Don’t call it a remake. While Zack Snyder’s zonky fun zombie flick is properly respectful of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (which means that it’s not trying to update or improve on the original), it does come with its own energetic innovation. Starting with the infamous premise (flesh-eating zombies at the mall), the new version then twists it up into increasingly perverse knots.
The plot you know begins simply, even innocuously: Ana (Sarah Polley) is coming off an extra-long shift at the hospital, where a patient has been admitted into ICU with “a bite.” It sounds odd, but she’s tired, and the doctor who’s supposed to be in charge is too busy. And so Ana heads home to the burbs, the camera tracking her progress from so far overhead as reduce the houses and backyard pools to little abstract shapes. She exchanges sweet hellos with a neighbor girl on roller skates, has shower sex with her husband, and misses a tv news bulletin that you imagine warns of the coming threat. Early the next morning, following a sudden and gruesome neck-gnawing, hubby turns on Ana. Squeezing through the bathroom window, Ana looks out on the chaos — houses burning, cars crashing, people screaming and bleeding.
Ana’s escape is narrow, of course. It’s also nerve-wracking and, for an instant, as her lurching getaway is filmed from the hood of her car, creepily comical. Teary and dazed, she’s also resilient in the way that slasher films’ Last Girls tend to be, enduring a few more brutal assaults before she makes her way to the Crossroads Mall. Here she meets up with the sundry types who will comprise the film’s core survivors: surly cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames), practical-minded electronics salesman Michael (Jake Weber), and erstwhile banger Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his very pregnant Russian wife Luda (Inna Korobkina). Inside, this group meets a trio of security guards, headed up by bossy CJ (Michael Kelly), who initially tells newcomers, “Find someplace else!”
When CJ finally agrees to let the bedraggled band stay in the mall (and only after the three white guards disarm the two black guys), he decides to maintain order by forbidding them from “stealing” from the stores where no one will ever shop again. This question of order is at the center of Romero’s Living Dead films, where inadvertent teams must contend not only with the undead fiends looking to rip them up, but also the tensions and antagonisms among themselves. Here, with the formula so well established, the set-up is minimal, and the action is more elaborate, and considerably faster. (Not so hyper-fast as in 28 Days Later, but more certainly vigorously than in the first Dawn, where they rode escalators just like ordinary consumers: here, they crouch, leap, and slam up against glass doors, to leave artful bloody smears.)
This action is complicated by some clever incorporations of images and ideas from other horror movies familiar to the new Dawn‘s presumed audience, including It’s Alive! (1974), Road Warrior (1981), Aliens (1986), and (yay!) Tremors (1990). Such reshuffling is indicated early on, when CJ and his boys first reveal their massive tv monitor bank to the newcomers. All stand rapt, exhausted from their own recent escapes and awed by the extensive atrocities before them. Along with the flaming piles of zombie bodies, the newscasts feature on-the-spot interviews with authority figures, the same guys who pronounced procedure in the first Living Dead films, the General (Scott Reninger), the televangelist (Ken Foree), and the Sheriff (Tom Savini), who declares one unstill undead body a “twitcher.”
The Sheriff’s brusque attitude impresses Bart (Michael Barry), the security guard most in need of macho self-definition by way of naming others other — the twitcher calls for an immediate finish by the Sheriff’s preferred method: “Just shoot ’em in the head.” This last initiates a brief debate between the guards, over whether you can believe what you hear on tv. Lacking other sources of information, the mall-bound viewers are stuck with the screens in front of them, just like you. And these screens put on the only imaginable show, wherein, as CJ notes, “America always sorts this shit out.” (Patriotism can serve the most bizarre of purposes.)
That said, the mall-squatters are soon beset by a series of outside forces: throngs of zombies out in the parking lot and a truckload of other survivors, to introduce new potential victims into the mix, among them Frank (the great Matt Frewer), good-hearted — and already bitten — father to pretty Nicole (Lindy Booth). Most of these latecomers are quickly dispatched, with the terminally cynical Steve (Ty Burrell), so mean and ambiguously sexed that he’s plainly targeted for grisly death. This is too bad, though, as his nasty wit zaps up the mostly straightforward dialogue: asked if the last people he saw “outside” were dead, he snaps, “Deadish. They sort of fell down and then got up and started eating each other.” It’s as good a description as any of these humanish monsters.
For, aside from claims that they’re walking the earth because there’s “no more room in hell”, the zombies’ most obvious function is to critique the consuming practices of their previous selves. Lost in the suburbs, they spent their precious time alive driving from one point of purchase to another, with the mall offering the most bang for any given buck. Now, as zombies, they swarm and stalk, unable to imagine any activity beyond eating, an activity that by definition can never satisfy their endless hunger.
As admirably spunky as the survivors may be — Ana, Kenneth, and Michael are especially sympathetic and challenged, as they figure out what their previously unknown talents — they’re only putting off the inevitable. (And the film’s snarky comedy and impressively visceral violence is relentless, even through the final credits sequence.) This insight into cultural ends is the most disturbing aspect of this sort of film, and what Dawn of the Dead gets so right: their efforts to survive make them human, but they can only, finally and perpetually, confront more of the same, deadish or aliveish.