Dawn of the Dead (2004) Movie Review

Zack Snyder’s remake of George Romero’s classic “Dawn of the Dead” is a decent piece of big-budget entertainment, and it certainly shows no ambitions of being more than just that. There are a number of things about the film, in particular the screenplay by James Gunn (“The Specials”) that will bother even the average, semi-intelligent moviegoer. For one, the undead run like speed freaks — a byproduct, one suspects, of the success of Danny Boyle’s own Romero-thievery project called “28 Thefts Lat–” er, I mean, “28 Days Later”. I suppose it never occurred to the filmmakers that there is a reason zombies should shuffle and lumber about slowly — dead people suffer from rigor mortis, which stiffens the joints and makes moving difficult. In time, rigor mortis may disappear in dead bodies, but certainly not in the first couple of days after death.

“Dawn of the Dead” opens with an effective first 10 minutes, with Fair Hair Lead Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse, coming home after a long shift. She wakes up the next morning to the sight of a neighborhood kid taking a bit chunk out of her husband’s neck. Short story even shorter, the husband becomes infected, turns undead, and attacks Ana. She flees, making it to her car and managing to crash into a tree in some woods as the world burns and civilization crumbles all around her. (The crashing into the tree gag, if you didn’t know, is how Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead” got started.)

Waking up for the second time that day, Ana encounters tough cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames). The duo then stumbles across reformed criminal Andre (Mekhi Phifer), his pregnant girlfriend, and Everyman Michael (Englishman Jake Weber, struggling mightily with an American accent). The survivors head for a nearby mall, where they conflict with security guy CJ (Michael Kelly). Later, more zombie fodder — er, survivors — show up, including the obnoxious but lively Steve (Ty Burrell), who manages to put some fun back to what could have been a droll affair. When all is said and done, most of the survivors are no longer surviving, and fun is had by all.

Clocking in with reasonably good pacing, “Dawn of the Dead” is innocuous enough, and had it not been for the big shadow of Romero’s 1978 original hanging over its head the movie could have been more than it is. Or perhaps not. The characters are all familiar, from jerk Steve to selfish CJ to tough-as-nails Kenneth. Jake Weber barely manages to register and his perfunctory romance with Ana is, well, perfunctory. Ving Rhames (“Pulp Fiction”) does his best to make a cardboard role sparkle and for the most part he succeeds. The only other interesting character is played by Mekhi Phifer (“8 Mile”), but he has an early (and rather lame) exit.

There is no doubt “Dawn of the Dead” could have been very disastrous. Part of it is that the filmmakers have reused the superficial premise of Romero’s script but jettisoned all of the underlying substance. Minor cameos by the stars of the original movie is meant to engender the empathy of Romero fans, but cameos that barely last more than 5 seconds doesn’t cut it. The only cameo that works is the one by bloodletting mastermind Tom Savini, who is wildly funny as a sheriff who alerts people to “just shoot them in the head”. Other touches, such as naming department stores after actors in the original movie, come across as desperate.

Nevertheless, this remake is still an enjoyable big-budget shoot’em up. The film manages some good carnage, including a stellar (and literal) run through a sea of undead using two armor-plated trucks. Scenes involving a runaway chainsaw are also great fun. Also, a gimmick where the survivors at the mall communicate with another survivor in a building across the mall parking lot is quite clever. And for the most part Snyder does well with the visuals, employing both CGI and practical effects to lay waste to the hordes of undead. It’s good, mindless fun done very well with the help of Hollywood polish.

But it must be said that “Dawn ” has some really head-shaking moments courtesy of the oftentimes stupid script. The sequence of events leading to the abandonment of the mall comes to mind, where a survivor, having become attached to a dog, sets the whole chain of eye-rolling nonsense in motion. Also, the denouement is a bit silly. It includes a character performing an explicably selfless act to save the others, and a major character is revealed to have been bitten. The desired effect was for the audience to feel sympathy, but it’s liable to get snickers and shrugs instead. That’s the problem with writing such bland characters.

On a final note: I’m not sure if it was the movie print that was shown in the theaters, or if it was the theater projectionist, but a large chunk of “Dawn of the Dead” feels terribly disjointed. Major action sequences look as if they were cut without regard for logical narrative flow. But I don’t dismiss that this may have been the fault of the projectionist at the Magic Johnson Theater where I saw the film. Of the films I’ve seen at this Magic Johnson location, 9 out of 10 have been marred by the incompetence of the employees. Needless to say, I really have to stop giving my money to these idiots.

Zack Snyder (director) / George A. Romero (1978 screenplay), James Gunn (screenplay)
CAST: Sarah Polley …. Ana
Ving Rhames …. Kenneth
Jake Weber …. Michael
Mekhi Phifer …. Andre
Ty Burrell …. Steve Markus
Michael Kelly …. CJ

Buy Dawn of the Dead on DVD