Dawn Of The Dead

dawnofthedeadPretend that in 1978 George Romero did not make the great (if sometimes maddening) Dawn Of The Dead. That the last zombie pic anyone could take seriously did not exist. That Dawn Of The Dead (2004) came without precedent. If so, it’d be easy for me to say this is the best damn zombie movie around, which means it’s pretty good.

Dawn Of The Dead (2004) supposes that the dead come back to life to eat the living. They are not efficient eaters – once they get a bite, they move on to the next victim. So the zombies spread fast and move fast. They do not amble, marching mindlessly in a slow-moving clump of once-humanity. They zoom, fast and furious.

Held up in a shopping mall, Ana (Sarah Polley), Kenneth (Ving Rhames), Michael (Jake Weber), and a group of survivors try to sit out the madness until the government brings order to the chaos. But it soon becomes clear that there will be no order. Hope is lost, and the survivors decide they will have to find their own way out.

This sets up the basic scenario: survivors engage in personality conflicts and try to not get bit by the zombies. Scenes in the mall are episodic set pieces. Some want to tug your emotions (the girl with a bit dad and a dead family), while others try to scare (the pregnant woman with the scratch on her arm). When the film runs out of these, the survivors leave the mall, and Dawn takes on the mien of an action film, with violence and death galore.

Let me be honest: I saw this movie with a chip on my shoulder. In Hollywood the death of originality is less a cynic’s saw and more an ever-present reality. With so much not being said in the horror genre, the trotting out of old concepts is lazy and regressive. To remake one of the few American classics in the genre gives those complaints an element of pointlessness. However, my plan to give the movie a bad review failed. The jerks at Universal made a good film.

But it’s only a good movie. It lacks the ingredients for greatness1. Some of the main characters are fleshed out and some are thin – forgettably thin. And not all of the meaty characterizations ring true. As Steve the obnoxious jerk, Ty Burrell does a good job, but he plays a stereotypical gay man. When we see him screw one of the girls in a “life in the mall” montage, it doesn’t add up.

Characters are never going to be a strongpoint for this kind of film. Like most horror movies today, it’s a shock machine — a good one, too. The fact that it has heart is a bonus. This, taken with the bleakness of the film, makes it one of the best horror productions of the last few years. I can quibble (the aggressively obnoxious soundtrack, the overuse of the Saving Private Ryan war-cam), but I won’t. Your money, by and large, is well spent seeing this movie. It is the first American horror film of the century (since Frailty) that really deserves to be seen.

1978 v. 2004

*here there be spoilers*

Compared to the original, Dawn Of The Dead is an easy target for flak, but not for the most apparent reasons. The lack of thematic depth and the lack of distinctiveness are more interesting (to me) than the different story and presentation. Let me tackle them in order.

Thematically the new film offers little. Some reviewers say it is a Dawn Of The Dead for our time, but I disagree. In each film, the zombie has no reason for being. So, obviously, we can’t discern the film’s meaning from that. But we get depth in the actions and reactions of the survivors.

Like the group in this film, Romero’s band of survivors hides in a mall to weather the storm. But they decide to stay, and they develop the mall into a perfect bourgeois hideout, building the upper rooms into a suburban home while the zombies root at the lower levels, turning the mall into a literal rise of the repressed when the zombies break through the barriers.

An invasion by other humans, not zombies, forces the survivors out. Zombies may be taking over the world, but they aren’t the major source of concern – our fellow human beings are.

The new film deals with this in the character of Steve. Steve is a jackass who can’t be trusted…yet, he’s not iconic. His behavior is isolated, not epidemic, and he exists to give Sarah Polley more to do at the end in a sort of power-woman showdown. The reason the 2004 survivors do what they do is pragmatism – x leads to y. This is all very well and good, but not particularly full of meaning.

The quickness of the zombies also adds to lack of depth. The director said he wanted them to move fast so it’d be more plausible for them to take over the world. Arguably so, but this introduces logic where none is needed. Speeding up the zombies makes them more frightening, but it kills the eerie familiarity they had in the first film. The 2004 zombies are monsters, not people. They have no sympathy, as Romero elicits many times in the 1978 version. Because the new film takes away our ability to identify with them, the zombies are more frightening, if less interesting.

The 2004 version also lacks distinctiveness. On every technical count – acting, cinematography, makeup, special effects, production design (and directing, but probably not writing) – the new film is better than the old. Because of budgetary constraints or what not, Dawn ’78 looks cheap. (Most of the zombies have poor-looking blue makeup, and a number of the FX are see-through.)

However, 2004 gloss undermines the new film’s distinctiveness. Romero’s Dawn had a cheap look, but it was a look. The sea of zombies outside the mall, the hellish red wall in the first shot – those moments have a unique feel. Dawn ’04 looks like any other modern American film with a big budget. Which is to say, it looks great. But it looks great in the same way every other film does.

The distinctiveness is really missed in the makeup. The 2004 zombies look more professional than the ’78 ones, but I couldn’t remember any that looked loathsome or pitiful. The original film, with its concern for the zombies beyond mere monstrosity, was able to create real characters with just the zombie makeup. Take, for example, the zombie that assaults Ken Foree at the refueling depot in the 1978 version. The ruptured face stays with you long after the zombie’s been dispatched. With the possible exception of the mutilated girl at the beginning of the film, no makeup in the 2004 film has that kind of impact.

Basically, I wanted more. Not more action, not more gore, not more zombies. I wanted to care MORE about the dying world, why these people were being taken out. Dawn Of The Dead (2004) has a hell of a lot going for it – more than almost any other horror film of the last five years. But it doesn’t have enough.

1These elements are completely independent from the differences between the two films.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com