Zombie movies are a fascinating genre. With their emphasis on the menace of the mindless crowd they are often as much satire as horror, and there are few zombie films that offer more sly humor than George A. Romero’s 1979 gorefest sequel, Dawn of the Dead. Filmed for the most part in a Monroeville, Pennsylvania indoor mall, its most indelible scenes are of the pasty-skinned, nattily dressed undead blundering idiotically up and down escalators and past brightly lit storefronts while muzak plays soothingly over the shopping center intercom. In the original Dawn of the Dead, zombies often seemed more pathetic than scary, hungry for live flesh, but slow moving and capable of little more than low, inarticulate moans. Their real danger lay in the fact that they overwhelmingly outnumbered the living. The sheer power and loathsomeness of passive stupidity has rarely been portrayed so bluntly.
But time moves on and so must satire. In the age of Ann Coulter, mindlessness is lean, fast, aggressive, and noisy. Like the "infected" in the 2002 thriller 28 Days Later, the zombies in Zack Snyder’s 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead don’t just paw and utter mooing sounds. They snarl and spring.
Where Romero’s Dawn of the Dead opened with the main characters already aware that society had disintegrated, this film, with a new screenplay by James Gunn, begins in the hours before everything falls apart. Sarah Polley is Ana, a tired nurse at the end of her shift at the hospital, dealing with a self-absorbed physician, bantering with a friend, heading home with relief to an affectionate husband and an evening of TV and lovemaking. Hints that something might be wrong are brief and easily missed: a comment by an ambulance driver, a fragment of a news report as Ana searches on the radio dial for a rock station, an emergency broadcast message that appears on a TV screen when nobody is in the room.
The end of normal life and the real beginning of this film comes when Ana and her husband awaken to the realization that someone is standing in the doorway of their darkened bedroom. From that moment on, everything introduced in the first few scenes is brutally swept away. In this film, no meaningful vestige of life before the apocalypse can survive–no love, no friendship, no home. Ana’s new "home" is a Wisconsin shopping mall that must be barricaded from the vicious crowds of the dead converging on it, her new "family" a small, disparate group of about ten survivors that include a tough ex-cop, played by Ving Rhames, a reformed bad boy (Mekhi Phifer) and an under-achieving every-man appealingly played by Jake Weber.
Some of the classic elements in the original Dawn of the Dead and other apocalyptic films are notably absent. There is, for instance, no extended montage showing the characters having fun with the amenities offered by this large empty mall. Most of them are too preoccupied to care much. The issue of how to survive and still maintain a standard of human decency is handled without too much moralizing, and the fact that some standards will have to be shed is accepted realistically and quickly. But those standards that remain are largely unquestioned, and that’s one of the most appealing aspects of this film.
And a vital one, because while Dawn of the Dead has a great deal of humor, it’s satire is acid, mordant, and very, very grim. Hope is repeatedly invoked and then squashed with comic brutality, most notably when one character’s attempt to build and maintain some semblance of normal family life is perverted into something unspeakable. The result is a steadily increasing sense of doom that makes the characters’ probably unwise decision near the end of the film understandable.
In spite of the differences, most fans of the 1978 movie will find little to complain about in this intelligent and gripping version that wields the same sledge-hammer horror and wit as the original. Watch for some cameos from original cast members and the traffic helicopter that was a pivotal plot point in the Romero film. And while some might complain that the conclusion is not as ambiguous, the filmmakers have deftly given the audience the choice of two endings. You can leave once the credits start rolling, or stick around for the truly bitter end.
For true die-hard zombie fans, the decision is obvious.