31 Screams in October, Vol. 2, #11: Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Posted: October 11, 2015 in Movie Review
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Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Director: Zack Snyder

Starring: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer

Few horror remakes have stirred up as much controversy among purists as 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead.” George Romero’s original 1978 film featured his commentary on consumerism and involved the story of four survivors of a zombie epidemic who sought refuge in a shopping mall. Many fans of the original, myself included, could find no real need for a remake… especially when that remake had been made by a first-time director. Fortunately, that first-timer happened to be Zack Snyder. One of the problems inherent in remaking a movie is the tendency to want to re-shoot established and popular scenes from the original. That’s fine if you’re filming your take on a stage production that has been filmed before, but when the only history a movie has IS the cinema, you need some truly outstanding performances for your movie to stand on its own. However, should the director of a remake decide only to retain the basic elements of the original while creating an all-new story, then there is still room for potential.

In a ten minute prologue, we are introduced to Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse in a Milwaukee, Wisconsin hospital. She’s anxious to get home because she and her lover, Luis, don’t get to see each other very often because of their work schedules and have thus deemed that night “date night.” While in the shower together, they miss an important news bulletin on the television. Sure enough, the little girl who lives down the street barges into their bedroom and bites Luis. He dies from his bite while Ana frantically dials 911, getting only a busy signal. Luis re-animates and starts attacking Ana, who flees from the house via the bathroom window, minus any protective silverware…. As she hurriedly speeds away in her car, we are treated to one of the film’s first and most visually shocking scenes as we see the extent of the carnage in this previously peaceful suburban neighborhood. Trapped in traffic behind a bus where, from the Emergency Exit window, Ana can see several zombies attacking a young woman. Ana is then attacked by a man attempting to steal her car. She fights him off, but loses control of the car and slides helplessly down a hill, crashing into a tree and knocking herself unconscious.

When Ana wakes up and exits her destroyed vehicle, she meets a police officer named Kenneth (Ving Rhames, playing essentially the same character he always plays). They in turn meet up with three other survivors: television salesman Michael (Jake Weber of TV’s “Medium”), television thief Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and Andre’s pregnant wife Luda. As in the original “Dawn of the Dead,” the group decides to head for the local shopping mall. The journey there is more trecherous this time around, as these people don’t have a helicopter handy. When they get there, they find three security guards who aren’t too quick to welcome anyone else into what they perceive as their territory. Two of them, C.J. (Michael Kelly) and Bart, are the most hostile, while Terry (Kevin Zegers) is easier to negotiate with. Soon, the group goes to the roof to paint S.O.S. messages for army helicopters to read and hopefully respond to. While up there, they are contacted from across the street by gun store owner Andy (Bruce Bohne). Their conversations via dry-erase board with Andy provide some of the more amusing bits in the movie, such as the scene where Andy is shooting zombified celebrities for kicks.

The last of the survivors arrives in an 18-wheeler that crashes into the side of the building. Emerging from the vehicle are Norma, Steve, Tucker, Frank (Matt Frewer) and his daughter Nicole (Lindy Booth), Monica, Glen and an unnamed obese woman who is already near death. After the woman dies, reanimates and is put down by Ana, the method by which the zombies are created is hypothesized. Frank has been bitten, and the group debates over how to handle the situation. When Frank dies and comes back, Kenneth is there to stop him. Next, the power goes out, and Bart is killed while they fix it. At least they get a new pet dog out of the deal!

While all of this has been going on, Andre has been forced to tie his pregnant wife to a bed, who has been infected via a scratch on her arm from when they first entered the mall. She dies as she gives birth, but poor Andre is in denial and, when Norma shoots the zombified Luda in the head, Andre and Norma kill each other. The others hear the shots and come to the scene of the bloodbath, where Ana must unfortunately kill the zombie baby. With Andy growing hungrier by the day across the street, and with everyone in the mall agreeing that they do not wish to make that their final resting place, they make arrangements to leave. They reinforce two buses and bring weapons along for the ride. Wanting to bring Andy along, they send the dog in with some food, but a couple of the zombies get in, too, and that’s all she wrote for Andy. Nicole then comandeers the 18-wheeler in a hare-brained attempt to rescue the dog. She succeeds, but must quickly hide from the zombified Andy in a closet until the others arrive. Kenneth blows Andy’s head off with a shotgun. With Nicole rescued, the group leaves on the buses. They use propane bombs to clear the road, and it works for a while until Glen accidentally kills Monica with the chainsaw, her blood splattering on the windshield, obscuring Kenneth’s vision and causing the bus to crash. After the cast is thinned out some more, those who remain get on the boat except for Michael, who was injured during their escape and elects to take his own life. There is an additional scene during the end credits, and it’s one of the movie’s few miscalculations.

The Unrated Director’s Cut contains two special features which I find enhance the experience of watching “Dawn of the Dead” (2004). “The Lost Tapes: Andy’s Terrifying Last Days Revealed” gives the audience a look at the story from Andy’s perspective, whereas the only spoken dialogue he has in “Dawn of the Dead” itself comes in audio form on a walki talki. “We Interrupt This Program” is also fascinating, for two reasons: 1) It’s done in the style of a genuine news broadcast, and as such could be considered creepier than anything that goes on in the actual movie, and 2) it marks the final on-screen performance of actor Richard Biggs, best known as Dr. Stephen Franklin from the TV series “Babylon 5.” Fittingly, he is joined by former “Babylon 5” co-star Bruce Boxleitner, who appears in voiceover only at the end as the U.S. President delivering his final public address to the nation.

No director, not even a seasoned veteran, could have likely improved upon George Romero’s original 1978 classic. That just wasn’t gonna happen. I’m gonna say it right now: I prefer the slow-moving zombies to the speed demons in this movie. But, even if you agree with me about that, there are plenty other reasons to watch and enjoy this particular remake. Many of Zack Snyder’s recognizable traits as a director can be found in this, his initial effort: the slow-motion action sequences, perfectly timed usage of popular songs… including two (Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and Air Supply’s “All Out of Love”) in elevator muzak style, and also his use of the media to give the story just the slightest hint of realism. So, if you come in already a fan of Zack Snyder’s work in “300” or “Watchmen,” or perhaps screenwriter James Gunn’s “Slither,” then give this one a chance, too.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Doesn’t sound half bad. Since it is a movie, not a TV episode, lots of stuff has to blow up and most of the cast has to die, so obviously it is action packed. I still haven’t seen all of the original, so a double feature may be in order! Excellent, Chuck!!!

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