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

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Films pertaining to tales of the undead, of zombies that rise from their graves and walk the earth looking for more victims has always been a little niche in the larger horror genre. A few decades ago film maker George Romero started a new type of such film with his Night of the Living Dead series, an often imitated but rarely matched flick. Because the originals are so, well, original, I prefer to treat the new version of Dawn of the Dead on its own merits rather than constantly comparing it to the original. For one thing we now live in an entirely different society than we did in 1978. This film focuses more of the disease that results in the zombies, a reflection of the fears we now have of bio-terrorism, Aids, West Nile, SARS and a plethora of other transmittable diseases. The horror here is you can wake up to find that a disease has completely turned your life upside down.

As in point is Ana (Sarah Polley) a young wife and nurse that awakens one morning to hear a strange sound, a little girl in the neighborhood that is feasting on the jugular of Ana’s husband. He resurrects and moves towards Ana to infect her. As Ana is fleeing she meets up with several other survivors. Of course there are certain pro-forma conditions that must be met for this genre and the brave band like this is a must. Here that band consists of the police officer Kenneth (Ving Rhames), Michael (Jake Weber) the nice guy, natural leader CJ (Michael Kelly), street-smart Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his wife Luda (Inna Korobkina) who is extremely pregnant. Naturally they pick up others, after all the audience needs some peripheral characters doomed to meet blood and grotesque deaths.

The group decides the best place to hold up would be the local shopping mall. After all it has everything they need to survive, food, protection (they think) from the growing zombie population and the potential for weapons, a ready made, fully stocked isolation ward. This is a major re-imagination from Romero’s use of the mall as the symbol of the growing symbol of American commercialism. What does remain is the crucible that the mall becomes. The archetypical representatives of various aspects of humanity are forced together, forced to interact under the most heinous of circumstances. These are people that under more normal conditions would not have much to do with each other. In reality they would barely even want to know each other and yet they are pushed together under the extreme pressure only a life and death scenario can produce. Each has some required talent that must be used to help the group survive and more importantly try to work together. It is a Survivor type reality show where getting voted off becomes voted out of life. I have to wonder if the studio executives that present the television viewing public are considering deadly infection for the next sweep week.

While some have condemned this film as mindless I have to disagree. Mindlessness implies a lack of purpose, much like the zombies here but this film does have a focus and ultimately it’s to entertain the audience. It manages to do this, not in a light fashion but it is entertaining none the less. The zombies here are not your old school variety, they can move faster, appear to be more motivated and capable of some degree of thought. Still the only way to truly kill them is the time honored, gory, gun shot directly to the head. Its nice to know that some classic elements never change.

Unlike many horror films this one has a notable cast. The production company has assembled a group of actors that never failed to entertain me in their previous endeavors. Sarah Polley has grown up before our eyes in quality productions. She has grown into an actress willing to take risks in such projects as Guinevere, a particular favorite of mine, and Go. She gives the character of Ana intelligence and drive, a need to survivor while pushing the grief for her husband quickly behind her. Ving Rhames is one of those actors that tend to pop up in the most unlikely of films. His talent is no matter what role he decides to take on he delivers. Whether he is the over the top real character of boxing promoter Don King or the super human villain in Daredevil his acting ability allows him to make a connection between the audience and his character. Here is role of Ken the cop he gives us a man that is disillusioned with his life. Like many people today Ken has become to realize that life is not what he expected. Rhames doesn’t leave his character development there. He gets across the point that no matter how bad your life is it is worth fighting for. Mekhi Phifer is still growing, still developing his ever increasing range. Here, like most of his roles, he is the street smart one in the group. Such roles usually pigeon hole an actor but Phifer displays an innate wit and style that prevents such a fate. His portrayal of Andre gives this film a lot of heart, the way he cares for his pregnant wife while trying to find a means to survivor.

The term "re-imagining" has become far too over used in Hollywood of late. Typically it seems to be code for ‘I couldn’t come up with an original idea so I kind of ripped one off’. Thankfully director Zack Snyder took a purer approach to the term. He took the fundamentals of the original and added his own, personal twist to it. While it is true that there are numerous scenes that pander to the blood lust of the modern audience but he adds some more depth to the mix. In the director’s cut the footage added is more than the usual extra blood, there are additions to the major character arcs, insight into what drives these people.

Universal hits another one out of the park with the presentation of this film on DVD. There is the usual great Dolby 5.1 audio that puts you in the middle of the action; the rear speakers surround you like the zombies. The anamorphic video is clear; every gory detail is perfectly presented. The extras include very interesting commentary by the director as well as deleted footage and several behind the scenes looks at the production. So, call over some friends, get some beer and pizza, sit back and enjoy.

Posted 10/21/04

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