Dawn of the Dead (2004) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Based on the 1978 screenplay by George A. Romero
Written by James Gunn
Directed by Zack Snyder

The horror genre is in a boom at the moment. I’m not talking about that tame brand of horror that emerged in the 90s (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) and that has continued into this decade (When a Stranger Calls, Cry_Wolf), but the horror that harks back to the 70s and early 80s heyday. Films like Wolf Creek, Hostel, The Descent, and 28 Days Later…. Films with that scare you with their content, proper blood and shocks, and don’t resort to shitty, overused film techniques like loud noises and whip-pans. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake seemed like a bad idea – the original is such a seminal entry in the genre – but remarkably, his film is actually worthy of the title.

Because this is a zombie movie, and we were drinking, half of the time we were paying more attention to our own theories for survival in a post-zombification world. Me, I’d probably get in line behind the characters in this film (and the original, which by the way I haven’t seen): get to a shopping mall and secure it. You’ve got everything you need for months of survival. If nobody comes to save you, at least you will have lived like a king for a while. You’d need to be in a group of 10 people or so – bigger and you risk infighting, smaller and you’re too easy to pick off.

But I digress. Maybe the best thing about this impressive film is the lengthy pre-credits sequence. Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse, leaves work just as more and more bite wound patients are coming in, but she remains unaware of the impending doom. In her Edward Scissorhands neighbourhood, everything seems okay, but the direction suggests something sinister is going on – why do we linger on a shot of the girl rollerblading away? When Ana wakes up the next morning, we learn why: there’s the girl, in Ana’s house, a voracious zombie with a thirst for her partner’s flesh. That Ana loses her partner so early shows how ballsy and ruthless the film is, and that tone continues as she meets with a motley crew and holes up in that enormous mall.

The thing is, amongst all the heads exploding, chainsaws through shoulders and wickets through skulls, there is a sense of humour. The choice of music is fantastic: Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around plays over the opening credits, and Richard Cheese’s cover of Disturbed’s Down With The Sickness plays at about halfway in. Apparently these were Snyder’s choices that the studio disagreed with, but he insisted – it’s just as well. Then there are scenes like the one where they spot zombified celebrities to take out, like Jay Leno and Rosie O’Donnell, or the long-range game of chess the cop has with the weapons expert on top of a neighbouring building. It flicks between humour and horror effectively enough so that we can laugh and then be scared, unsettled for a moment before forgetting about it. It’s probably one of the most audience-friendly films I know of, existing purely to entertain, and it does it well. For boys, anyway.

The script is the source of any problems. Looking at Gunn’s filmography, he seems to be a bit of a hack, and there is little innovation in the story and characters, plus the film kind of runs out of steam towards the end. But the actors do all they need to, and Snyder’s direction is extremely impressive, especially for a debut. His work here suggests a big future. If you’re at all interested in horror this is a must-see – it’s so much fun, and respects its predecessor(s) but creates its own impressive effect. Make sure to keep watching during the closing credits for possibly the biggest shock of the film.

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