Dawn of the Dead
Hi kids! Before we start today’s review, it’s time for another one of those history lessons I know you all enjoy so much!
In 1978 George Romero created the first sequel to his cult film Night of the Living Dead. By this time Night, made ten years earlier, was a popular staple on college campuses and in revival showings and on the fledgling premium movie channels. Dawn of the Dead had only the most tenuous connections to its predecessor, the dead had risen due to uncertain circumstances and humanity was in peril. As Dawn begins, the plague has spread further than in Night, the zombies are rapidly increasing in number, and society has begun to break down.
The original Dawn of the Dead centered on four characters, two SWAT Officers, a television news reporter, and her boyfriend, the station’s helicopter pilot. By commandeering the news helicopter, the four are able to escape to a less populated area and eventually set up camp in a shopping mall. The remainder of the film tells their story of fortifying the mall, removing the zombies inside, and eventually defending it from other humans and a new influx of the dead.
What made the original film work was not excessive violence or scenes of horror, it was the strong performances of the four lead characters and their drive to band together and live through this disaster. The two SWAT Officers are trained professionals and while they carry the bulk of the security duties (i.e. killing zombies) in the beginning, eventually everyone learns to protect themselves and survive. By the end of the film, you cared about these characters and you were rooting for them to overcome the seemingly impossible odds. Even the downbeat ending still carried the hope that through unflinching endurance, some of humanity would preserver.
Now it’s 26 years later and the Hollywood money machine has declared that the name Dawn of the Dead is ripe for “re-envisioning”, a term that apparently means ripping off only the title and some peripheral elements from an earlier successful film. Let’s see, what do we keep in the new one? Zombies? Of course, we have to have those. Shopping mall? Sure, we’re even more materialistic now than we were in 1978. Strong, intelligent characters, with a driving will to live? No way, this is the age of Survivor and reality television, what we need here are some good old-fashioned idiots!
The new Dawn of the Dead begins with slightly more back-story than the original but still keeps the origins of the plague a mystery. Society is more in the stages of Night of the Living Dead but the breakdown occurs much faster. Also borrowed from Night is the larger group of incompatible characters who eventually hold up in the expected shopping mall. These characters come from all walks of life and also all carry their own agendas. Unfortunately, while the new movie starts off with the potential to take the core of the original and run with it, it quickly becomes apparent that the filmmakers either did not understand or don’t care about what made the original work.
Once the characters have settled down in their consumer dream house, no further measures are taken to fortify the mall or protect themselves from the ever-growing zombie menace outside. While the zombies in this film are faster (a trait that caused my audience more laughter than terror in one early scene) they are apparently no more intelligent or dexterous than their classic counterparts. For some logic-defying reason, modern zombies are also all card-carrying members of PETA, so while they are hell bent to chow down on any human they can get their hands on, animals are completely ignored. The true menace to the characters in this version is not the zombies, however, but each other. Yes, dear friends, this is the “Dawn of the Dumb”.
A large portion of the “suspense” in this film is generated by thoughtless actions that come across as completely unrealistic. One scene has the most medically-oriented character, who has observed the origins and characteristics of the plague first hand, calmly listening for breath in a recently deceased victim the audience knows is coming back at any moment. Even a person with no medical training in this situation would have figured out by now that this was a bad idea. In another scene, this same character decides, with no prior knowledge we are aware of, that characters killed by means other than the zombies will not come back to life. While this conclusion ultimately does not amount to much, it does demonstrate that life or death decisions are being based on assumptions when the more prudent path would have cost them no more than two bullets.
The bad moves and groan-inducing decisions don’t stop there either. Characters are apparently allowed to wander around unaccounted for for days on end and heated debates ensue over when to terminate contaminated characters who are clearly turning at a rapid rate. Even the ultimate decision to abandon their shelter is made more out of boredom and convenience than a clear plan on how they are going to survive. By the films action-filled final act, almost as many characters have perished through stupidity, accident, and their own psychoses as by zombie attack! When the credits do finally roll we are treated to a bonus “Blair Witch Project”-style ending that seems to be required in modern horror films and serves to further illustrate that the characters lack of critical thought is their ultimate undoing.
There are many elements in this new version that do work and many more that have potential but never pan out. The bigger budget gives way to a larger cast and minor star power (Ving Rhames and Jake Weber both turn in good performances but neither are given an opportunity to develop their characters). There is also a clever “modern day island” relationship between the mall dwellers and another survivor stranded on the roof of a nearby gun store. The tone is kept grim and the situation desperate even in light of the characters overpowering attraction to unnecessary risk. If the film makers had only understood that the strong characterizations and the will to band together and survive were the heart of the original, this film could have been a modern classic in its own right. Ultimately, it left me with the feeling that the zombies are the least of our worries and perhaps this plague was God’s way of cleaning out the gene pool with bleach!
If I went in to this film with any preconceived notions, they were positive ones. I was ready to embrace a modern reworking of a classic horror film. The initial reviews I had read were favorable and I was primed for a good zombie movie up on the big screen. I had read interviews with the films producer, Eric Newman, and I was prepared for this version to have only a passing resemblance to its namesake. After all, the original Dawn of the Dead has only the most meager of plot outlines (people fight zombies in a war to survive) so it should be ripe for expansion and reinterpretation. Unfortunately, what I saw on the screen has lead me to conclude that the responsible parties on the new version just couldn’t grasp what made the original film work. Either that or this is really their take on how society has changed in the past 26 years and how far less effectively its members would be in dealing with the same crises today. If this latter explanation is closer to the truth, then I agree with this film’s conclusion that modern society is doomed and this time I’m rooting for the zombies!
I give this film one and a half stars. Unless you just really want to see a zombie film in the theater, I highly recommend you save your money and watch the original again.