Dawn of the Dead
directed by Zack Snyder
written by James Gunn from 1978 screenplay by George Romero
starring Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames and Mekhi Phifer
review by Stephen Notley
It's not like we lack zombie movies. Considering that the story of any zombie film is always pretty much exactly the same --a beleaguered group of humans fight off increasing waves of mindless zombies-- we've seen plenty of go-rounds on it. A quick glance at the mini-genre pops up Romero's original trilogy Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, 80s pseudo-sequel Return of the Living Dead, Peter Jackson's ubergore Dead Alive, recent adapted-from-a-videogame House of the Dead and Danny Boyle's subtle and startling masterpiece 28 Days Later.
So, given this crowded field of tales o' the undead, what exactly does Dawn of the Dead 2004 bring to the table, zombiewise? Nothing new, unfortunately; the new Dawn is a reasonably efficient delivery of the standard tropes of the genre without any original perspective or novel approach to give it a unique identity.
Certainly it's less satisfying than its progenitor, George Romero's original 1978 Dawn of the Dead. Romero's Dawn was brilliant in that it both parodied consumerism by filling a mall with listless zombies repeating the dull actions of their former lives while at the same time celebrated and *indulged* consumerism by allowing the human characters to live out the fun fantasy of roaming at will through a mall grabbing whatever you need to fight zombies and anything else that happens to catch your eye on the way.
Dawn 2004 doesn't have anything that good. The new Dawn is set in a mall like the original, except this time it's Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames and a bunch of other people you've probably never heard of fighting off the evil dead. The consumerism is downplayed, the sense of the apocalyptic is lessened, and while they do the zombie stuff okay, hit all the plot points, it's tough to see what, if anything, this movie has to *say* about zombies. The cast is a little too diffuse to really make it work as an ensemble piece, and you don't get the kind of tight narrative focus of 28 Days Later, so Dawn 2004 kinda splits the middle. It's the responsibility of each new zombie movie to ring some change to the formula, but somehow Dawn '04 seems to have triangulated into the dead spot between all the other zombie films.
That's not to say Dawn 2004 can't please a crowd. It's not disturbing or thoughtful and its pleasures are scattered, but there are bits here and there. Neither Polley nor Rhames are really given anything character-interesting to do, but they do have a certain inerasable appeal, particularly Rhames who can own the screen every second he's on it even though there's nothing to his character. A jerky rich guy says some sarcastic things and gets some laughs occasionally. Dawn '04 lacks Tom Savini's glorious red explosions from the original, but some heads get blown off here and there in good fashion. The film has an interest in random quirkiness like "Don't Worry, Be Happy" elevator muzak or the occasional video blip of creepy confusion. And there are some nice modern effects shots, including a pretty good van-backs-over-some zombies bit and a nice sky-chopper over-the-city shot with a deliciously Grand-Theft-Auto feel.
But still, this film has the feel of something that was done not because they had a new idea or a new thing to say but just because they figured they could work the brand, like the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. It's not that Dawn of the Dead 2004 is so terrible, it's just that Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead, Dead Alive, Return of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later are all better. So why would you watch this one?