DAWN OF THE DEAD

R

-By Doris Toumarkine


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First-time director Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead, from George Romero's low-budget 1978 shocker, has a couple of things going for it. Its unrelenting violence and vulgar language will warm the body parts of a core audience that loves such brain-numbing, nasty stuff. And the production has poached from more rarified corners of the business the talents of Sarah Polley (Go, My Life Without Me), Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Mission: Impossible), Jake Weber (Wendigo, U-571) and Mekhi Phifer (8 Mile, "ER").

Slumming in Canada, where at least the production values are decent enough, these solid actors play characters who are in distress. Ana (Polley), Kenneth (Rhames), Michael (Weber), Andre (Phifer) and others end up seeking sanctuary in an abandoned mall after a terrible virus (or some such thing) ravages the population. Holed up and hardly soothed by the facility's non-stop Muzak-like music, the ragtag band tries to stave off the disease itself and the swarms of flesh-devouring zombies desperate for a few extra bites in what is apparently meant to be the greater Milwaukee area (if signs are to be believed).

Ana, the film's first focus, introduces the horror. She's a nurse who returns to her typical home and family. But husband and daughter have caught the zombie bug and go on a food binge, lunching and munching on the bodies of their victims. Beyond their huge appetites, these zombies also have supernatural powers, manifested by their ability to crash through windows and doors. Fleeing the domestic horror and realizing it is statewide, Ana fights her way to temporary safety in the mall, where she meets the other refugees.

As in every group randomly thrown together in movies by adversity, there are spoilers aboard. Foremost is CJ (Michael Kelly), the sadistic bully who served as one of the mall's security guards. Group snob stripes go to the sarcastic Steve (Ty Burrell), who proves at the end that there's something to be said for having money.

Money, of course, is what Dawn is all about. It is an ingenious vehicle (in terms of suckering) that manages to afford opportunities for non-stop violence from both sides: the zombies, meaning the afflicted townspeople, are vicious, hellish, flesh-eating monsters; the unafflicted (Ana and her team) must resort to horrific measures to defend themselves.

If treated as camp, the violence would at least distance and even provide insight. But Dawn of the Dead isn't interested in such ironies or messages. The film, one-note and painfully cynical, is all about bloodletting, impalement, slashing, beheadings, flesh-devouring, massive explosions, human roadkill and foul language, all to the max. Adhering to a "grossouts mean grosses" formula, Dawn reminds us that such simple-minded, vulgar films are first cousins of pornography.

Of course, there are certain elements of the public eager to pay for this kind of package, and they will. At the very end, Dawn of the Dead flashes some heart, reminding the rest of us what is truly at the core of the moviegoing experience.

-Doris Toumarkine


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