Dawn of the Dead
Dir.: Zack Snyder
R, 100 min.
Now showing everywhere
Zombies are the default demons of horror cinema. They aren't sexy, like vampires. They aren't exotic, like mummies. They don't flatter us or indulge our dark desires in any way. They're just a cartoon of humanity reduced to its basest elements: appetite, dumb meat and the ability to fall over dead. All they do is eat and create more zombies. Only a beating heartor if you're theologically inclined, a soulseparates a zombie from Homer Simpson.
Night of the Living Dead. Victims of a contagion that revives corpses, Romero's undead seem comically slow. They walk in a modified Frankenstein staggerarms outstretched, feet locked in a Thorazine two-step, mouths as wide as a baby bird'sand their lumbering makes them more pathetic nuisance than threat. By movie's end, they're a dreary fact of life, like shopping and death.
But their slowness gives survivors enough time to see what they really are: everyone, eventually. The zombie genre has two signature scenes. One is the moment when someone realizes a loved one is about to "turn." The other comes when he himself gets bitten. No other tropes in the horror genre carry such an awful pang of mortality. The zombie preys on the yawning fear that nothing lasts forever, that the great beyond holds only nothingness. It makes a mockery of the promised Christian afterlife.
What irony, then, that the movie to dethrone The Passion of the Christ from its box-office pinnacle would be Dawn of the Dead, a somewhat less hopeful spin on the idea of resurrection. It's a remake of the second film in Romero's "Dead" trilogy, a splatter-movie milestone that envisions the end of civilization as a blood-soaked mall crawl. Pessimistic even beyond the bounds of Romero's film, the new Dawn differs from the original in tone, style and gore content, though not in all the ways you might expect.
Faster paced, shorter and less ambitious than Romero's version, the effective new Dawn amounts to a startling, sicko allegory of war on domestic soil, as specific to its time as the original. In Romero's movies, it's the country that's a threat to itself: simmering with racial tension, devouring itself figuratively in an insatiable consumer culture. When the few survivors hole up in a suburban shopping mall, reactivated corpses wander aimlessly through the Muzak-infested corridors. Even brain-dead, their bodies crave mass consumption at a cellular level. Man's just another item in the food court.
The mall setting survives director Zack Snyder's remake, even if the satirical subtext doesn't. What makes the new version eerily resonant is the backdrop of an America turned overnight into a savagely unfamiliar police state. In the terrific pre-credits sequence, the exhausted heroine (Sarah Polley) misses the news bulletins that commandeer the airwaves. She wakes to find her home life destroyed and her suburb in flames, a sight captured in a single panoramic sweep past marauding neighbors and wrecked cars. When the perspective switches to a helicopter shot of havoc on the interstate, the world is now clearly a different place.
The credits sequence that follows lays out what little is known of the disaster. On TV, grabby news bites of martial law and troop killings gradually yield to the ravings of a televangelist (a sly cameo by the original's star, Ken Foree). At the deserted mall, Polley's widowed nurse forms a makeshift settlement with other traumatized refugees, including a taciturn cop (Ving Rhames) and an expectant father (Mekhi Phifer) whose wife's ever-shifting unborn provides the movie's schlockiest jolts. Far scarier, and more disturbing, are the survivors' grim ethical choices: a daughter leaving her infected father to die, a man torn between killing his bitten wife or a healthy stranger. In James Gunn's taut, black-humored script, these are rendered with unsentimental bluntness, making the deaths sting even harderan improvement over the original.
Where Romero's film regarded gung-ho gun-toters (specifically, bikers and roving goon squads) as a threat more menacing than zombies, the remake is almost reactionary in its us-vs.-them vehemence. It's an NRA vision of the End Times, with superior firepower alone protecting us against our multitudinous enemies. For laughs, the survivors sit on the rooftop finding zombies who resemble various celebritieswhich a sniper then picks off. The movie frequently resembles a first-person shooter video game where faceless hordes bum-rush the player. Because the zombies move so much faster than those in the original, there's less time to contemplate how much they resemble us.
What the remake lacks, surprisingly enough, is guts. For all the movie's gamer-friendly shots to the skull, Snyder and Gunn stint on the visceral horror that made the original unforgettable. In Romero's most notorious scene, a biker played by makeup wizard Tom Savini succumbed helplessly to dozens of grasping hands that made a meaty soup of his innards. The grotesque intimacy of that violation cut right to the heart (pun unintended) of our fears of fleshly vulnerability and mortality. Sooner or later, we all face those unstoppable hands, which gives the zombie genre its peculiar power. The remake needs more of that power.
Still, this Dawn of the Dead isn't a desecration of a classic, like last year's awful Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. It treats the original with respect and emerges as a solid addition to an unjustly slighted genre, one that has more cultural potency than we might care to admit. After all, for people disgusted by movies about mutilated people coming back from the grave, there's always The Passion of the Christ.
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…
How ironic that "Vandy radio" gets resurrected as a fictional station?! I was just glad…
Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.