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Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Reviewed by Jason Myers, Andrew Kozma, Gary Mitchel, © 2004

Format: Movie
By:   James Gunn (Screenwriter) and Zack Snyder (Director)
Genre:   Horror
Released:   March 26, 2004
Review Date:   March 26, 2004
Audience Rating:   R
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

Andrew Kozma: Look, we don't have much time, so listen well -- your life may depend on it. And if you're wondering why I'm whispering it's because they can hear you, they can track you by your sounds, your breathing, your whimpering in fear. So just, just be quiet and pay attention. The first thing you should know is that this movie, this Dawn of the Dead remake is not a critique of consumerism or capitalism. Now, your turn Sneezy. Speak directly into the microphone and, remember, quietly.

Sneezy the Squid: Ok, first off I have to admit I am a passionate fan of the original Dawn. I still remember watching it back on video back in 1985. A nice hippie lady and her husband showed it to me when I was a nice impressionable 14-year-old boy. It scared me for life, and I never thanked them properly.

Jason Myers: What the hell are two you doing?

Andrew: The Charleston. What do you think? We're working on this week's review.

Jason: You can't be serious. Turn that tape recorder off. They'll hear you.

Andrew: We're creating an important document. And they won't hear us. We're whispering.

Jason: I DON'T CARE IF YOU'RE WHISPERING! THEY'LL--

Andrew: Use your inside voice.

Jason: Fine. This is ridiculous, though. Who's going to be around to listen to your review anyway?

Andrew: Our fans. Even now they're clawing at the door.

Jason: Zombies can't use tape recorders!

Andrew: Hey, you, you wanna help with the review?

Jason: The guy with the sword? That's Tai Chi Steve. Doesn't say much, but he's good in a fight.

Andrew: Why is he named Tai Chi Steve?

Jason: Because he knows Tai Chi. Duh.

Andrew And what about you, sir? You're not yet undead. What did you think of the movie?

J. Nichols: I was unfortunately unable to make it out to see D of the D this weekend... not unusual, I don't go to movies anymore.

Jason: No one's going to be going to the movies anymore. Forever. Doesn't anyone understand that--

J. Nichols: I do expect to make it this week, though, as I'm on break.

Jason: A break from your sanity!

J. Nichols: Hey, I think I see Ken out there, and he has my Family Guy DVDs.

Jason: No, wait, Nichols!

J. Nichols: Hey, Ken, remember that episode where Peter g-- AAAAAUUUUHHHHH!!!!!

Andrew: Quick. Shut that door.

Jason: Zombies can't use tape recorders. But do you think they can use bait?

J. Nichols I'm not undead yet!

Jason: He says he's not undead yet.

Andrew: Do you want to go out there after him?

Jason: Well, no.

Andrew: Right, then let's get back to what's important. The review.

Jason: Will you stop that!

Sneezy: The original Dawn, when it came out, was a ground-breaking event in the world of horror movies. It was brutal, violent and went over the top in gore for what anyone had ever seen.

Jason: I hate you all!

Sneezy: Having said all that, this new version is a mostly worthy follow-up, but it's not the same watershed film that the original was. I know nothing can really do that these days, and didn't go into the film expecting it.

Jason: I hope the zombies eat you first.

Andrew: So if you're looking for something to watch that'll make you feel guilty for spending your hard-earned money on a piece of non-necessary-for-life entertainment, than this is not it. Tough luck. Go rent the 1978 version to feel good about feeling bad.

Jason: Look, suffice it to say that you have no business watching this remake until you watch the original. Especially given that the original Dawn of the Dead is the single best zombie movie ever made. But since Dawn is the Citizen Kane of its genre, it's a little unfair to expect--

Andrew: Don't want to do the review, eh, Mr. "I think it's all a waste of time since the Internet will soon be offline and even if it wasn't all of us are going to end up as the human equivalent of Little Debbie snackcakes"?

Jason: Well, I changed my mind, okay!

Andrew: Well, then, let's do this review right and proper. Step right up, Zombies and Zombettes, the new version of The Dawn of the Dead brings you:

  • Enough gore to fill several swimming pools!
     
  • Non-stop action interspersed with bits of humor which, um, stop the action!
     
  • People going insane in a world gone mad!

I know it may seem like I'm dissing the movie already but, to get that suspicion out of the way now, I am -- however, I recommend the movie, think it's great fun, and they should sell red-dyed popcorn for showings. However, when Hollywood decides to remake a movie, especially a cult favorite such as George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, comparisons have to be made.

Sneezy: We're so familiar with the zombie as a monster now that it really can't pack the punch that the original zombies had when they took chunks out of their helpless victims.

Andrew: For all the violence of the new movie, there's nothing that compares to the scene in the original where zombies tear the guts out of a still living biker and eat them while he watches.

Sneezy: Especially since now no filmmaker is willing to risk an NC-17 rating. While I don't blame them, as NC-17 and unrated flicks are doomed to video these days and the studio wants their money, I do wish we could see a hardcore zombie film again sometime.

The zombies are an improvement over the all-grey pancake makeup zombies in the original, but we've come a long way since then. Better latex, for one thing. (Still love those all-grey zombies though.) Aside from the messed-up zombies, there is really not a lot of gore in this film. There's lots of blood, and a few "shock" scenes, but overall the gore is kinda... well, tame. Others may disagree.

Jason: To me, violence is about tone, not gore. And, in that case, I'd say that the remake is just as brutal, if not more so, than the original.

Tai Chi Steve: It's terrifying.

Jason: The zombies, and the violence, in the original, is often cartoonish. Which is brilliant, and used to good effect. But at times (like the gag with the biker who tries to use one of those "take your own blood pressure" machines), the original is no more scary than an episode of Itchy and Scratchy.

Andrew: There's not a whole lot to complain about in the new movie. It's well-paced without parts that bore or that don't advance the plot or deepen the mood.

Sneezy: The remake includes some of the MTV jerky flash-cuts that a lot of horror films rely on these days. In some of the scenes it does work, as they are flash-snippets of news reports of what's happening around the world as the dead rise.

There are several shots that stand out in the film, including the overhead view of the city where we can see the chaos that is unspooling, with car crashes and some major fires, the zomb attack rushes, and the shots showing the sheer numbers of zombies that have surrounded the area. There are also several times where the film stock seems to switch to a grainier, documentary "as it's happening" feel that really enhances the mood.

Andrew: Right from the beginning there seems a string always leading you onwards, never allowing you to question what will happen next; you're left questioning what will happen after that. Also, the film is sufficiently realistic and bloody to satisfy modern horror fans, though this doesn't mean the film is necessarily realistic. To be honest, the action flows so quickly that realism doesn't have to--

They're at the door! Okay... I don't think we have much time left. I don't know, maybe they'll give up and go elsewhere... maybe some other survivors will make a sound and the zombies will eat them instead.

Tai Chi Steve: We're frelled. We're frelled.

Andrew: Okay, okay, I know, don't waste time, don't waste breath.

Tai Chi Steve: Frelled.

Andrew: So, Dawn of the Dead, yes, though there's not a lot to complain about, there is a great deal to question. Why did they take the easy way out and jump on the bandwagon of current horror trends?

Jason: Yes, it's a remake, and yes, zombie movies have enjoyed a resurgence lately. But the remake doesn't retreat to a PG-13 to insure a bigger take at the box office, and it pushes pretty hard against the boundaries of an R-rating. It's a movie produced by two small production companies without the homogenizing influence of a big studio (Universal is only the movie's distributor). It's not a ghost story. It's not a low-budget project that's most notable for the fact that it features someone from the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And it's a remake that's actually good. Doesn't that count as bucking current horror trends?

Andrew: Um. Well, fine, then. Why remake a movie and remove all of what makes the original a classic?

Jason: I was going to attempt to answer that rhetorical "How long has it been since you stopped beating your wife?" question too, but maybe I'll just poke you in the eye with my chainsaw.

Andrew: You're a jerk.

Jason: Talk to the chainsaw.

Andrew: And while I'm screaming in pain, attracting all the zombies in the building like has-beens to Hollywood Squares, why don't you answer this: How did James Gunn, a schlemiel writing for Troma, get to pen this epic remake?

Oh god, there's a mop just beyond the door. They got the janitor, too!

Jason: There, there. No use crying over spilled janitor.

Andrew: I'm not crying. Just got some dust in my eye. The script shows its Troma origins, and this is a good thing -- a willingness to dive into gore, to jump straight into the horror without build-up, to sacrifice characters (and sometimes character) for the plot, and to view the world from the absurd angle the premise demands (come on, we're focusing on characters trying to survive the end of the world in a mall). The rooftop target practice is clear evidence of the tainted Troma mind.

Sneezy: There are some well-selected song choices for the soundtrack album, including Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around" and a hi-larious muzak cover of "Down with the Sickness."

And the movie gives a good college try of injecting unlife into these walking dead. The writer changed the zombies to the "new and improved" fast undead, like in 28 Days Later.

Tai Chi Steve: The remake blows 28 Days Later away!

Andrew: Whisper! Whisper. Gunn couldn't handle the old slow moving zombies, no, no, no, and so they're hanging outside and even if we could sprint past them initially, their unflagging endurance would wear us down. Which is why we're in this mess now!

Tai Chi Steve: With Romero's zombies, there was at least some hope. But they're too fast. Too fast. We're frelled. Frelled.

Jason: There's still a chance. If we could just make some sort of body armor, kevlar, chainmail, motorcycle helmets and gear.

Tai Chi Steve: It wouldn't matter. Too many. Too fast. You're frelled. Frelling frelled.

Andrew: It's this movie! Fast zombies. Zombie-ism as a, proven, viral infection (which begs the question of how it originated: terrorist attack? Government project gone awry? The original gave no answers. The dead simply rose). Civilization crumbled in a matter of days.

Sneezy: But aside from quickness, these are the walking dead we all know and love. They're all messed up, with horrible wounds, exposed bones, white iris eyes, unhampered by pain, and willing to tear you to pieces to satiate their hunger for living flesh. Damage the brain, and down they go. Other than that, they just keep coming.

Jason: Shoot 'em in the head. Another one for the fires.

Andrew: This film lands on the opposite side of the spectrum from the Psycho shot-for-shot redux in that this is really a re-making of the original premise. Yes, the dead are rising. Yes, the survivors hole up in a mall. Almost everything else is changed (although they did keep the one bad-ass survivor as a black cop).

Sneezy: Ving "only Sam Jackson is cooler than me" Rhames.

With the differences, it's very easy to imagine that this film is set in the same world as the first one, just with a different bunch of survivors in a different mall. Speaking of the survivors, that's the other main change in this version. The cast is much larger, with upwards of 14 living souls in the mall at one point.

It's mainly from the interactions of these characters that the plot gets its direction. Who wants what, who's willing to do what to save themselves, who's gonna screw who over, that sort of thing. I have to say that the cast does a pretty decent job. They manage to make me care about the ones I was supposed to, and dislike the ones I was supposed to. I really have to hand it to Jerk Yuppie Guy though. He's an ass, but he's funny and has some of the films' best lines. ("Is everyone there dead?" "Dead-ish") He managed to be both likeable and slime at the same time -- an impressive feat.

Ving also hands in a very solid performance. He gets depth into his character with his deliveries, his attitude, the way he carries himself, and his relationship with Andy, the guy trapped in the gun shack across the way. Kudos to the writer and actors on making me care about a guy that we only see from a distance, and who has just about no lines in the flick.

Also in the script's favor are: the characters all having decent motivations; the way you get the hints of what's happening that the Nurse misses out on (radio news, background conversations, a TV report as she and her boyfriend miss); the very cool opening credits; the other news feeds that show how everything in the world is deteriorating fast; the snippets of character development that we get when we need them; an excellent ending (be sure to stick around through the credits).

Jason: Right. If you haven't yet had your still-living flesh gnawed from your bones, and you happen to stop by the local cineplex for a nice relaxing break from running for your miserable life, you'd be a fool to walk out of the theater early.

Sneezy: It's great that no one makes any real stupid "movie" mistakes (except for Redneck Security Guard, but we don't like him anyway).

Jason: Kind of like how we don't care about janitors. Or Canadians. I shouldn't have said that. Ironically, a Canadian janitor zombie will do me in. Do you think that janitor was Canadian?

Andrew: If you have access to the original, or know it like the flesh under the skin of the back of your hand (don't ask), then you're in for some pleasant surprises. The sheriff shown on TV is from the original.

Sneezy: Tom Savini.

Jason: Aside from playing a biker in the original Dawn, Savini also did stunts and special effects. And he directed the Night of the Living Dead remake.

Andrew: There's also the preacher who says, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth," just as he did in Romero's version as the bad-ass black cop.

Jason: That was Ken Foree, the guy who played Peter? Wow, that's one I didn't catch.

Sneezy: There are other homages to the original. We get the "head blown off by shotgun" scene; the "skull on the horizon like the rising sun" logo; and the "trying on the clothes/gear" scene.

Andrew The guy who played Roger the helicopter pilot in the original also cameos as an army general. I'm sure there are many small nods to Romero's film I missed, but one large one is the truck driven by the second group of survivors -- a BP truck, four of which were used to seal the doors of the 1978 version's mall.

Jason: I got far too excited when I saw that BP truck.

Sneezy: There is one main strike against this remake (aside from being a remake.) While it is an excellent zombie film, and one I look forward to re-watching and owning on DVD...

Jason: You'll be dead by then, Sneezy.

Sneezy: ...it lacks the social commentary that makes the original stand out. The filmmakers don't even attempt to have an underlying message.

Andrew: Nearly all of what made the original good is gone -- the focus on the loneliness of the main characters; real characterization that showed the strain of living in close proximity in a world without laws; a critique of consumerism; and a close conflict between absurdity and gross-out violence.

Sneezy: If there had been no original, and this movie was standing on its own two shambling legs, it would be a decent horror film. But in the long run it would be just one more zombie movie: a decent one, but in the end just another in the crowd clawing along next to Resident Evil, Zombie, The Dead Hate the Living, and Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things.

What makes Romero's zombie trilogy stand head and gore-covered shoulders above the other zombie flicks is that, in the end, they are subversively about something. There's a message behind those chewing teeth that gives the films an extra bite that makes them more than "just another" horror flick. It's why they stand the test of time, landing in best-of lists, being re-watched by fans and clawing in the new ones.

Even the 90s remake of Night touched on having a message, albeit the same message of Dawn, that the zombies were in the end no worse monsters than their victims. "We're them, and they're us," says the new Barbara (echoing the main character from Dawn), as she watches the rednecks shoot up the zombies for fun.

Overall, I enjoyed this flick, and do heartily recommend it to all horror and Zombie fans. But I think this new Dawn will have the same fate as the 90s Night remake (which I admit I enjoy). It will still be around due to the virtue of being associated with the original (and not sucking), but it won't earn classic status.

Tai Chi Steve: The remake of Night is better than the original. Tom Savini rules.

Sneezy: I hope that this flick makes gobs and gobs of cash so that one studio finally gets the nerve to hand Romero the cash for him to make his proposed fourth zombie film Twilight of the Dead.

Jason: Actually, Romero's proposed fourth flick is supposed to be titled Dead Reckoning.

Sneezy: I long to see those slow shuffling chewers feasting on the flesh of the living again.

Jason: I'd love to see Romero make a triumphant return, and the original Dawn of the Dead is one of my favorite movies of all time, but listen, I really think you guys are holding on so tight to the original that you missed out a little on what an amazing, transporting, scary, immersive movie the remake is. For my money, the only two movies in the past two years that even come close are 28 Days Later and Dog Soldiers.

Andrew: Yes, but those two have original premises and executions. Dawn of the Dead at its core is just another... This is useless -- Oh, just shoot me in the head.

Jason: Screw you. There's only one bullet left and it's got my name on it. I'm not wasting it on you.

You made me lose my train of thought. Um... right. I think it's admirable that the remakers decided to go their own way. If they tried to follow exactly in Romero's footsteps, the end result wouldn't have been satisfying to anyone. Romero wasn't setting out to make "a classic." He was just trying to make the best movie he could. And the "social commentary", while, a nice bonus, is only a part of what made Romero's Dawn so great.

Meanwhile, I think that the remake does successfully capture many of the original's best qualities. The humor, for example. The casual way that one of the survivor's says, "We're going to the mall." The muzak that's playing in the background when they first break into the mall ("Don't Worry, Be Happy") and when they split up to look for zombies ("All By Myself"). Also, the peculiar quality of the humor in both Dawns. That the thing which you laugh at is the thing that the person sitting next to you finds completely disturbing, and vice versa.

Also, the you-are-there documentarian feel. Capturing how even the most earth shattering event can turn into a monotonous, maddening routine. The absurd attempt to recapture a sense of normality. Are those bits of your former life that you try to re-enact what keeps you sane, or what holds you back from surviving? Or maybe you're already dead, and you just haven't admitted it to yourself yet. The idea that other survivors can be far more dangerous than the zombies. Or that, in the end, it's not the zombies that kill you. It's you. You get sloppy, you get overconfident, you panic, you despair, you don't think ahead.

And if you're looking for a theme, how about this one, which is recurring but not spelled out: Connections are what save you, and connections are what kill you. To the past, to other people.

Tai Chi Steve: Can you differentiate between what was and what is?

Jason: Do you hold on too tight? Let go too quickly? Abandon? Deny? Face? Accept?

The old rules don't apply any longer. Change or die. And then, sometimes, die anyway.

Andrew: As my movie-viewing companion Kelly (ah Kelly, caught by the zombie in the concession stand as we left the theater) noted, the hopelessness over all is carried from Romero's original.

Jason: Where's Sneezy! Sneezy, no!

Tai Chi Steve: It's okay, I know Tai Chi.

Andrew: Like my hopelessness here -- what I mean to say is that there is a sense throughout, from the beginning, awesome, apocalyptic scenes of a world sliding into madness--

Jason: Andrew, will you put that stupid tape recorder down?

Andrew: Hold on a sec, I'm almost finished!

Even the characters themselves seem to be driving purely on faith and the inability to stop attempting to survive. I don't have a gun, but I have a long-neck screwdriver and the haft of a hockey stick. I'll go down fighting, but just one more thing.

Jason: The door, Andrew! The door!

Andew: The movie -- my last, it seems -- was worth seeing, I'll admit, even though it kills me. Those damn, fast-moving sons of bit--

Sound of a door being busted open and breaking glass. Screams. Sounds of chewing. Static. Tape ends.

Andrew's rating (inferred): 8 out of 10
Jason's assumed rating (inferred): 10 out of 10
Sneezy the Squid's rating (inferred): 7.75 out of 10
Tai Chi Steve's rating (inferred): 10 out of 10


Choose Your Own Byline: If Jason Myers, Andrew Kozma, Gary “Sneezy the Squid” Mitchel, Tai Chi Steve and Jason Nichols stopped living and became mixed-up zombies, turn to page 13. If they pulled off a miraculous escape like the young guns in that movie, um, Young Guns, turn to page 106.

 
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