Dawn of the Dead - 2004

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The plot in a nutshell
The original Dawn of the Dead was released in 1978, while I was in high school.  I remember it through youthful eyes, and I don't think I ever rented it again until this last week in preparation for seeing this remake.

The premise is fairly simple - the dead begin reawakening, feasting on the warm flesh of the living.  Their bite causes you to become a zombie as well, and like a virulent disease, it begins wiping out the world.

A handful of survivors hold up in the local mall, fortifying the structure against the onslaught of dead accountants and housewives.  They battle the undead to the best of their ability, in humanities last stand off.

Relatively Spoiler Free Thoughts
Most remakes are pointless, and usually worse than the original.  There's a couple good reasons for that - they only remake good movies, so the odds of the remake being better is pretty slim, and it's tough to tell the same tale, even with your interpretation, in a satisfying way.

I'm about to be a zombie blasphemer.  But I'm saying it any way.  This remake is superior to the original.  Not just by a little bit either.  This film tears the original apart.

It's the same basic premise, but it has things the original didn't.  Like exceptional acting, a tight script, and excellent action sequences.  The original hasn't stood up well to time, which I realized during my recent viewing.  Parts are outright corny, and there's a reason none of it's stars have ever become a well known actor.  It was the most disgusting movie ever produced by 1978, and it's still one of the goriest and disgusting ever released.  The gory effects worked great, even back then, but this film has taken them to a new level.

The original film had it's share of gratuitous gore.  My favorite example was one of the most talked about scenes.  A biker, part of a gang that's attacked our heroes in their new home, sits down to take his blood pressure in one of those silly machines you often see at your local drug store.  He does this as the zombies are overrunning and killing his companions all around him.  Why would he do something that stupid?  So the director could have the zombies rip his arm off and have a blood pressure joke, of course!

The new film never stoops to that level.  Yes, there's plenty of gore - this film is not for the squeamish.  But it's all in context, and never seemed gratuitous.  The gore has also changed in tone, quite drastically.  The worst examples of gore in the original involved people being eaten by the zombies.  Sure, there's the famous zombie losing the top of his head to the helicopter scene, but for the most part, the scenes that really disgust are those in which we see zombies munching on various body parts, or in the most graphic section, where they eviscerate one of the bikers and eat his warm intestines while he screams.

In the new film, most of the flesh chomping gore is gone. There's a few bites, and it's pretty clear what the zombies want, but the majority of the extreme gore is related to zombie death.  And boy, do those zombies die a lot of ways.  This change isn't bad or good, but is interesting from the perspective of our times.  It's one thing to see a zombie's legs cut off with a chain saw - it's a whole different kind of gross to see one person snacking on another like a big bucket of KFC.

Most of the original's social commentary on our rampant consumerism is gone, although there's still a couple key lines.  But I think those that feel the original was a biting satire are giving it way too much credit.  Saying that the 1978 version was deep commentary on consumerism is like saying Peter Rabbit is deep commentary on global political agricultural issues.  At a very high level, it made a general statement, but it's about as deep as a mud puddle.

This film does have social commentary, but this time it's more focused on the purpose of life.  Is it enough for you to be safe, holding off the dangers of the outside world, but in essence waiting to die?  Or is there a greater purpose that you should be pursuing, even at a greater risk to your life?  Would you decide what our heroes do?

The acting is excellent, particularly for a horror flick.  It's not Academy Award stuff, but it's not cheap, wooden, B-movie work either.  Ving Rhames portrays the cop that takes no crap, the tough guy in control.   Sarah Polley, a veteran of over 40 movies and yet a young woman, plays the damsel in distress who learns what it means to toughen up.  Mekhi Phifer, best known for ER, 8 Mile and Honey, does a fantastic job as a father to be, just trying to bring his child into the world.

Along with the main actors, the supporting actors all bring real personalities to their characters.  There are lots more this time - close to a dozen - but we get to know them and care about them all.  And some learn what it is to be a hero, or even a human, through it all.  There's also a couple cute cameos, including one by Tom Savini, the effects master made famous by the original, Matt Frewer (perhaps best known as Max Headroom), and cameos by several of the original actors including; Ken Foree, originally the hero cop, back this time as a televangelist and Scott Reiniger, the other cop and first of the four heroes to die, back as a General in the Army.

I do have to comment on the fast moving zombies.  Like 28 Days (a film I think is also inferior to this one, and yes, I know they aren't technically zombies in that film), the zombies could haul ass.  That made for some interesting situations, and here again, the zombie disease takes over so fast after death that there's no time for rigor mortis to set in.  I don't have a problem with that (although you would think that since they are technically dead, they would still rot over time, and rigor would set in), but it does require that the tone of the film alter somewhat.  The direction they've gone in isn't a bad one, simply different, and in the hands of director Zack Snyder and writer James Gunn, it works extremely well.

The fact that this film has turned out so good is quite a surprise.  It had everything going against it - a remake of a classic horror film, directed by a young first time director, written by a guy best known as the writer of Scooby-Doo and Scooby-Doo 2.  Of course Troma fans know Gunn has paid his dues on gory movies.  But mainstream critics probably weren't expecting much from this movie.  I hope they can see past their general dislike for all things horror, and see what an excellent piece of work this film is all the way around.

Rating - Hit the Theater
This is a great looking and sounding film as well, and you should really try to catch it at the theater on the big screen, with excellent surround sound.  Any fan of the zombie genre owes it to themselves to see this film, as do the fans of horror in general.  This isn't psychological horror, or mystery horror - this is in your face, smack you on the head, and shake you til you puke horror.

And one final important note - STAY THROUGH THE CREDITS!  There's more story there that you'll want to see.

Spoiler Laden Thoughts
I'm not going to spoil much, but...











...there are a couple things worth discussing.

This is one of the best recent horror movies I've seen, but it's not perfect.  It has far fewer holes in the story than the original, but there's still a few there.

In this age of joe six pack being an expert on virile infections, it's a slightly tough sell to convince you that the zombie infection is spread only through the bite.  Bleed all over you?  No problem.  Slobber on you?  No issue.  But bite you and your dead like Eddie Murphy's career.  Even though you should be down for good, you keep getting back up, a mere shell of your former self.

If you can buy into that, the rest is pretty easy.  Due to the fast moving zombies, the mall had to be empty to start.  Even a few zombies would quickly overcome anyone, so they have to have a safe haven right out of the gate.  They write the story in such a way that it makes sense though, as does the rest of the events.  I didn't have too much trouble with the story until they fortified the parking lot vans, A-Team style, but even that was forgivable.  A few other areas were a little silly - why wasn't Andy getting the guns and ammo all ready for the big run, at the same time everyone was fortifying the vans?  Why didn't he try the sewers earlier to get to the mall, especially if he was running out of food?  And why are they wasting ammo, shooting zombies on the van, when there are thousands swarming over them?  But these were all very minor distractions, and didn't yank me out of the movie at any time.

The end was fine until the credits ran.  I'm not sure what the overwhelming attack at the island was supposed to mean - did they just kill off the people we came to care so much about in a few seconds while the credits floated by?  Are we to assume the went back to the boat?  Either way, I could have done without that tacked onto the end, and their sailing off, leaving Michael behind to die, would have been preferred.

I think this film will hold up over time much better over time, and remain an excellent zombie film for a very long time.  It's one that I plan on buying when it hits DVD, and is well worth a second watch.

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