When I went to see Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, I tried to do so without a chip on my shoulder, and I came away without being disappointed by what is a reasonably entertaining zombie movie with a few fresh twists that doesn’t insult the original. My experience with Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead went pretty much the same – maybe even better.
James Gunn (Terror Firmer) contributes his best screenplay so far, wisely replacing all but the basic idea of the original to create an almost entirely new story. The first act draws us beautifully into the end-of-the-world scenario through the eyes of nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) as she and her husband miss all news reports of the crisis and awake to the Dawn in which their world has gone mad. Not that hubby sees much of it before getting bit by a zombie neighbor, which immediately turns him into one of the walking dead. Fleeing her suburban Milwaukee neighborhood in a panic, Ana collides with a small group of refugees, and they all hold up in a local mall. After a short time spent trying to avoid boredom and the growing danger outside, the group decides to make a run for the lake in customized armored buses, in the hope that they can find an uninhabited island – or at least an island uninhabited by flesh-hungry ghouls.
While Romero’s original is famous for its editorial themes of class relations and consumer culture, Snyder (yet another young director handed a major genre film for his debut based only on his music video experience) doesn’t keep his players in the (much smaller) mall any longer than he has to, and he aspires to nothing deeper than the basic material already holds. His aim is to keep the action rolling throughout, and his Dawn doesn’t hold still for more than a minute at a time. Gunn, Snyder, and the cast succeed in creating some solid characters for viewers to latch onto. One character seems a sure villain from the outset, but later we learn that his earlier behavior was a reaction to his fear, and he turns out to be one of the heroes. And then there’s the copier salesman (Jake Weber of The Cell and Wendigo) whose leadership abilities blossom under pressure. Universal Pictures is not as brave as Romero, and stocks the cast with some familiar faces, including Ving Rhames (Con Air) as a strong cop, and Mekhi Phifer (Shaft) as a criminal/expectant father. Some actors were clearly cast because they’d make great-looking zombies, especially Matt Frewer (Lawnmower Man 2).
Snyder also makes clever use of advances in f/x techniques. As expected, CGI helps out with some exploding heads, but a filmmaker’s new favorite toy may have become using it to run people over with vehicles. Even so, he doesn’t overuse his digital toolbox to the point that it becomes intrusive. Another nice touch comes in the form of some company, with a friendly gunshop owner (Bruce Bohn of Fargo) communicating with our group from a nearby roof
And now, the quibbles. Snyder is apparently one of those that think Romero’s zombies are too slow to be scary, and makes his ghouls fast and athletic. Also, the zombie plague is over-explained somewhat, as it’s clear that it’s only spread by fluid transfer (bites, blood). All this actually works against him – Romero’s zombies are scary because they are the living dead. They’re stiff, awkward, slow moving, and all messed up, but relentless, untiring, unfeeling, corpses that want to eat you. With all their running and howling, Snyder’s ghouls (like those in 28 Days Later) aren’t much different from a bunch of rabid psychos. And as Romero’s plague is apparently airborne, lying dormant within everyone, the threat is more terrifying. In Romero’s world, anybody who dies will walk again.
Another thing: modern studio horror movies have the annoying habit of being all about the mission. Snyder’s escape plan by battle wagon is highly entertaining, but by focusing on this plan of action it’s easy to forget about the army of dead people at the gates.
However, despite these missteps, it all comes together in a thrilling whole, much better than some other recent horror remakes I could name. Snyder and Gunn give us enough new twists for their Dawn to stand on its own. Plus, in a refreshing change of pace, they give the audience a false ending. Those that hang on during the end credits are rewarded by a suspenseful continuation to the true ending, which is a chiller.