‘Dawn of the Dead’ rises to the occasion

Times Staff Writer

Good zombie fun, the remake of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” is the best proof in ages that cannibalizing old material sometimes works fiendishly well. The story opens with a hush in a Milwaukee hospital as an emergency-room nurse (Sarah Polley) wearily moves through her final hour at work. Too exhausted to notice the casualties flooding into the ward, Ana returns home to her last untroubled sleep, only to wake to the nightmare vision of a child ripping a man’s throat out with its teeth.

Jumping into her car, Ana makes a nerve-racking escape to the safest place on Earth or at least Wisconsin -- the mall. There, along with seven other freaked-out refugees, she takes uneasy shelter. Protected by shatterproof glass and guns, and buffered by all the comforts of a modern shopping mecca, the men and women establish a society in miniature. When a truck crashes into the mall with a few more living stragglers, the group swells, then congeals into complacence. (The fine cast includes Jake Weber, Ving Rhames and Ty Burrell.) As zombies proliferate outside -- malls apparently are destination sites even for the undead -- the survivors pump iron in the sporting-goods store, whip up lattes at the Hallowed Grounds coffee bar and pledge allegiance either to one another or their own worst selves.

In Romero’s original 1978 shocker -- the middle chapter in his zombie trilogy that opens with 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” and closes with 1985’s “Day of the Dead” -- the heroine and her three male companions escape to a similar refuge. Inside this high temple of consumerism, where the living tend to resemble the waking dead anyway (save for the blood and bad grooming, of course), Romero mapped out a brilliant metaphor, an allegorical space in which the “me” generation could come to its frenzied end. Twenty-six years later, with the politics of consumption now an established academic field and shopping now considered a statement of identity, the political resonance of Romero’s metaphor has been considerably blunted. But while the metaphor has lost its bite, the zombies have lost little of theirs.


Directed by newcomer Zack Snyder, with a script by James Gunn, the remake of “Dawn of the Dead” races along at a breakneck, at times exhausting pace. (I was wiped out from all my nervous twitching.) Like the zombies in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and unlike Romero’s bumbling, lumbering undead, the ghouls in the new movie move fast -- very fast. The speeded-up rhythms are unsettling, not only because the zombies are continually rushing toward the camera like bugs toward a car windshield (and to similar splatter effect), but also because it forces the action into overdrive. An award-winning commercial director, Snyder knows the value of loud noises and hard slamming edits, and he sells the scares in his film with energetic economy.

This “Dawn of the Dead” doesn’t break new ground, but it’s a reminder of how good horror movies sweep you away with equal parts pleasure and dread. Although Snyder and his special effects team pour on the gore (they’re keen on exploding zombie heads) what makes the film pop aren’t the buckets of blood, but the filmmakers’ commitment to genre fundamentals. One consequence of the mainstreaming of horror is that although movies and television are now awash in viscera, we tend to rationalize this turn toward the Grand Guignol with sober forensics. When Marg Helgenberger pokes around on TV’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” it’s easy to pretend that all the ravaged flesh is finally in the service of law and order. There’s no such pretense with these zombies -- they live only so we can watch them die.


‘Dawn of the Dead’

MPAA rating: R, for pervasive strong horror, violence and gore, language and sexuality

Times guidelines: Extreme gore, strong language, mild sex

Sarah Polley...Ana

Ving Rhames...Kenneth

Jake Weber...Michael

Mekhi Phifer...Andre

Ty Burrell...Steve

Universal Pictures presents a Strike Entertainment/New Amsterdam Entertainment production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Zack Snyder. Writer James Gunn. Based on a screenplay by George A. Romero. Producers Richard P. Rubinstein, Marc Abraham, Eric Newman. Director of photography Matthew F. Leonetti. Production designer Andrew Neskoromny. Editor Niven Howie. Music supervisor G. Marq Roswell. Music Tyler Bates. Special makeup effects David LeRoy Anderson. Costume designer Denise Cronenberg. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

In general release.