It seems horror films are well and truly back in fashion with a spate of recent big budget productions. This remake of the 1978 Romero classic Dawn of the Dead is seeking to cash in on the trend. Fans of the original will find this is a very different movie which dispenses with social comment and slowly built tension in favour of fast-paced action and quick scares.
We are introduced to the heroine of the piece as the film opens, Ana (Sarah Polley) is a nurse and as she returns home from work to her family in suburbia there are dark omens hinting at what is to come. Sadly for Ana she and her husband miss the news report warning citizens about the rise of the dead and when they are awoken by her daughter things begin to get very bad for all concerned. The initial shock of the situation is well handled and an explosive scene kick starts the film into life.
The original screenplay written by Romero has been significantly reworked by James Gunn and the action is directed by first time director Zack Snyder. The pacing of the film has been altered completely and Snyder has a very different style to Romero in terms of direction. There are a number of memorable shots throughout the film such as the aerial view of Ana as she desperately tries to escape the madness which has broken out in her suburban neighbourhood. However the action suffers slightly from the modern habit of showing lots of close-ups and quick cuts so that it is hard to see exactly what is going on.
Ana manages to get away from the rampaging zombies and soon meets up with some other survivors. With the route to the designated meeting place blocked by the zombie horde they decide to make for the mall. It takes them a while to convince the security guards locked inside to let them in but before long they are safely inside and tooling up for action. More survivors arrive swelling the numbers and allowing for more people to be picked off in the course of the film. Some of them are infected and thanks to nurse Ana they are able to figure out that this is some kind of virus which re-animates the dead.
The cast features a few familiar faces, most notably Ving Rhames as a tough cop. Sarah Polley you may recognise from Go, there´s also Mekhi Phifer who arrives with his pregnant wife and a little cameo from Tom Savini as the sheriff in the news report. The actors do a fine job but there is little in the way of emotion, no time to shed tears over the fallen as the next zombie attack is always only minutes away.
One of the most notable differences between this and the original is the zombies themselves. Romero´s zombies were slow paced with poor motor skills, they shambled along grotesquely and in general the more decomposed they were the slower they moved. The terrifying factor with them was the sheer inevitably of them, the weight of numbers slowly piling up day after day and their insatiable hunger for live human meat. The zombies in the remake owe more to Boyle and 28 Days Later, they are fast and furious, spitting flem and blood and growling horribly in an animalistic way. This makes it easier to have quick scares throughout the film but it means that you lose the gruelling tension of the original and the film slides away from horror and into action a lot more often.
The sound is very atmospheric and the zombies have more of a scary, feral growl about them than the pathetic moaning they usually do. The music isn´t so great and seems to feature a lot of fast rock to fit the speed of the action. There is only a brief nod to the ironic use of the mall muzak and recorded announcements which were in the original. However they did work in some of the original news reports and these add to the doomed mood.
Before long it becomes clear that help is not coming and the survivors are picked off one by one, mostly due to idiotic behaviour. They eventually decide to build a couple of battle buses A-team style and make for the port to sail away to an island (this was the plan for the survivors in the original). However the film ends really abruptly and has a disappointing conclusion which features quick flashes of zombies and dialogue mixed in with the end credits. Sure it looks stylish but I would have preferred a decent end scene, perhaps this was part of the pressure to keep the running time down which inevitably comes from the big studios. Whatever the case the last half of the film fails to live up to the promise of the opening sequence and it seems that once the survivors reach the mall Gunn and Snyder don´t know what to do with them.
For a first effort the direction is very good and if you take this as a new film and don´t imagine the original then it makes for an entertaining fast action horror. The zombies are well done; they look terrifying with realistic looking wounds and plenty of gore. I was a bit annoyed that they mostly seemed to be freshly made and capable of sprinting at great speed, I would have liked to see more shambling from my zombies, but 28 Days Later seems to have set the new standard and it does make them a more potent threat. There are some nice new scenes which give a touch of comic relief, such as the look-alikes shooting competition where they pick off zombies who look like celebrities, however there are also some pretty badly handled scenes which don´t work such as the zombie baby.
I think without the slower pace and oppressive atmosphere which featured in Romero´s film the gravity of the situation is somewhat lost. This film isn´t trying to make a social comment, we don't see them shuffling around the shops as they used to do, reliving some dim memory, here they seem much more focused on the potential meal offered by any living people in the area. There is also less of sense that these monsters used to be people, they are animalistic and enraged rather than pale ghosts of their former selves.
Dawn of the Dead was a great horror film and did not need to be remade. Gunn and Snyder fail to make the most out of the mall setting and you have to wonder if they would have been better off just making a new zombie film. The opening sequence which was entirely new worked very well and hinted at a possible great film but once they reach the mall there are too many characters and the fresh ideas seem to dry up. They end up altering the original so much anyway that they may as well just dispense with it altogether; sadly this is probably down to the business side of film-making where they see licenses as less of a risk which goes to show they didn´t learn that much from 28 Days Later. Still if you can take this as just an entertaining action horror then it is enjoyable and does enough to justify the ticket price.