Ving Rhames, Sarah Polley, and Michael Kelly in Dawn of the Dead (2004)


(director: Zack Snyder; screenwriter: James Gunn/based on the screenplay by George A. Romero; cinematographer: Matthew F. Leonetti; editor: Niven Howie; music: Tyler Bates; cast: Sarah Polley (Ana), Ving Rhames (Kenneth), Jake Weber (Michael), Mekhi Phifer (Andre), Inna Korobkina (Luda), Ty Burrell (Steve), Michael Kelly (C. J.), Kevin Zegers (Terry), Lindy Booth (Nicole), Bruce Bohne (Andy), Kim Poirier (Monica); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Richard P. Rubinstein/Marc Abraham/Eric Newman; Universal Pictures; 2004)

“The only enjoyment I had was in making a body count of the dead and guessing who would be the final survivors.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The tagline for this gory but not particularly scary brain dead George A. Romero bloodfest zombie satire is “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” But director Zack Snyder, in his feature debut, goes for the creepy look and wholesale carnage instead of comedy or anything to mull over, such as any sociopolitical commentary, in this flat and soulless remake (or, as the filmmaker prefers “re-imagining”) of Romero’s trilogy of the 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the 1978 Dawn of the Dead, and its 1985 sequel Day of the Dead. The only one with an ounce of personality in this by the numbers splatter-horror tale is the dog Chip, as the characters are too busy fighting off the zombies to exchange any witticisms or developed as anything beyond cardboard figures. Snyder even makes Romero’s gloomy vision for humanity a pretty visual sight with his penchant for color-cordinated glossy shots, even as the world is doomed and the few remaining survivors try to flee the city streets that they are trapped in.

If your criteria for a film’s worth is special effects, then there’s no doubt that this version is much superior in its technology over the previous films. It certainly is a more polished work, and the actors are certainly more capable (though the dialogue is just as vapid so the results are the same). Snyder also takes away any myth (good vs. evil) and reduces everything to the bare essentials of the motley group of survivors just fighting the undead zombies so that they can live for another day. The satire is in parodying the original version (allowing the zombies to run with some speed), the horror genre and itself. In that limited aim it succeeds, but the price paid is a movie that has no kick, reason, or emotional pull. A success that hardly matters, as it just goes along with the consumer culture ride it banks on for its box-office–which at least makes the film-making effort somewhat honest even if the film itself is not worthy of further praise. Though it’s not an entirely honest effort, as it seems to rip-off scenes from the recent 28 Days Later with impunity.

Ana (Sarah Polley) is a dedicated nurse with a heart of gold who just fought off an attack by a bitten neighborhood girl and hubby Louis. Kenneth (Ving Rhames) is a hardened black former marine and an authoritative gun-toting police sergeant. They find themselves as two of the last remaining people on an earth that has been ravaged by undead zombies on a killing rampage. Stuck in a park they meet three others–an interracial couple, the reformed street-thug Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his Russian-born pregnant wife Luda (Korobkina), who are anxious that their future child be given a better chance than the one they received, and a good-natured straggler named Michael (Jake Weber) who has had three bad marriages and a series of dead-end jobs. The group escapes to the Crossroad Mall and makes a tenuous peace with three hostile security guards who have barricaded themselves in the mall and are not pleased to have them there, especially obnoxious is their crude and belligerent leader CJ (Michael Kelly). Later they are joined by a few other Milwaukee citizens who drive their truck through the zombie mobs to get into the safe haven of the mall, where there’s enough food and convenience to live for a long time. The one other real person they meet is the owner of a gun shop, Andy (Bohne), who communicates with them from the roof of his next door store by holding up signs. Andy bonds with Kenneth after he proves he’s a crack shot and can kill the surging zombies from his roof with his high-powered rifle. The film’s one big joke is that the undead zombies are so conditioned to shop at the mall, that they instinctively go there shopping– as their mad dash to the doors is pictured as how they would behave at a special sale.

When the few remaining survivors realize they can’t remain at the mall much longer they drive their two makeshift armored mall shuttle buses through the chaotic and ruined streets, evocative of Lower Manhattan after 9/11. They plan to take the yacht of the wise-cracking effete Steve (Burrell) to a remote island for their safety.

The only enjoyment I had was in making a body count of the dead and guessing who would be the final survivors. There didn’t seem to be too much else that caught my interest. This is not a smart pic (not even as smart as the original 1978 Dawn of the Dawn) and for a film where so many are getting bitten the film itself has hardly any bite, but that won’t hurt its box-office potential as it is well-crafted and geared to reach the mall crowds in the same way as do video games.