Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer
Written by: James Gunn, based on a screenplay by George A. Romero
Directed by: Zack Snyder
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive strong horror violence and gore, language and sexuality
Running Time: 110
Date: 03/10/2004

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Quicker and the 'Dead'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Remaking horror films is a dubious business, especially since thatparticular genre relies so much on a particular time and mood. As goodas King Kong is, most of us today will never feel the full impact thatthe film had on audiences in 1933, just as future generations will neverunderstand the allure of The Blair Witch Project in 1999.

George A. Romero's Dead trilogy stands the test of time better than most, because of Romero's masterly craftsmanship and the way he slyly revealed our own true human natures through his shambling zombies. But when some misguided souls tried to remake Night of the Living Dead in 1990, it fizzled and was quickly forgotten.

Now comes Dawn of the Dead, a remake of the second film in Romero's trilogy. Fortunately screenwriter James Gunn (Tromeo & Juliet, Scooby-Doo) and director Zack Snyder -- a TV commercial and music video director making his big screen debut -- have wisely decided to forget that their film is a remake of a sequel. They've scrubbed away any residual comparisons to the past and have started fresh.

The only thing this Dawn has in common with its predecessor is its shopping mall set. Whereas Romero used this complex as a comment on consumerism, the new film uses it as a set and nothing more. Better not to think about it... just buy it.

The new film also increases the number of cast members. Sarah Polley is the first, a nurse who barely escapes her own home in the film's dazzling opening minutes. She meets a cop (Ving Rhames), a man and his pregnant wife (Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina) and an all-around handyman (Jake Weber), and they head off to barricade themselves in the mall.

At the mall, our heroes must face redneck security guards drunk on their own power, an overly cynical yuppie and other poor folks who have suffered zombie bites. Romero always did a brilliant job of juggling people's disparate personalities in a time of crisis, but Gunn and Snyder simply spread their many characters very thin so that -- even though people don't always act logically -- there's always someone else there to counteract them.

The filmmakers also ignore Romero's approach to fright scenes. While Romero never settled on any obvious shock/jump scenes and used his slow, shuffling zombies to create a sense of dread, Gunn and Snyder borrow the sprinting zombies from 28 Days Later, which, if anything, has a dulling effect. If the slow zombies got ahold of you, it evoked a queasy, rising horror. When the fast zombies attack, it's just inevitable.

The characters in the new film also spend a great deal of time wandering around in dark rooms, calling out, "hello?" and waving their flashlights around at any sudden noise. Scenes are laid out not as a logical progression of events, but as a series of scary gimmicks (such as the "zombie baby").

Nevertheless, this new film has a definite bite, thanks to the superior brand of character actors and the intelligent dialogue, which were always Romero's trademarks. The film is, after all, supposed to be about the people. There's something about the way these characters take to the new crisis, almost as if they expected it to happen. It's fascinating to watch as they juggle their old mores and methods while slowly adapting to life in hell.

DVD Details: Universal's new DVD presents the new "unrated director's cut." Extras include "The Lost Tape: Andy's Terrifying Last Days Revealed" (16 mins.), a fake news report (21 mins.), deleted scenes with optional commentary (11 mins.), "Raising the Dead," a 7-minute behind the scenes featurette with lots of cool zombie makeup, "Attack of the Living Dead" (7 mins.), the self-explanatory "Splitting Headaches: The Anatomy of Exploding Heads" (6 mins.) and DVD-Rom features (for PC-users only). Director Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman provide a commentary track.

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