You ve heard of the Alamo.
Well, this time around:
Remember the Cinnabon!
To paraphrase the tagline of Dawn of the Dead, both the 1978
George A. Romero original, and this tasty new remake: When
there is no room in hell, bad movies walk the earth. I should
know. I saw Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights and Ben Affleck s upcoming Jersey Girl within hours of each other, and with that in
mind, trudged into Universal s re-envisioning of one of the
most violent, witty horror flicks ever, angry, muttering, my expectations
hovering somewhere at 40 degrees below miserable.
And guess what:
Hell froze over.
They don t make zombie movies like they used to, and maybe
that s good. Romero s beloved classic is overlong, the cast
barely soft-porn cable able. True, his aims were higher: His film
was a clever parable of consumerism run amok; his zombies
the shuffling kin from an older, classier horror tradition when
mummies lumbered after their victims (who neatly tripped on
cue). But that 70s shocker, fun, polyester packed, garishly colored,
numbingly gory, also became something its predecessor,
1968 s Night of the Living Dead, never became: a period picture.
This new Dawn, urgent and funny, with undead who could
run a marathon, is a period picture of sorts, too. For the Xtreme
age. For the shell-shocked, terrorism-wary generation. There s a
palpable sense of events moving too fast, and out of your hands.
The film is washed out and tremulous, not unlike the look of Traffic. In a decade it s bound to be more of a guilty pleasure. At the moment, though, it s one of the more satisfying retakes on a
classic horror film in ages; it had me at Don t Worry, Be Happy,
one of the twisted bits of Muzak piped over the soundtrack (along
with All By Myself and You Light Up My Life truly end-ofthe-
world music when zombies are rapping at your door). We re talking mall Muzak. You see, zombies know from a good fire
sale, and when there s no room left in hell, there s always plenty
of room at Banana Republic.
Both movies share a shopping mall. The original took place
outside Romero s hometown, Pittsburgh. This one unfolds in
Milwaukee. (Although, to judge by the Canadian stores, Milwaukee,
Ontario.) They also share a premise: The last remnants of a
medium-sized city, under siege from a virus turning its citizens
(and maybe the citizens of the world) into frothing fl esh eaters,
head to the most logical Alamo they think of the problem is,
even in a diminished capacity, so do the noshing, nasty undead.
Shop til you drop, indeed.
Director Zack Snyder (one of those British TV commercial gurus
studios love these days) nods at that mall hell subtext, but more
with affection than purpose. This Dawn is all about unrelenting
scares, and uneasy blurring images, and he s quite a stylist: In
the fi rst 10 minutes, we learn that governments have collapsed and
cities are overrun. The smartest thing this Dawn includes is real
actors: Indie favorite Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter) wakes
to find her family turned into zombies and her neighborhood
sliding into an unsettling, convincing suburban chaos.
Homes burn, cars are abandoned, neighbors stand in clusters and watch. Ominously,
and in the distance, office towers smoke. There s a bravura bit
where she takes to the road and we watch from overhead as the
city grids around her implode.
The opening is so gripping it s hardly a comfort when she finds
fellow survivors (and more real actors). There s Ving Rhames as
a cop; Mekhi Phifer as a fathertobe; Jake Weber as a life-long
chump rising to the challenge.
They do stupid things characters in horror movies do, but being
fine actors, we re less likely to chalk it up to stupidity. They
carry that startled expression of a bird that flew into a window.
The gore is there; it might even be worse than in the 1978 version.
But we see it in flashes rather than long cuts that give us time to evaluate the brand of ketchup being applied. A man squirms as he s
eaten alive: I see it in my mind s eye, but in the movie it happens
too quickly to get a good look at.
That also nicely balances with, yes, compassion; a genuine sense
of how self-interest might work at the end of the world; and serious
(no irony involved) laughs: When you re just counting bullets now,
and the zombies keep coming, what to do? Celebrity Bingo. One
player shouts Burt Reynolds or Jay Leno. The other shoots a
zombie that most resembles the celeb. Hey, beats hanging out in
the food court, again.