Flesh-Eating In the Food Court

A zombie in hot pursuit goes from undead to dead in the 2004 remake of George Romero's classic horror flick.
Flesh-Eating In the Food Court

By John DeFore

The zombie renaissance continues, thank goodness

A recent issue of The New Yorker has a long profile of the man who invented the shopping mall, a man with the foresight to anticipate many of the needs and desires of suburban consumers. Some needs, he answered without even knowing they existed: For instance, a shopping mall - with its plentiful creature comforts, storehouses of preservative-laden food, and theft-preventing security features - makes a darn good fortress when a mysterious plague has turned most of the citizens of your hometown into flesh-starved zombies.

So we are informed by Dawn of the Dead, a ridiculously enjoyable and enjoyably ridiculous thrill ride through the quasi-afterlife. Loosely inspired by the second film in George Romero's landmark Night of the Living Dead trilogy, Dawn discards most of the master's subversiveness. It makes little sense to compare the two films: The new one looks bad for treading on hallowed horror ground; the classic looks less technically convincing compared with modern special effects work. (Not a speck of disrespect is intended to guru of gore Tom Savini, who gets his obligatory cameo here as an overzealous law enforcement official.)

Dawn of the Dead

Dir. Zack Snyder; writ. George Romero (orig. screenplay), James Gunn; feat. Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell (R)

Today's Dawn may not want to force you to re-evaluate the way you live your life, but it does hope to make you laugh now and then in between shrieks. It gets the traditional false-alarm gag out of the way quickly, with two camera setups engineered to get your Spidey-senses tingling erroneously, then dives into the real mayhem.

There are some regular jokes from here out, but many of the laughs are of a different sort, guffaws of shock at the outrageous things happening onscreen. In the first action sequence, our heroine (Sarah Polley) is trying to drive away from a particularly motivated zombie; he's chasing her like crazy when her car passes an innocent bystander - at which point the zombie veers off course instantly and goes for the easier prey. It's such a twist from the normal routine, in which Polley would simply have to out-race the thing, that it's hilarious.

And yes, unlike in the original movies (and in The Mummy and any number of old monster flicks), the zombies can run. Twenty-first-century horror movies understand that viewers stopped being scared by tortoise-paced pursuers long ago. Dawn also shares other sensibilities with its cousin 28 Days Later: Both stories skip from pre- to post-epidemic with a simple cut, for instance. They're not interested in showing how the zombielicious disease spreads from one household to a whole city, they just want to drop you in the post-apocalyptic funhouse as quickly as possible. That works beautifully in both movies.

The film plays it both ways with respect to the humanity of its undead villains: It exploits many of them for laughs, as when human survivors entertain themselves by using celebrity look-alike zombies for target practice, but it also milks drama out of a few occasions when characters we already like have been infected. (And after doing that once, it puts a particularly unsettling spin on the device; you'll never look at a nursery-supply store the same way again.)

Dawn of the Dead heroine Ana (Sarah Polley)
That might sound like an uncomfortable contradiction in tone, but keep in mind that we're discussing a plot with holes big enough you could drive an armor-plated, zombie-destroying school bus through them. The script has some fundamental problems that would have been easy to fix. For example, the film needs its small band of survivors to leave the relative safety of the mall and get back in the danger zone. It asks us to believe that they flee the mall simply because a few of them would like to find a prettier place to "wait around to die" - a pretty feeble justification for wading into a horde of ambulatory carcasses. Why not have their food supply go bad, or let them discover that there is a weak point in the mall's security that can't be defended for much longer?

The fact is, these goofy inconsistencies hardly make a dent in the level of fun to be had here. You paid to see some decaying former humans have their legs chopped off or their heads exploded? Dawn of the Dead will oblige you. It will even give you some jolts that have nothing to do with gore.

And it won't make you come back to see it a second time if you don't want to: One unconscionable thing about 28 Days Later was that after it had been in theaters for a while, the studio released new prints that had an alternative ending after the credits. That's a disgusting display of greed, and Dawn of the Dead is having no part of it. Instead, Dawn offers two endings in one, in a way that can't be described without spoiling it. Suffice to say that viewers should stay in their seats as the credits roll.

Not that you'll be very eager to leave the womb-like theater - which is likely as not housed within a fortress-like mall - for the frightening, darkened streets outside, that is. •

` By John DeFore `

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