Monday, March 22, 2004

Dawn of Dr. Cheese

Dawn of the Dead (2004)
*** of ****

(Soon to appear on IMDb):

The first thing that needs to be said about this movie is that it is a completely different animal from the 1978 horror masterpiece by zombie auteur George A. Romero. The two films share a title and a few superficial details of plot and setting, but other than that, they have little in common. This movie is not as philosophically deep, intelligent, witty, or suspenseful as Romero's. It's a strictly modern horror flick, and by "modern" I mean that it has typically shallow, flat characters; frequently stupid and vulgar dialogue; and that annoying, MTV-style, this-might-be-scary-if-you-could-tell-what-the-fuck-was-happening kind of editing. If you go into it with this in mind, you will enjoy it more.

And so the next thing that needs to be said is that, despite its self-imposed limitations as an ADD-generation movie, the new "Dawn" still manages to be above-average zombie flesh-eating entertainment -- easily the best entry in this horror subgenre in years (though, considering all the crap out there, that isn't saying a whole lot). So before I get to my list of cons/pet peeves, I'll mention some of the positive aspects of this movie.

First, the changes to the story go beyond the standard, gratuitous, change-for-the-sake-of-change sort. There are some truly inventive elements here, such as the impressive scenes of devastation at the beginning of the film, the lone survivor on the rooftop across from our heroes and their relationship with him, and the well done "Blair Witch" style coda during the end credits. Overall, the whole "zombie epidemic" is handled pretty slickly and without any of that snarky, postmodern self-consciousness that sinks so many remakes of well-known classics.

Next, although the zombie splatter action is not as over-the-top graphic as it is in Romero's classics, director Zack Snyder avoids the cop-out cutaway shot often enough to satisfy at least the casual gorehound. (Actually, some scenes serve to remind just how wimpy your average splatter horror movie has become these days.)

And while it's true that the powerful subtext of Romero's work and his sardonic wit are absent in the new "Dawn," there are still some moments of black comedy that really are pretty funny. (Watch for the "celebrity" shoot-'em-up sequence for a prime example.)

Finally, the music selections are inspired, from Johnny Cash in the opening credits to Richard Cheese during the midpoint comic relief to "People Who Died" by the Jim Carroll Band during the closing credits (I didn't think more than a handful of people even knew that song existed). Throw in some well placed muzak selections, and it becomes clear that someone with a brain deliberately worked on the soundtrack. Awesome!

Now for the bad things. Perhaps most prominently, the movie suffers from the "modern" attributes mentioned above. The characters are not given a chance to truly develop; you never really know any of them and, hence, don't particularly care about them. To be fair, I think screenwriter James Gunn did make an effort to infuse some life into our intrepid heroes, but there are just too many characters (read: zombie fodder) for even the most skilled writer to develop. As a result, what characterization there is almost seems like an afterthought, and some of the actions of the characters are just inexplicable. (I suspect the DVD, when it comes out, may offer a number of deleted scenes that help, ahem, flesh things out more.)

Nobody watches zombie movies for the dialogue, but I wish Hollywood screenwriters didn't feel the need to gratuitously throw the "f-word" and other assorted obscenities into every other sentence. I'm not prudishly averse to cussing, but a forced excess of expletives just detracts from the import of what's actually said and reminds viewers of the inherently juvenile nature of Hollywood moviemaking these days.

As for the MTV-video style editing, do I really need to explain how much better it would be if the director let your eye focus on the action for more than a tenth of a second?

Overall, the new "Dawn" owes more to "28 Days Later" than its namesake, at least as far as the zombie mythology goes. Like Romero's films, the cause of the zombie plague is unknown, and also like in Romero's films, it doesn't matter. Unlike Romero's films, however, the clues point more to a virus, as in Danny Boyle's pseudo-zombie epic. Here the zombies are definitely dead, but they also movie rapidly, again as in "28 Days Later." And although I prefer the creeping sense of dread of Romero's slow-moving animated corpses, I found the fast zombies didn't bother me as much as I thought they would. What really bothered me was the stupid wildcat noises they made when they attacked. Why would walking (ok, running) corpses make noises like that? Dumb.

However, in the movie's favor, the zombies here sometimes make more sense than Romero's. In particular, there's one scene where a zombie is chasing down someone to eat, but then abruptly breaks off pursuit as soon as he spots an easier mark. Romero's zombies like to kill people, begin eating them, then stop as soon as they see someone else to kill, leaving you to wonder why they would bother chasing someone else when they already have something to eat.

Oh well. In the end, as Chief McLellan from "Night of the Living Dead" puts it, "They're dead. They're all messed up."

Not a masterpiece, but still recommended for fans of the living dead.