Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review: Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

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(Originally posted here)

Remaking a film is a tricky task. No matter what you do, you will still have people who think that the original was the superior version, all evidence be damned. This goes triply if the film you are remaking is a certified classic, and exponentially if you've never made a feature film in your life. Such was the case when Zack Snyder, whose work in direction and cinematography was then limited to commercials, decided to take on the audacious task of remaking George Romero's 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, one of the all-time great zombie films. Fans decried the film, and picked apart every change that Snyder made to the source material. Nobody held out any hope for a good film.

And yet a good film was exactly what they got.

Let's get one thing out of the way now: Dawn '04 isn't as amazing as the original. Twenty years from now, when this film is up for another remake starring Jaden Smith as an action hero like his dad and Chloe Moretz as a disgruntled, middle-aged Walmart employee, people are going to remember Romero's film as the definitive version of the story, not Snyder's. This remake doesn't have the tight, memorable cast of the original, its sprawling ensemble meaning that many side characters get lost in the shuffle, nor does it have its enduring social commentary. It's a much lighter film, made for an action-packed experience that's designed to make the viewers think more about the awesome kills and special effects than about issues of consumerism and class. It's a zombie horror film by way of Michael Bay, pretty much -- he may not have been involved with it, but his summer-blockbuster aesthetic pervades every aspect of the production.

Mind you, this is not a bad thing in the right hands, and between Zack Snyder's direction showing off early traces of his signature style (which crystallized with300 and Watchmen) and James Gunn's script, this film had the right hands guiding it. Dawn '04 starts out running and rarely lets up; no sooner than five minutes into the film has the action already gotten to a rolling start, and by the end of the opening credits sequence featuring a great musical pick from Johnny Cash, we're already neck-deep into the zombie apocalypse. The direction is slick and the special effects are up there with the greats of zombie cinema; even if they lack in sheer quantity of blood and viscera spilled (this is a pre-Saw mainstream horror film, after all), they make up in looking totally convincing.

In addition, while some of the characters are underdeveloped, especially when compared to the original, the acting at least is rock-solid throughout. Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames are the highlights as the film's action heroes, and while Jake Weber's American accent is pretty shaky, his actual performance doesn't suffer for it. However, no discussion of the film's cast is complete without mentioning the fact that all of the stars of the original, save for Gaylen Ross (who still gets a nice shout-out), return for minor yet memorable roles. The best, in my opinion, is Ken Foree as a Pat Robertson-esque, fire-and-brimstone televangelist who gets to quote his most famous line from the original, but all of them are quite memorable. Not only does their presence make for a number of great "hey, it's that guy!" moments, they also lend it something of a seal of approval for Romero fans.

Lastly, the changes to the source material all help the film stand on its own two feet without coming off as a disgrace to its namesake. It's respectful without being overly reverent, like so many other remakes (Gus Van Sant's Psycho, the remake of The Omen) have a tendency to do. Zack Snyder and James Gunn realized that a film following all of the original's beats would be redundant when the original still holds up so well, so instead, they took the general story concept (people locked in a mall during a zombie apocalypse, having fun before everything goes to hell) and came up with their own characters and ideas. As mentioned above, while this results in a film that isn't as smart or as philosophical as the original, it does result in a very fun movie, filled with action-packed set pieces from the opening chase with Anna to the climatic armored convoy escape, as well as moments of levity like the "Down With the Sickness (by Richard Cheese)" scene, all leading up to an ending that is simultaneously bleak and awesome.

Score: 4 out of 5

People have been debating for nearly a decade now which version of Dawn of the Dead is the better film. For me, the Romero original's biting satire of consumerism will always top Snyder's comparatively lightweight action-horror film, but in this case, a silver medal is not a bad thing at all. It's still easily one of the better films to come out of the zombie craze of the last ten years.

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