Dawn of the Dead movie review: dead again

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So the lights go down and the movie starts and it’s like an assault. And my new friend Brian, who had been assuring me that I couldn’t possibly be more psyched to see this film than he was, he who had obviously made something of a hobby of zombie movies at some vulnerable point during his formative years — and it’s true; I had only seen the original Romero flick for the first time the day before — turns to me and asks plaintively, “I wanted to see this?”

And that’s the thing with this new Dawn of the Dead, the thing that makes it more than just another slasher/zombie/splatter horror flick for 14-year-old boys awkward in their gangly growing bodies and getting some sort of bizarre catharsis in seeing limbs flying and flesh rending. It’s maybe the first slasher/zombie/splatter horror flick that feels like a part of the post-9/11 world, full of a chaotic, why-me panic and, at the same time, a kind of relief, like: Okay, this is it, the other shoe has dropped, I can let go that breath I’ve been holding for years. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. But not a good fine: an in-denial fine. A shellshocked fine.

It feels real.

Sure, that sounds silly — this is a movie about zombies. Over at the [now defunct] Cinemarati Roundtable they’re talking about how dumb it is for zombies to move fast, like hungry rats, like they do here, as if it makes any more sense for dead people to get up off the ground and casually perambulate. But there’s a groundedness — a terrible authenticity — to how it all feels that has nothing to do with the gruesome, cadaverous decomposition of the hoards of the undead wandering through the film.

Instead, it’s in the desperate urgency of Ana, a nurse, to escape the sudden outbreak of zombie cannibalism, which invades her home one morning as the film opens: grab the car keys, run in your jammies, no time to put your shoes on. And it never stops from there, just relentless onslaught and running and barely stopping to catch your breath. It’s true: the zombies move fast as hell here, on you before you even realize they’re there, and it’s a whole different feeling than the Romero film. The humor of the original is gone — though the small crew of survivors here holes up in a shopping mall, as Romero’s did, the idea simply cannot have the same kind of bite today that it had a quarter of a century ago, when indoor shopping malls — hermetically sealed, self-contained orgies of consumerism — were new and ripe for criticism. We’re so far beyond satire today that I’m not sure how zombies wandering the mall could ever be satiric again — how could one possibly send up Spencer Gifts and cuisine-of-the-world food courts and the packs of teenage girls and the gangs of elderly mallwalkers?

So in place of the satire is a tireless reality — we come in in the middle of the story and we leave it… well, let’s just say nothing wraps up neatly enough for you to leave feeling too optimistic about the state of the world. Even the few ironic laughs are acrid, like the American flag waving majestically in the breeze of a ravaged world, a symbol of confidence — or arrogance — made immediately obsolete in the almost instantaneous collapse of civilization. And the mall… it becomes something of a bittersweet symbol of all things suddenly lost — from baby clothes to soy lattes — to the gang assembled there.

And the reality is in them, too, a superb cast — not a phrase often heard in association with a horror movie — of wonderful actors, not the usual gaggle of listless teens lining up for the slaughter. Sarah Polley’s (The Event, The Claim) nurse Ana, who had something of a happy-zombie existence shuttling between work and home before the world ended; Ving Rhames’s (Lilo & Stitch, Undisputed) cop Kenneth, strong and principled and seemingly fearless, a soldier who’s finally found his fight; Jake Weber’s (The Cell, U-571) Michael, about whom we never learn a lot yet still deeply identify with, a man at a loss for direction before who comes into his own as a leader; even Michael Kelly’s (Unbreakable) CJ, a swaggering mall security guard who defies our expectations in the end. They reminded me as a group very much of the ordinary Joes of Alien — and Ana in particular recalls Ripley’s sudden confidence and potency — believable human beings in the middle of a disaster they could never have conceived of before, and rising to meet its challenges.

Fun? I can’t say that this new Dawn of the Dead is fun, not in the way the Romero one was. But that’s okay. It’s unsettling, and that’s perhaps more where a movie about the walking — or running — undead should be.

Addendum 10.29.04
If you need some extra jolty intensity from your zombie-horror flicks, now it can be yours with the unrated director’s cut of Dawn of the Dead, available on DVD (there’s a DVD of the theatrical version, too). With about 10 more minutes of gore and splatter — as well as some additional moments that add even more depth to the characters — it’s like more bloody icing on the corpsified, putrefying cake. Both the uncut- and theatrical-version DVDs feature cool bonus material, including some camcordered “lost footage” from Andy (the gun-shop guy across from the mall) and his last days during the undead crisis, and a TV news “special report” with some fairly horrifying bits in it. There’s a fan-film energy and humor to this stuff — the survivalist video seen in the special-report is fairly hilarious — but the bonuses exclusive to the uncut edition are pure, grossout, how’d-they-do-that FX stuff of heads exploding. Eww.

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