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May 13, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 13, 2006 |

When it comes to remakes, one can’t help but wonder: Why bother? If some filmmakers are so enamored with the classics of yesteryear, why bother trying to duplicate them? Too often the results are just lame rehashes of old material that, by definition, can’t contain the ingenuity or shock of the original. That or they’re just plain stupid. Of all the so-called “remakes” released in the last few years, only a handful could really be called decent, and even fewer have actually been of value. It isn’t difficult to discern why, for any project attempting to emulate a highly regarded (or infamous, for that matter) film has to face a troubling decision: Deviate from the original and risk besmirching its integrity, or faithfully remake the original and risk being a mediocre recreation.

With the announcement of Universal’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, fear that the studios would butcher another horror classic ran rampant. One need only look to last year’s version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to know that remaking a film with a modern lens, a fresh young cast, and a fatter budget doesn’t mean it can capture the novelty of its precursor (or even be any good, in that particular instance). With George Romero’s disturbing, gore-laden zombie standard of 1978, it seemed even less likely a remake would do proper justice.

Did it? Well, yes and no. The 2004 film manages to be an engaging and quality action film, containing many of the gory and horrifying elements that made the original so captivating. Standing against the original however, it ain’t that hot. Again, one wonders why the filmmakers insisted on trying to resurrect a hallowed cult classic when the film would’ve done OK relying on its own merits. Oh yeah — the money. Still, criticizing Dawn of the Dead based on its superior namesake is only fair to an extent.

The rough plot outline is really the only thing that connects the two films. The apocalypse has come; civilization has gone to Hell in a flaming hand-basket of horror and the dead are rising up to chow down on humanity. A group of survivors fleeing from hordes of the living impaired take refuge in a shopping mall. The similarities pretty much end here. In Romero’s film, four central characters are trapped by legions of lumbering, moaning zombies who congregate at the mall because it’s instinctive (a commentary on consumer culture). The zombies are only dangerous in confined spaces or in their massive numbers. In the new film, nearly half a dozen characters end up barricading themselves against an undead onslaught that is solely interested in the mall for the dietary perks hiding inside. The updated zombies are sprinting, screaming crack-addicts who’re plenty dangerous by themselves, let alone en masse. The social commentary and character development of the original have been jettisoned here in favor of intense and frightening action sequences.

To first-time filmmaker Zack Snyder, plenty of credit is due. This re-imagining of the story is fresh and exciting. The opening sequence showing Ana’s (Sarah Polley) peaceful suburban existence devolve into a horrifying cataclysm is perhaps the best in the film. Coming home from a long day at work, Ana settles in with her hubby and is totally oblivious to the oncoming doom. The next morning, a zombified little girl invades her home and takes a bite out of hubby, who in turn quickly becomes an undead cannibal and besets Ana. She manages to escape, but emerging from her home she sees the entire neighborhood in flames and its inhabitants assaulted by the recently deceased. It’s a genuinely terrifying spectacle to behold, and it effectively sets the breakneck pace of the film.

Ana finds herself at the Cross Roads Mall, where other survivors have come and, later, continue to accumulate. The plot unfurls as they first blockade themselves against danger, eventually attempting to abandon the mall for the unknown outside. The casting is largely well done: indie-babe Polley adds credibility as the alternately grieving and fighting-to-survive heroine; Ving Rhames is a tough, quiet cop; Jake Weber the stoical good-guy; and Mekhi Phifer a defensive, young father-to-be. There are too many characters to get really attached to since we know many (or all) will soon become zombie fodder, but the leads do well considering they’ve little to work with. As a bonus, a few of the actors from Romero’s version appear in fine cameos (Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger and Tom Savini).

The story leaves plenty of room for excitement, but veers towards implausibility in a couple of instances. The subplot involving a zombie infant goes nowhere (included for mere shock value) and a young girl’s attempt to brave the zombie hordes to save her loyal dog (yeah. right) discredit the screenplay. Both are shabby attempts to boost the action content and little else.

Weaknesses in the exposition probably won’t distract the viewers from the movie’s strengths; mainly its jarring action and magnificent special effects. The film has a beautiful look, and the undead antagonists are quite disgusting and evil-looking. The violence is graphic and realistic, but never stomach-churning as in the original. This Dawn of the Dead does quite well when playing to its own strengths.

And this brings us back to the unceasing comparisons with the original. Taken as its own film, the 2004 Dawn is an excellent action movie with horror elements that should please the majority of audiences and serious zombie connoisseurs alike. Taken as a remake, it’s a faster, grittier version of a classic, minus the additional depth of social commentary. Call it an aesthetic modern update if you want, but comparisons only bring its inferiority to greater light. It’s a shame too, because simply giving the film a different name (hell … call it Little Shopping Mall of Horrors) could have spared some unfavorabe criticism of an otherwise fine flick.

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

Dawn of the Dead / Phillip Stephens

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