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Friday, March 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Mark Rahner
The hungry corpses in the remake of "Dawn of the Dead" sprint, snarl and quick-reanimate like the infected in last year's "28 Days Later" ... which would never have existed without George A. Romero's "Dead" trilogy ... and the prolific horror subgenre that they spawned. It's a Mobius Strip of the Dead!
How do you keep the meat fresh in a classic so familiar that audience members holler "Shoot it in the head!" at the onscreen heroes? The answer for freshman director Zack Snyder (moving up the food chain from commercials) and screenwriter James Gunn: Don't allow a moment to get a whiff of the rot. Despite low expectations (Gunn is responsible for "Scooby-Doo"), they've ground out a tense and fast-paced, surprisingly entertaining shocker that doesn't live up the original but hardly desecrates it.
Fresh start, too: In the "reimagining" (a doublespeak term I hate), there's been no "Night of the Living Dead" first which makes you wonder why they call it "Dawn."
The plague begins abruptly and spreads overnight. A nurse (Sarah Polley) barely escapes her suburban home after her inexplicably zombified daughter surprises her husband with a fatal chomp. Before she understands what's happening, he's up and after her, "Heeere's-Johnny"-style, and she's breakneck-driving through a neighborhood war zone.
She quickly hooks up with other survivors including a tough cop (Ving Rhames), a sharp TV salesman (Jake Weber) and a guy (Mekhi Phifer) with a pregnant girlfriend. Like the heroes from 1978, they find refuge in a shopping mall. But the armed-redneck mall cops aren't much safer than the zombies. And how long can the band of survivors let themselves putrefy in consumer paradise?
When Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" opened in 1978, no one had seen anything like it. Early moments when a berserk trooper blows someone's head off and a woman gets bitten by her undead husband were off-the-scale disturbing. Consumerism satire augmented the horror, and the leads were fleshed out enough to make their loss felt.
"Dawn" 2004's only social statement is how it's made: shorter, faster and more superficial, with less memorable characters and less horrific gore to pull in a lucrative "R" rating; but with a budget for actors and spectacle that Romero (who spent less than a million and recruited talent around his native Pittsburgh) would have killed for. Scenes of Polley's car tearing out of her neighborhood, and of two fortified vans plowing through hordes of the undead are impressive and thrilling. Heck, they could even afford licensed pop songs for the mall Muzak. Fans will dig the original-star cameos and references such as a shop called "Gaylen Ross" (1978's actress) and "Wooley's Diner" (the berserk trooper).
Credit's earned for some deft humor in the straight-ahead horror, no tongue and no cheek. To fight boredom, survivors on the mall roof pick off celebrity lookalike zombies milling in the parking lot.
The new "Dawn" won't be revered like the old one, but if there's a sequel, I'll shamble instinctively to the theater.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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