Movie review in the Friday, March 19 Oregonian....
"Dawn of the Dead" (the 2004 remake) has a tough act to follow.
A little history: George A. Romero wrote and directed the original "Dawn" back in 1978 -- and it's a surprisingly strange, influential horror film. (We'll get to the new version, which is utterly violent and cool, in just a sec.) The original's the second chapter in a zombie-movie trilogy that includes 1968's "Night of the Living Dead" and 1985's "Day of the Dead." It's about four people hiding from the undead in a shopping mall, and it's a bit like "Planet of the Apes" in that it works as a monster movie -- Tom Savini's head-splattering makeup is still bloody impressive -- but also boasts this whole other bizarro level of social commentary.
No, really: Much geek ink has been spilled on the original's images of slow-moving, stupid zombie "consumers" wandering the mall as elevator music blares -- even as our heroes try (and fail) to create their own "American dream" in their hidey-hole. "Dawn of the Dead" was funny, clunky, cynical and mildly provocative in the late '70s -- a genuine work of satire. (See for yourself: The flick just came out in a beautiful "Divimax Edition" DVD from Anchor Bay, with a deluxe edition due later this year.)
Anyway. The bad news is that the 2004 "re-imagining" of "Dawn of the Dead," helmed by commercial director Zack Snyder, isn't working on nearly as many levels. It's more of a straight-ahead zombie thriller, in the vein of "Resident Evil." But the good news?
The movie totally rocks.
You can practically hear Snyder cackling as he bastes the viewer in tension and gore, working from a script by James Gunn (a Troma Studios veteran who also wrote "Scooby-Doo"). The prologue -- in which a young nurse (Sarah Polley) flees suburbia as it's overrun by the undead -- is one of the best horror openings ever, with well-chosen spatters of nasty humor. (Be sure to watch how Polley's zombified husband chases after her car, then veers off when an easier victim presents itself.)
Soon enough, the nurse ends up in a mall -- but where the original focused on four well-sketched characters, here our heroine's joined by a cop (Ving Rhames), a reformed gangsta (Mekhi Phifer), a loser (Jake Weber) and nearly a dozen other cultural archetypes. (Smart-aleck? Bully? Girl who loves animals? They’re all here. It's like "The Breakfast Club" of horror.) If this remake has a problem, it's that too many cast members exist to serve as zombie fodder.
But most horror buffs won't mind, considering everything the movie gets exactly right. Where Romero played his zombies for laughs, Snyder is deadly serious. His late-model ghouls move as fast as the ones in "28 Days Later." His soundtrack choices (Johnny Cash, a Muzak version of "Don’t Worry Be Happy") are impeccable. His use of the camera -- particularly in overhead long-shots -- is sublime. There are nods to (and cameos by) key moments and players from the history of splatter. There are (literally) juicy sub-plots with a guy stuck across the street and a zombie pregnancy. Jake Weber is quietly solid. And, most important, the movie cranks up the tension all the way through the end credits -- which take their cue from "The Blair Witch Project" and end the movie on a bleak, freaky, wickedly funny note. If this is your sort of thing, take a bite.
(98 minutes; rated R for pervasive strong horror violence and gore, language and sexuality) Grade: B-plus