Dawn of the Dead (**½)

Posted on March 2nd, 2004 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

This weekend Mynagirl and I surveyed the movie scene looking for something we’d like to see. There are a lot of serious and/or meaningful and/or thought-provoking films out that we plan to see someday, but we’ve both been working our donkeys off at work and decided to opt for some escapist fare. Which brought us to Dawn of the Dead, the big-budget, Hollywood remake of the old George Romero zombie classic. We serendipitously hooked up with our friend Bruce, who is a bit of a horror-film-buff, and headed to the local Googolplex.

My expectations were that we would see a splattery, mindless zombie film, and that’s exactly what we got, with a bit more humor and touch more flair than I was expecting (but not much). For those of you who may not already know, the story follows the conventions of virtually every zombie film ever made, which consists of:

  1. Extraordinarily normal people go about their daily lives.
  2. People start turning into zombies.
  3. A cast of survivors quickly coalesce in some last-stand location with zombies right outside.
  4. There is friction among the survivors.
  5. People you like die.
  6. People you don’t like die.
  7. Dead people tend to come back to life as zombies, somehow surprising the people who have spent the last 45 minutes of screen time fighting off undead zombies.
  8. People wander off by themselves, even though that means death in zombie movies.
  9. The movie does not resolve itself until the verrrry end – in this case that means staying and sitting through the credits!

Two of the best things about this film are Sarah Polley as the plucky heroine and Ving Rhames playing the strong, smart, menacing type that he plays so well. The rest of the cast is also strong, surprisingly so for such a throwaway movie. The cynical side of me says that the producers were able to attract such heavy talent by telling potential cast members that this would be 28 Days Later with a bigger budget and a deeper message. So, they all signed up, shot their scenes, then the filmmakers went in the editing room, yoinked out the “message” parts, put in some slow-motion zombie head explosions and called it a “film”.

There are a couple of other ways that this “Dead” is different from previous incarnations. For one thing, the zombies here are quite speedy, as opposed to the stereotypical zombie from the past which attacked with the speed of a fast-growing mushroom. We also learn that zombies ignore dogs (although I shudder to think about the “table scraps”), and that infected women give birth to infected babies (yuck). We also learn that there are a lot of zombies who (to their detriment) look like Jay Leno, Burt Reynolds, and Rosie O’Donnell.

And while the new “Dead” is certainly gloppy, it’s not really scary. There are some tense moments where our survivors try to outrun the Zombie Olympic Track Team, and there are (of course) obligatory “shriek” cuts of zombies popping into frame when the music tells you to pretend that you least suspect it. The movie also manages to work in a nod to the fad-du-jour of Monster Garage-like vehicle transmogrification.

The movie also has a fair bit of humor. For example, there’s another survivor on the roof of a gun shop across the way, but they can only communicate with him via written placards and binoculars. This doesn’t prevent him from becoming a beloved member of the group, and it is subtly hilarious when we see him and Ving Rhames’ character playing chess via written signs, using a chess set themed after “The Alamo”. The soundtrack also has a hilarious rendition of the song “Down with the Sickness” done Sinatra-style with lyrics like “C’mon, c’mon get down with the sickness…open up your hate and let it flow into me…” as we watch scenes of zombie carnage.

So, all in all it was an enjoyable moviegoing experience that exceeded our expectations just a bit. If you really want to see a well-done, scary, thought-provoking zombie film, go watch the vastly superior 28 Days Later. If you want a creepy gorefest, check out the original Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. But, if you want a reasonably entertaining film that’s in current release so that you can sit in the dark for a couple of hours and eat popcorn and have a soda and walk out feeling that you haven’t been ripped off, you might want to check out the current version of Dawn of the Dead.

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