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Dawn of the Dead (2004)

July 30, 2007

God, but the zombie movie buff crowd are a humourless bunch. You can’t move through the various George Romero-worshipping websites out there without tripping over ‘political subtext’ this and ‘a satire on American consumerism’ that. The horrormeister (I’m legally bound to call him that, apparently) casts a giant shadow over the genre. His ‘Dead’ trilogy are legendary you know, blah blah blah.

Be that as it may, I watched the original 1978 Dawn of the Dead on TV last week, prior to seeing the remake the other night. The premise of that first film is pretty straightforward: following an epidemic of zombies (Do we ever find out why? I don’t know. Do we care?), two Philadelphia SWAT team members, a traffic reporter and his girlfriend seek refuge in a shopping mall. It’s the scenes in the mall that generate the reverence for Romero. Witness this exchange between two of the survivors as they watch the dead shuffle around in front of the shop windows:

Francine: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.

Yeah, yeah. OK. Cue countless scenes of the living trying on new clothes and feasting on their bounty, and the living dead trying to emulate them. Of course, widen any apocalyptic vision to include the every day, the mundane, the ordinary, and you have some kind of social comment. We get it, we get what Romero is trying to do. In fact, he hits us over the head with it every time; the gormless aping, the endless slow slouch into plate glass windows, we get it already. They can’t help it, OK, enough. The shopping vignettes are interminable. When violence does strike it is neither shocking nor frightening. Sure, it’s extreme (innards wrenched from living victims, great mouthfuls of tendon-stretching flesh torn from limbs) but it’s as if it’s done at a distance and, quite frankly, it’s even more boring than the satirical sledgehammer.

So. Enough.

Back to the Easter weekend and a mate’s suggestion that we have a zombie-fest culminating in Shaun of the Dead (which, ultimately, I couldn’t make due to unforeseen circumstances). Anyway, I managed at least, after DotD ’78, to complete the second part of the challenge, Dawn of the Dead (2004).

There are some striking similarities between the new version and Romero’s movie, notably when the survivors fetch up in a shopping mall. A mass of trivia (fresh from my TV viewing) is shared, too, but it’s mostly geekaloid fan-boy stuff that levels out at referencing cast and crew names from that first film in some way, or using the same truck livery during one driving sequence. That kind of thing. Essentially, though, it’s a very different kind of film, and I enjoyed it tremendously.

Things kick off unexpectedly. We are thrown right in at the deep end with a staggeringly good nine minute pre-credit sequence which tells you all you need to know about chaos and the tearing up of the fabric of society. Nurse Ana (Sarah Polley, previously only seen by this reviewer in the fabulous Go) finishes her shift at the local hospital and goes home to husband Luis. The next morning, Luis wakes up groggily to see the next-door neighbour’s little girl, Vivian, pushing their bedroom door open. Vivian attacks and kills Luis, who then sits right back up and launches himself at Ana. As she scarpers, she leaves the house and, despite her predicament, is forced to a standstill by the mayhem that has erupted around her. For a second, the camera pans around her housing estate and captures an amazingly choreographed scene of anarchy and terror. Her flight through a burning and rapidly deteriorating cityscape is marvellously well realised. As she swerves to avoid the carnage around her, and falls off the freeway, the opening credits roll. Johnny Cash fires up The Man Comes Around, white noise crackles and global horrors play across the screen. It’s a terrific, visceral way to start a movie.

Ana is rescued from her car by Ving Rhames (now c’mon, people, who else?) and very quickly they bump into a handful of other survivors from that morning’s sudden rude awakening. It’s at this point they come across the mall and break in (it being only 7am they assume, correctly, that it’s locked and ‘fairly’ empty). Thankfully, there is very little political subtext to wade through here. Hardly any in fact, because – apart from a brief woo-hoo-we’re-all-alone-in-a-shopping-centre-let’s-drink-all-the-skinny-lattes-we-can-make-and-have-sex-in-Debenhams!* montage – they’re too busy fending off bloody scary zombies half the time ferchrissakes. None of your shuffling avoid-them-in-your-sleep re-animated corpses here. These are much more the 28 Days Later type, all full speed and snarls. A good mix of different film stocks really kicks things along too, making the creatures edgy and unpredictable.

There’s plenty of humour here, which only occasionally lapses into that grating post-Eighties Scream-like ironic drawl:



Kenneth: Is everyone there dead?
Steve: Dead-ish.
Kenneth: Is everyone there dead?
Steve: Yeah, in the sense that they all sort of fell down, and then got up, and they’re eating each other.

Much is made of the musak in the mall too (though you’d think they switch it off after a while, huh?), schmaltzy versions of Don’t Worry, Be Happy, All By Myself, Right Time Of The Night, You Light Up My Life, What the World Needs Now and All Out Of Love punctuating the tension and making their points with a sly nod. But best of all is a shoot-the-celebrity-lookalike-zombie competition with Andy, the gun shop owner trapped on the roof of his shop across the street (“Rosie O’Donnell! Tell him to shoot Rosie!”), picking off the oblivious sleb targets.

Eventually, as you might expect, we reach a point where the story has to move on and the survivors try and break out. The film, which sags a tad in the middle, admittedly, and shamefully includes an A-team style getting-our-shit-together sequence, picks up speed at this point and regains the energy of that terrific opening scene. The closing credits, to a background of Jim Carrolll’s fabulous People Who Died, are interspersed with a very unhappy ending indeed.

The debut director, Zack Snyder, is helped by a happy set of circumstances, not least of which is having ER‘s Dr Pratt and superstar-in-waiting Mekhi Phifer high up in the mix as one of the gutsy hangers-on, and it also helps that he, Snyder, delivers at least one genuine shock (don’t go if you’re pregnant) plus he can do eerie as well as all the slam bang stuff. Eerie’s good; we like eerie.

A satire on American consumerism? Well, if you think that’s what Romero was really going for in ’78, watch that movie. Or, wait for his next slice of Art, Diamond Dead (in which ‘a young woman must kill 365 people with the help of a rock band that she accidentally killed and brought back to life’). How very À bout de soufflé. Lots of political subtext there I shouldn’t wonder.

*well, obviously not Debenhams

One Comment leave one →
  1. chris permalink
    September 23, 2009 1:27 am

    where can i find the movie so i can watch it

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