Hell overflows — again — in “Dawn of the Dead,” a big-budget redo of George A. Romero’s influential 1978 gorefest. Like last fall’s atrocious “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” clone, “Dawn” is pitched at twentysomethings more likely to recognize the title than to have seen the original pic. More palatable than “Texas,” “Dawn” also seems even less necessary, given how effectively the original was reworked last year in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.” Target auds will be little bothered by this, however, allowing “Dawn’s” undead to roam healthily about multiplexes and ancillary streams for some time to come.
One of the best films (horror or otherwise) of the ’70s, “Dawn of the Dead” was the middle pic in Romero’s famed, independently-produced zombie trilogy that began with 1968’s seminal “Night of the Living Dead” and concluded with 1985’s “Day of the Dead.” Set in the throes of a mysterious outbreak that turned human corpses into flesh-eating drones, the original “Dawn” told of an unlikely band of survivors — two police officers and a married couple — who eventually holed up together in a suburban Pennsylvania shopping mall. At which point, the film became ingenious social satire touching on racism, classism, feminism and, above all, consumerism, as the vicious zombies clawed their way into the mall that, as one character famously observed, “was an important place in their lives.”
Beginning with a jolting 10-minute sequence (which, in an unprecedented marketing move, was broadcast in its entirety on basic cable four nights prior to pic’s theatrical release), this new “Dawn,” directed by commercials and music-video helmer Zack Snyder and scripted by James Gunn, is designed to spin a new tale involving new characters, while staying true to the basic outline of the original.
Milwaukee hospital nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) drives home from work, settles into bed with her husband, then wakes the next morning to discover that her young daughter has turned into a zombie. In short order, the daughter chows down on dad, transforming him into a zombie, too, while Ana flees, but finds the entire neighborhood has turned into a zombies-vs.-humans warzone.
And these are not, to put it mildly, your father’s zombies. Unlike Romero’s comically staggering sleepwalkers, Snyder’s brood can run — very fast — and they make loud shrieking noises when they attack.
After crashing her car, Ana joins forces with police officer Kenneth (Ving Rhames) and, soon thereafter, a ragtag bunch composed of Andre (Mekhi Phifer), his pregnant wife (Inna Korobkina), and the thrice-divorced Michael (Jake Weber). Together, they make their way to a nearby mall where they are confronted by an antagonistic trio of security guards. The expected bickering over who’s in charge and what’s the best plan of action ensues. Then, a truck shows up containing another eight survivors.
That’s more than four times as many characters as Romero had, and the decision to cast their net so inexplicably wide is the first of Snyder’s and Gunn’s ill-advised acts of revision. Whereas the resonance of Romero’s film (and of “28 Days Later”) derived from its ability to involve auds emotionally with a few spartan protagonists, here viewers don’t spend enough time with any of the characters to feel such a connection. The humans in the film remain as abstract as their zombie counterparts, more like the characters in a video game than real people.
Likewise, despite having a great setting in production designer Andrew Neskoromny’s virtually built-from-scratch mall, the filmmakers never bring meaning to the mall location the way Romero did. In the original “Dawn,” the human survivors as well as the undead took strange comfort in the mall culture. In this remake, with the exception of one brief montage sequence that tries to make a similar point, the characters might just as soon find themselves in an abandoned warehouse or church.
Not surprisingly, pic works only on the level of a visceral horror exercise and, even then, only intermittently. While Snyder stages a few audience-rousing set pieces and peppers the film with amusing shots of zombie hordes running through the streets in fast motion (like the crazed Beatles fans of “A Hard Day’s Night”), his obvious scare tactics ultimately owe less to Romero’s stark comic minimalism than to the countless quickie knock-offs (like Lucio Fulci’s “Zombi 2”) that followed the first “Dawn’s” success.
By the finale, so many things have gone bang and boom in elaborate CGI explosions that the film has a numbing effect. And pic’s gore quotient (courtesy of makeup whiz David Leroy Anderson), while high, is considerably toned down from the infamous heights scaled by Romero’s unrated epic.
Lensed in heavily stylized widescreen (moody, underlit interiors; grainy, bleached-out exteriors) by Matthew F. Leonetti, pic sports a look that’s 180 degrees away from Romero’s bright, flat, deep space compositions. However, a la the recent “Starsky & Hutch,” three original “Dawn” cast members make cameo appearances: Tom Savini as a sheriff; Scott Reiniger as a general; and the steely Ken Foree as a televangeslist, reiterating his signature line, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”