In the city of Everett, Wisconsin, the unthinkable has occurred. The dead have been reanimated by an unknown force, and have only one goal: to feast upon the living. As hysteria sweeps across the land and the bodies start to pile up, a small group of survivors, including a cop (Ving Rhames), suburbanites (Sarah Polley and Jake Weber), and expecting parents (including Mekhi Phifer), barricade themselves up in the local mall to try and fend off the zombie attacks, attempting to survive what is slowly becoming the end of the world.
Remaking George Romero’s 1978 film, “Dawn of the Dead,” is an equally brave and foolish thing to do. “Dawn” is top of the pops when it comes to zombiedom, and widely considered to be one of the finest horror creations of all time. Who would dare try and top it? And to make this enterprise even more bizarre, “Dawn” is actually the second part of Romero’s classic “Dead” trilogy of films (which includes 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” and 1985’s “Day of the Dead”), making this update incredibly strange in terms of narrative context (Imagine someone simply redoing “The Two Towers” or “The Empire Strikes Back” 20 years from now). In fact, much like last autumn’s mishandled “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake, all arrows are pointing, yet again, to a sign that reads: ”Please don’t mess with a classic.”
The new “Dawn” (IMDb listing) comes from the keyboard of writer James Gunn, whose big screenwriting credit to date is “Scooby-Doo.” Remember that tedious flick, which featured a farting contest as its centerpiece? Gunn has a real affinity for the “Dawn” plot, and visibly relishes his chance to jump rope in the Romero playground. But much like “Scooby,” Gunn’s script takes on a surplus of actors, accruing character after character without any development, or even names for a couple of supporting individuals. Romero’s “Dawn” had three main characters and, in over 130 minutes, the audience began to know them intimately, and invest a great deal of emotion in their predicament. Gunn’s “Dawn” just piles on the main characters, to the point of “Star Trek” ensign territory, where you know most of the supporting cast is just there for zombie food and nothing else. Gunn has some interesting embellishments on the original plot, including a zombie newborn and the introduction of a character who is trying to stay alive on a rooftop adjacent to the mall. But he mostly gets lost in the fanboy heat of reorganizing and reprioritizing someone else’s work and loses focus quickly.
His partner in crime is commercial director Zack Snyder, a filmmaker who apparently doesn’t have much respect for the original “Dawn.” Snyder’s take on the material is very Vivid Video; all climaxing, no foreplay, and he kills the glee of zombie terror by turning this project into a Schwarzenegger relic from 1985. The new “Dawn” is an action movie first and foremost, with Snyder trashing the carefully paced Romero forefather and replacing it with quick can’t-figure-out-anything editing, adoring close-ups of discharging weaponry, Carl Lewis-like speedy zombies, and a complete disregard for character development and spatial relationships. Snyder is attempting to subvert the lumbering claustrophobic 1978 nightmare with his “A-Team” theatrics, and it comes off as amateur hour, not the sleek reworking the filmmakers are hoping for.
In reality, the only time you get a true establishing shot of zombie mayhem is when something in the frame blows up. It’s then and only then that Snyder takes the time to give his audience a clear look at the situation at hand (aka lovingly detailing a glowing hot fireball). That sums up the goal of the film rather well.
What makes the lack of respect even worse is that Snyder is armed with a budget bigger than the three Romero films combined, and still manages to create a hollow, bewildering, and unsatisfying motion picture, plagued by an incessant need to be as slick as possible. “Dawn” is all style, gore, and hyperactivity, lessening the dread inherent in the plot, and the social commentary Romero’s “Dawn” was created to provoke. “Dawn” 2004 is a film for teenagers who know nothing about the 1978 original, and remains noisy enough to please those who are still undemanding of the thoughtless tripe that is continually served to horror fans by a very panicked Hollywood (again, the new “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”).
The filmmakers go through all this trouble to pick this material to rework, and they barely use the ripe setting of the mall. The characters visit and use maybe three or four stores only, and this after Snyder elects to show a huge establishing shot of a mega mall with endless opportunities for exploration. Probably the biggest tragedy of the finished film, the lack of crucial mall coverage really dulls the edges of the adventure, and ruins the possibility for an amusing romp that Romero’s version reserved time for. In fact, all the comedy is bungled pretty badly. It’s dropped on the midsection of the movie without any delicacy, through characters that appear out of the blue (including an irritating, screenwriting 101 smarmy yuppie character played by Ty Burell), and clashes badly with the strictly hardcore horror surroundings. At least they didn’t resurrect Romero’s zombie vs. biker gang pie fight from “Dawn” 1978. I’m not sure today’s audiences could get their mind around something like that.
“Dawn of the Dead’ is aggressively vivid enough to hold attention spans with ease, and could seem like a dream come true to a casual horror fan who has never taken in George Romero’s immortal original. I can understand the irresistible need to remake such a landmark film, but I can’t agree with the liberal heaving of the central ingredients that made the previous “Dawn” such a masterpiece.
Filmfodder Grade: D+