Dawn of the Dead ('04) review by The Grim Ringler

A lot of people aren’t going to be satisfied until they read that this movie is a pile of crap that can’t hold a candle to the original, so if that’s what you want and that’s what makes you feel good, then fine – the movie sucks, now be on your way. But do I really think that? Not at all. I actually really liked the film. Far more than I expected to or thought I would. But then, I can accept a movie, re-make or not, as what it is. The original DOTD is a classic film and nothing can change that. And yes, you read that, a classic film, period. But this is not that film, nor does it try to be. It takes the premise of the original and twists it, and to me, quite effectively. Is it better? Of course not, but as a pop horror film, it’s pretty damn good. Which will mean nothing to the boneheaded horror dorks that insist that any and all remakes are crap. Well, ya know what, if they were gonna remake the movie anyway, which I would have preferred they not do, at least they made a good movie, and made a damn fun zombie flick.

(This may be the shortest plot synopsis I ever write). Without any reason or warning the dead begin to rise and begin to attack and devour the living. As society begins to collapse in upon itself under the strains of this horror, a young woman links up with a rag-tag group of survivors and barricade themselves within a large mall. They are not alone in the mall though and as they realize that they have not only zombies to deal with but also three mall security guards on ego trips to contend with, it becomes obvious the danger they are in. A power struggle ensues but the power changes hands as more survivors arrive, this time with wounded, and the stakes are raised even higher as it becomes apparent that at least one of their group has been bitten and infected with the disease which brings the dead back to life and that person must be removed from the group. But now that there are more of them, things become easier and routines slowly form again and, if but for a while, life becomes bearable again, the dead safely outside and to a degree harmless. A mall is no place to spend the rest of your lives though, and after a tragedy happens within their group, within the mall, they group realizes that they’d rather risk leaving the mall and finding another place to live and die, than it is to die in their fake world they’ve made. But in leaving the mall, are they giving themselves hope, or needlessly risking everything on a distant hope?

And I buy it. I really liked this movie, and believe me, I didn’t want to in the least. While far from a perfect film, and not the stuff of cult classics, this is a very well made and well-written film. I didn’t want the zombies to be fast moving and didn’t want them to run, but you know what, it works and it creates a tension and fear that the first one never had. And I like that. I like that in the original, the fact that the zombies moved so slowly created a false sense of safety and manageability, because if worse came to worse, you could always outrun them. But how do you outrun an army? But in this re-imagining you have no choice but to know what you are doing and to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible lest the dead catch you. These are not mindless automatons; these are predators that will stop at nothing to catch their prey. And I also like that this film is very different than the original because why try to do better than something that was so wonderfully imagined? Instead of having to deal with the outside world trying to break into their new utopia the characters have created, this group must face the idea of living and dying in this fortress, leading a life as prisoners behind glass walls. Help is not coming so they must help themselves. What I miss from the original was the sense of fun though that happened when the characters settled into routines again and explored the mall. You get a brief montage of this, which works for this film, but the decadence is gone, the sense of falling back into old patterns to make the person feel better about themselves. Lost too is the tension of a real couple having to keep themselves sane and in love as the world falls down around them. There are some very good changes though in the re-imagining, such as the addition of another character trapped in a nearby building who the group in the mall communicate with and even play a game with as they call out zombies that look like celebs and the other character kills them with a sniper rifle.

The direction, for a first-timer, is very well done. The camera never becomes too much of a character and the director stays away from clever zooms and tricks to engage the audience. There are several scenes though that were shot with handheld camera and those scenes did make the film a bit too frenzied and hard to follow, which to a degree I am sure was the point, but it is a false way of raising tension. The script is also a lot smarter than I would have imagined. These are not stupid people; they are not behaving foolishly for the most part. The best example of this is one of the security guards the initial group to happen upon the mall find, who behaves like a tyrannical bastard at first, landing him in a makeshift jail, but when they free him, he works with the others, knowing he has no other way of surviving. And I like that there is a moment when they face that they may have to kill a man that was bitten by a zombie before he dies. The zombies, while I will never adapt to them being fast, are very good looking and after you get accustomed to them, they become very haunting and scary monsters. The idea that these are not even remotely human anymore is a very good and very scary one and works as well here as it did in 28 Days Later. While not overly gory, this is a horror film and you do get moments of pretty intense bloodshed, though us gorehounds will never be happy. And there is a heart to this film, though most of the time it’s too damn big and obvious on its arm (as some speeches and moments between Mekhi Pfeiffer and his wife are way too over the top I LOVE YOU BABY), such as when the lead actress’ husband is bitten and dies. Watching him die as his throat pumps blood out and there is nothing she can do to stop the bleeding is heartbreaking to watch and all the worse when he rises and attacks her in a matter of moments. The ending is also very well done and created. As the survivors try to escape the mall and head for the docks, a boat, and an island, they must first get through thousands of zombies who want nothing more than to push over their buses, and this is a brilliant scene, watching the buses inching forward, unable to part the flood of dead but unwilling to go back. The acting is hit and miss. The main leads are all well created and well realized, but the further from the main characters you get, the dicier the acting gets, which is not to say there are bad performances, but there are some that are kinda so-so. Which was a think that plagued the original as well. And wow, what a great soundtrack. Not falling into the habit of modern films of using whatever hip hard-rock band has a single out and plugging it into the film, they actually went out and found music that works with the film, not against it, imagine that. And it was nice to hear a big, bass-y orchestral score for the film as well, which shows that they at least understand how well music can work for a film.

But this isn’t a perfect film. The idea of running zombies is pretty weird and far-fetched. How the living dead got all this energy we’ll never know, but as cool as it is to see and as well realized as it may have been, it does stretch believability to its thinnest. And, as I said before, some of the dialogue is way too obvious and speech-y. Ok, we get that you have a wife that’s pregnant and want to give your kid a new life, but do you need to keep yammering about it? And the plot does move at a nice clip, not too fast, though not to slowly, but towards the end things almost move too fast, as if they reach a point and remembered that they need to end the movie and soon. And as I said, the shaky-cam the director uses during some scenes creates more motion sickness than it does tension. There are too many characters as well. I like that there are more people and more personalities, but some of them you don’t even know beyond seeing one or two beats with them that is supposed to tell you who they are but which doesn’t really make you care whether they live or die. And that hurts the film as, when half of your cast is all but emotionally expendable, it hurts your investment in the movie. I also don’t like that they’ve lost the social commentary and satire. This is not a horror film examining the world at large, it’s a horror film examining What If, and while it does well at this, it doesn’t make the film one that will last the test of time, as the first one will. And lastly, you can see some of the things that happen during the climax a mile away, but generally, I didn’t mind, and overall love how the film ended.

I love the original Dawn of the Dead with all my heart and nothing will change that. And no, I didn’t want them to make a new one, but they did, and I saw it, and it’s a damn good film. Well made, chilling, and shocking in the brutality and dark ending, this is a very good pop horror film. No, it will not change the world and won’t scare generations of viewers as the original shall, but it is a good re-imagining that works better than I had ever guessed. And aside from that, it’s a damn good zombie movie and one of the best of recent years. You can hate the movie, but you can’t hate the heart that went into making this one as original and good as it could be. Far from perfect, and sure to be hated more than loved by the fans this film is for, this is a great little romp and is well worth the price to see it. And by the by, lest you get your dander up at my score – I’d give the original a 9.


8 out of 10 Jackasses
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