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April 3, 2004

Dawn of the Dead 2004

I finally got a chance to see a movie tonight, and decided to watch the Dawn of the Dead remake (IMDB). To be honest, I don't remember the original that well, but I remember liking the earlier film's satire of mall culture, with the zombies unconsciously lurching across the mall. There are a few Muzak jokes (Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy" and a cover of "You Light up My Life"), but the remake dispenses with that version of satire pretty quickly, with Ving Rhames' police officer, Kenneth, delivering one of the mall joke lines from the original quickly. But the mall serves primarily as a useful setting for the action of the film, which I think is a very smart move.

Instead, the film (like many remakes) becomes much more about media and communications technologies. The tour de force opening sequence shows nurse Ana (Sarah Polley, a personal fave) returning from a long shift at work. She talks to a neighbor girl and joins her boyfriend in their modest home. Soon after, the girl bursts into the apartment, bites the boyfriend, and the film explodes into action. Quick cuts, simulating channel surfing, show a social order on the verge of collapse, with cities, including the nation's capital besieged by zombies while Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around" blares over the soundtrack. The film very quickly sets up the apocalyptic tone of the film and visually and aurally links that apocalypse to the television coverage of the zombie attack. This "haunted media" (Jeffrey Sconce's term--I need to come up with my own) theme persists later in the film as characters in the mall watch TV in several key sequences. The film also used the mall's security cameras in an interesting, though problematic, way (I'm not sure it complicates one security guard's voyeurism effectively enough). There's one other key use of "haunted media" which I'll explain below the fold to avoid spoiling the film for anyone who hasn't seen it.

I also liked the move of making the zombies faster, able to make decisions more quickly. I don't regard their unflinching slowness in the original as a flaw--it fit perfectly with the film's mallrat satire. But the speed of the new generation of zombies beautifully fit the speed of digital video, and the flicker effect worked nicely with what I regard to be the film's updated satire.

A few other observations: the film generally ignores the Romero film's self-conscious treatment of race although there is one interesting subplot (perhaps the film's creepiest) involving Mekhi Phifer and his very pregnant Russian girlfriend/wife. The film also makes the mistake of adding a few too many characters--I actually had a difficult time keeping track of some of them, but perhaps this, too, was intentional, a way of de-individuating the human characters. There were several great uses of humor, including Rhames communicating with a gun store owner across the parking lot using dry erase boards. The film did feel a little flat in a few places, and I don't think the satire was quite as compelling as in the original. But I do think that some critics have underestimated the new Dawn. I really liked the way in which the film was able to riff off of other recent horror films that have commented, in some way, on media and communications technologies. And it was pretty damn fun, too. Brief spoiler below.

I really liked the film's ending. The flicker effect at the end beautifully adds to the sense of chaos, and as the boat departs from the dock, we get a closure signal as we hear the completely innocuous white guy (is this a new horror film trope--save money by hiring an unknown for the male lead?) fire his gun off-screen, signalling that he has committed suicide rather than become a zombie. The cut to the videotape as the credits flash onscreen initially cues a joke at the expense of the sleazy rich guy, but then we realize that one of the survivors is filming, the handheld camera almost immediately recalling The Blair Witch Project. Then, as the boat reaches the island and the dog runs ashore, the violent movement of the camera signals the deaths of teh last remaining survivors in the film. Only the camera is left to record and remember what happened.

Side note: Walter Chaw's Film Freak Central review is quite good. The comparison between the zombie birth scene and Cronenberg's The Fly seems really apt. Elvis Mitchell gets the film almost completely wrong. I like the comparison to Troma's B-Movie films (Tromeo and Juliet, The Toxic Avenger), but Mitchell makes the comparison seem like a bad thing.

Now thinking it might be worthwhile to extend my project on The Ring into something a little broader.

Update: Mick LaSalle's SF Gate review adds the interesting reminder that the credits sequence also very clearly invokes the September 11 attacks, something I'd neglected to mention in my review, in part because I wasn't quite sure how I wanted to read these shots. I'm still not sure, but since I'd like to write about this film, I'm collecting all the useful links I can find.

Posted by chuck at April 3, 2004 1:20 AM

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You almost make me want to see this. (Quite an accomplishment given my ready suspension of disbelief and avoidance of all things horror).

I haven't commented in a while - but just a note to say that I am reading you regularly and still enjoying it.

Posted by: weez at April 3, 2004 8:39 AM

Thanks for the comment props. I was pretty pleased with this review, and it's a prtty interesting horror film--the zombies become almost cartoonish, so very few scenes are too gruesome.

I'd noticed in my referrer logs that you were still dropping by, and hoped that you (and otehrs) were still enjoying it. I know I've been so busy that it has been harder to take the time and comment on or trackback to others' blogs. Things are a little more manageable now, but I've had lots of (good) excitement this month.

Posted by: chuck at April 3, 2004 5:21 PM

Note to self: link to the Milk Plus reviews of "Sunshine" and "Dawn."

Posted by: chuck at April 5, 2004 2:48 PM

Hi. At least the black cop didn't die. There's a one-second footage of him among a trees, shotgun in his hands - and the actor playing him was talking about the sequel even when they were still shooting the first one (he'll return "and not as a zombie").

Posted by: gargu at August 23, 2004 9:10 PM

So there is a sequel in the works? I hadn't heard anything, but to be honest I wasn't paying much attention. Will be interesting to see where they take the story.

Posted by: chuck at August 23, 2004 9:17 PM

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