1-1/2 stars (out of 4)
"Dawn of the Dead" is a big-bucks remake of George Romero's grisly 1978 horror classic about a zombie army besieging an all-American shopping mall. But despite a big budget, lots of technical flair and a good cast headed by Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames, it's mostly a bloody mess.
Romero's movie was both scary and satiric, but this reprise, directed by British TV-ad wiz Zack Snyder, is neither. It's a blood-spattered zombie of a picture, almost as violent, soulless and drenched with gore as the undead mob that keeps trying to break into the movie's super-mall to kill the cliched characters inside.
For an hour and a half we watch this loony crowd, both living and dead, being stabbed, shot, skewered, bitten, run over and blown sky-high, after a plague of zombies mysteriously overruns Milwaukee (re-created in Toronto). Both the movie and the epidemic strike with unnerving speed.
One day, a zombie turns up in the local hospital. The next morning, wide-eyed nurse Ana (Polley) sees both hubby and child turn into zombies as well. Fleeing, she barely gets out of her neighborhood alive.
Soon, Milwaukee and its suburbs are in flames, and Ana and a few other survivors, including surly cop Kenneth (Rhames) and brainy Michael (Jake Weber), are holed up in the local mall. Outside, a ravenous mob of the undead creates a living hell.
The movie is hell to watch too. Some of the characters - Ana, Kenneth and Michael - are heroic.
Some are craven or villainous, like tart-tongued rich creep Steve (Ty Burrell) and, initially, the mall's three macho security guards, led by sullen CJ (Michael Kelly). Some are tragic, like the desperate couple (Mekhi Phifer and Lindy Booth) trying to save their unborn, undead zombie baby.
Living or dead, the characters, concocted by "Scooby Doo" scribe James Gunn, behave predictably and senselessly. One can excuse the zombies' stupidity, milling around in the parking lot, crashing against shatterproof doors. But the non-zombie characters are almost as bad. Why do they spout nonstop nonsense; run off, unprepared, to investigate mysterious noises; and show so little interest in cell phones or radios, beyond local calls?
Meanwhile, more zombies and even a dog sneak in and out of the mall. Nearly every plan the humans cook up fails, despite the fact that their opponents are brain-dead. Indeed, in this movie, having no brains seems to be an advantage.
Rhames still packs a mean glower, and Polley sports a nice anxious stare. And though director Snyder is good with action choreography, and with crane and helicopter shots, the overall effect is both gruesome and numbing.
Back in 1978, Romero, making a sequel to his low-budget 1968 gem "Night of the Living Dead," spent a lot more time than these filmmakers on setup and plausibility. Romero wanted us to believe, on some level, in the gory little world he was creating. He was able to give us a good, scary ride and make funny, nasty jibes at consumer culture and '70s nihilism.
Snyder and company just seem bent on taking us for a bloody ride. This "Dawn" doesn't try much for satire. It just goes for the gore and, even if most of the cast is eventually put out of their misery, the audience is less mercifully handled, even at the end credits, the most violent and annoying I've seen recently. Sometimes even death - or the end of a bad movie - is no release.
"Dawn of the Dead"
Directed by Zack Snyder; written by James Gunn, based on the screenplay by George Romero; photographed by Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Niven Howie; production designed by Andrew Neskoromny; music by Tyler Bates; produced by Richard P. Rubinstein, Marc Abraham, Eric Newman. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, March 19. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: R (pervasive strong horror violence and gore, language and sexuality).
Ana - Sarah Polley
Kenneth - Ving Rhames
Michael - Jake Weber
Andre - Mekhi Phifer
Steve - Ty Burrell
CJ - Michael Kelly