of it, THAT'S the difference between these versions… in Romero's, the characters have psychology (and psychosis) that matches what you think would happen in the case of a worldwide disaster like this (and also in the sequel Day of the Dead). Here, Sarah Polley's character watches her husband be killed by a neighborhood girl she was friends with the day before, and she just has ONE 15-second crying jag thrown in like a cheap bone. The rest of the characters all seem to adjust fairly well, or have their one defining character trait happening in the background… but this movie is ABOUT exploding heads, so…. The difference comes down to the contrast between movie conventions now vs. then, but also between Romero's MIND and Zack Snyder’s mind.

Personally, I prefer my zombies slow. Slow zombies bring a sense of mounting dread and horror, heightened by the sense that they're so slow and dumb that they aren't really a problem… until they gradually surround you. Here they're fast, which means all that dread is gone in exchange for them being able to jump out at you, like--yawn--any other movie threat. This movie does suffer badly for following so closely on the giant boring turd that was 28 Days Later, as the running zombie scenes are already pretty generic. But I guess modern audiences don't have the patience for any kind of effect that can't be communicated in under 3 seconds. In the original, I remember the way my stomach dropped when one of the zombies grabs the shotgun from a living character, and again when the zombies, safely on the first floor because they can't figure out stairs, get shuttled upstairs when the heroes inadvertently turn the escalator on. No moments like that here, but the zombies do jump out a lot. And a lot more, and a lot more.

Let me take time out to say that Ving Rhames is HOT STUFF. But Ving Rhames in a cop uniform and aviator glasses with a cigar hanging out of his mouth is just off the chart. He could just BURN through the zombies. But then CJ, the redneck security guard is nice to look at too… all in all, a surprising amount of eye candy for those 3-7 individuals left who prefer their men to still somewhat resemble MEN. This movie goes out of it's way to make the character most audience members will consider gay to be a spineless, selfish, snotty piece of garbage, but short pieces of footage in the middle and during the credits identify him as straight. He's--oh yes--a METROSEXUAL! This feels like a cop-out to me, as I think the audience is still to understand that he’s gay anyway [by allowing himself to be seduced against his manliness by all those faggoty clothes and skin-care products] but I guess we've come a long way that at least the filmmakers feel guilty for making the gay one the evil one.

I know I've done a lot of complaining, but this movie is a good basic thriller that'll give you a rollicking time at the movies. But once you leave, it's over. They released the original on DVD just before this movie’s release, and I watched it for the umpteenth time, then watched it again with the commentary. This one I don't ever need to see again, and I don't care what the filmmaker has to say about it. So I guess that's my final assessment.

Should you watch it: 


DAWN OF THE DEAD [Original] will give you a good contrast to this film, and will help to make you a more complete human being.

While you're at it, it couldn't hurt to watch NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD, too.