`Dawn' remake is doom done right


March 19, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Last year's 28 Days Later turned a corner for zombie films, one the new remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead exploits to great advantage.

No longer do the walking dread lurch around like cars forever stuck in first gear. No more does the camera linger on the decaying corpses, watching in lurid fascination as body parts fall to the ground. With luck, never again will the grotesqueries of a zombie movie be the only thing audiences remember.

Nope, the zombies of the new millennium can move. They're no less unstoppable than ever, but giving them the gift of speed makes them more horrifying, and it makes movies in which they're featured far freakier.

Dawn of the Dead - which, like Romero's 1979 original (itself a sequel to his 1968 Night of the Living Dead), is set largely in an abandoned shopping mall - is, at its heart, standard zombie fare. For reasons unknown, Milwaukee is being overtaken by a mysterious virus that kills people, then turns them into nightmarish creatures with only one thought: Eat your fellow man.

Spared that gruesome fate for the moment is a group that includes a nurse (Sarah Polley), a cop (Ving Rhames), a father and daughter (Matt Frewer and Lindy Booth), a handsome electronics salesman (Jake Weber), a man and his expectant wife (Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina) and a trio of security guards (led by Michael Kelly as a power-grabbing authority figure with, nevertheless, hero potential). But given that their mall sanctuary is surrounded by thousands of zombies, how long can they survive?

That's part of the fun in zombie movies, the realization that not all the good guys are going to make it.

Dawn has plenty other selling points, including an inspired soundtrack - the film kicks off with Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around" and ends with the Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died," while the elevator Muzak is always cheerful tripe like "Don't Worry, Be Happy" or "You Light Up My Life." And there's some wonderfully black humor, such as a game the survivors engage in, using zombies who resemble famous celebrities as target practice.

Of course, there's also plenty of dumb here, too (it's a horror movie!), people who go out on "perimeter searches" for no discernible reason, as well as a dog-rescue-mission that's a little hard to digest.

But screenwriter James Gunn (a Troma Films stalwart who also, regrettably, wrote the first Scooby-Doo movie) and first-time director Zack Snyder do too much right here to let a few aesthetic reservations get in the way of enjoying the film. Dawn of the Dead may depict the end of the world as we know it, but rarely has watching doom proved such a kick.

Dawn of the Dead

Starring Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer

Directed by Zack Snyder

Rated R (language, violence, gore)

Released by Universal Pictures

Time 100 minutes

Sun Score ***

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