Dawn Of The Dead Movie Review

Cult horror fans, you can relax -- Universal Pictures has done right by George Romero.

The new bad-ass, big-budget "Dawn of the Dead" may be a liberty-taking re-envisioning of the zombie classic with speedier corpses and without the deeper human undertones of Romero's 1978 original, but the movie quickly builds to a sustained, spine-tingling crescendo from the very first sequence.

Art-house indie staple Sarah Polley ("Go," "Guinevere," "My Life Without Me") embraces her B-movie side with dignity as Ana, an overworked nurse at a busy hospital who keeps missing snippets of information that something ominous is happening. She hears that a patient who came in the night before with a small bite is now in Intensive Care and wonders why. On her way home from work she flips past the words "...not an isolated incident..." on her car radio while searching for music. She misses a news flash on the TV while taking a romantic shower with her husband before bed.

Then when the couple is jolted out of bed the next morning by a little girl from next door, the child's sunken eyes and bloodied mouth and clothes freeze them in their tracks just long enough for the zombiefied cannibal kid to take a chunk out of her husband's neck. He dies while she's is getting an endless busy signal from 911 -- and then rises almost immediately to come chomping after Ana. As she makes a narrow escape in her car, director Zack Snyder gives us our first glimpse of the nightmare world in which Ana has awakened: Whole neighborhoods are ablaze, the city is overrun with the undead (in superbly scary yet semi-campy grey and gory makeup) and she's in some serious trouble.

While the movie passes on opportunities to touch on ripe-for-the-plucking social and political themes that linger around the edges of the plot (something last year's speed-zombie modernization "28 Days Later" did very well), it's smart enough and cinematic enough to have much more in common with great genre reinventions like John Carpenter's "The Thing" and Philip Kaufman's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" than it does with recent trashy cash-in remakes like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Thirteen Ghosts."

Instead, Snyder heads straight for the shopping mall where a social microcosm of survivors hole up (this came about half way through Romero's film) and prepare a seat-gripping escape involving shuttle busses from the underground parking lot, retrofitted with makeshift armor from the abandoned sporting goods and hardware stores.

Of course, this last vestige of mankind is not exactly out of danger while inside, thanks to two power-drunk armed security guards and a few freshly bitten compatriots.

The two best elements this "Dawn of the Dead" has going for it -- besides the skin-crawling scares -- are a well-timed sense of dark humor (one bored survivor hangs out on the roof with a rifle, picking off celebrity-look-alike zombies from the undead crowd that has gathered just outside the mall's shatterproof doors) and a handful of strong leads in intense roles (Ving Rhames as a fearless and humorless cop, Jake Webber as the group's de facto leader).

Unfortunately, only lip service is paid to the survivor's feelings about everyone they know being dead (or "dead-ish" anyway, as the group wisecrack observes) and only Polley and Mekhi Phifer ("Honey," "8 Mile") get the chance to do much with real emotions -- the later as he protects his zombie-bitten pregnant wife, blindly holding out hope of repenting for a life of misdeeds by making a better life for his child.

I know it's just a zombie movie, but this "Dawn of the Dead" is so chilling, thrilling and imaginatively slick that it's bursting with neo-classic potential -- if only there were something a little deeper than its sleek production values and its better-than-B-movie cast to make it memorable.


Comments

Dawn Of The Dead Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, WIDE: Friday, March 19, 2004

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