George Romero’s epic-length 1978 sequel to his “Night of the Living Dead (1968)–which would in turn be followed by “Day of the Dead” in 1985–was, as it turns out, the most ambitious part of the trilogy and his crowning achievement, a comic gorefest that also used its mall locale to offer an apocalyptic satire on materialist society. The original “Dawn of the Dead” couldn’t match the visceral power of “Night,” but more than made up for it in scope and social observation. Inevitably a remake can’t recapture its uniqueness, and to tell the truth Zack Snyder’s new version doesn’t even try. This “Dawn” is a far more conventional piece, a fairly typical tale about a bunch of mismatched souls who band together in some confined area (the fact that it’s a mall is pretty accidental here) to hold off a horde of gruesome attackers; the satirical undercurrent that Romero inserted into the mix is largely abandoned in favor of the general (often self-referential) jokiness that’s commonplace in modern horror flicks. The zombies that make up the threat are different, too. Romero’s were lumbering brutes; Snyder’s are the fast-moving, shark-like variety familiar from all sorts of recent pictures, most notably “28 Days Later” (the recent picture this one most resembles).
But if this “Dawn of the Dead” lacks the special character of Romero’s, on its own, more commonplace, terms it’s an exceptionally good example of the genre. It starts with a bang, a terrifically exciting pre-credit sequence that sets the scene with a breath-taking mixture of intimate horror moments and large, beautifully choreographed action set-pieces. After the credits, the movie quickly settles down into its basic narrative as a group of people as yet unaffected by the zombie plague barricade themselves inside a mall. They include a cop (Ving Rhames), a nurse (Sarah Polley), an ordinary joe (Jake Weber) and a young couple (Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina), and they’re joined by the mall security team (Michael Kelly, Kevin Zegers and Michael Barry), who are initially hostile to the interlopers but eventually bond with them. Later another pack of fugitives will be taken in, most notably an infected man (Matt Frewer) and his daughter (Lindy Booth) and a supercilious tycoon (Ty Burrell). Another character is a gun-store owner (Bruce Bohne) who’s taken refuge on the roof of his establishment across the road from the mall, and with whom the protagonists communicate by written signs; there’s also a dog that finds its way into the mall and provides some much-needed affection.
Writer James Gunn does a fairly good job of inventing episodes to fill the seventy-odd minutes during which the group is confined in the mall; they may not be terribly imaginative, but some effectively generate tension, others afford the requisite raucousness and bloodletting, and a few provide needed comic relief. There are missteps, of course. A major subplot involving a pregnancy comes across like a strained (and illogical) effort to insert a bit of “It’s Alive!” into the narrative. And the big finale, in which the group transform some shuttle busses into the equivalent of armored personnel carriers, goes into the territory of the absurd. (Even one of the characters remarks on how silly it sounds.) Moreover, while the characters aren’t drawn with much subtlety, most at least avoid cardboard status. (The exception is Burrell’s rich cynic, who seems to have wandered in from countless disaster movies.) The success derives, however, not just from Gunn’s writing and Snyder’s direction, but from the fact that the cast is a surprisingly strong one for this kind of picture. Polley can’t bring the same shading to this kind of material that she did to “My Life Without Me,” of course, but she’s as good as one could expect, and Rhames may be doing the stalwart John Wayne bit, but he carries it off with his customary rugged strength. Still, the real revelation is Weber, who’s previously been so pallid. His regular-guy turn here, though, is outstanding; he makes the fellow so likable (and surprisingly competent) that you’re actually rooting for him to survive. Even Kelly, as the hard-as-nails security chief, and Zegers, as his baby-faced trainee, manage to invest their parts with some welcome nuance. Unfortunately, Phifer is stuck with the one major role that’s really poorly written. That pregnancy subplot is much of the problem (it’s his Russian wife who’s expecting), but the poor fellow’s motivations are never successfully clarified, and the actor struggles as a result. It helps the whole cast, however, that the script is happily unpredictable about who’s going to bite the dust next. With the exception of Burrell’s nasty rich dude, who’s preordained to get his comeuppance (and does so in a satisfyingly grisly way), it’s difficult to forecast the order of departure, even if you can identify those who are most likely to survive, and indeed there are some surprises along the way (and at the end). Technically the picture is a cut above this sort of flick: Matthew Leonetti’s cinematography is slick, Niven Howie’s editing keeps it moving at a good clip, and Tyler Bates’s score is effectively wrenching (even if it does resort to the device of shock-by-sound-effect too often). And that first five-minute sequence is a stunner.
“Dawn of the Dead” may be compared to a comedy made up of old jokes and fairly stale routines, but that puts them to good use simply by skillful deployment. There isn’t much here that you haven’t encountered in lots of other horror movies, but you’ll rarely have seen the familiar elements delivered so effectively.