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Dawn of the Dead (2004)

When theres no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.

Directed by:

Zack Snyder

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 100 minutes

UK Certificate: 18

Country: United States

Known collectively to its adoring fans as the ‘Holy Trinity’, George A. Romero’s loose zombie trilogy is the alpha and omega of apocalyptic horror. The first film, Night of the Living Dead (1968), marked the birth of the most inventively fertile era of American horror cinema, and the last film, Day of the Dead (1985), marked its death throes – but it is the middle film, Dawn of the Dead (1978), which has always been regarded as the Holy Grail of zombie mayhem, unsurpassed in its economy of storytelling, its cynicism and paranoia, its dark humour, its convincing (and often strangely sympathetic) undead, and its intelligent satire of racial tensions and the values of consumer society.

Now, with films like House of 1000 Corpses, Cabin Fever, and the recent remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Golden Age of 1970s horror is re-emerging to bring terror to a whole new generation, at a time when the characteristic anxieties of the 1970s – the immorality of the Vietnam War, the mendacity of President Nixon and the omnipresence of terrorist movements – all have strong resonances in the current geopolitical climate. Romero’s zombie films have also risen again from the grave, both in a riot of recent Japanese homages to Romero (‘Cure’, ‘Versus’, ‘Stacy’, ‘Wild Zero’) and in American movies inspired by video games which were in turn inspired by Romero’s trilogy (Resident Evil, ‘The House of the Dead’).

It is, however, one thing to draw inspiration from the Holy Trinity – e.g. transporting Romero’s narrative arcs to contemporary England, and transforming his stumbling, braindead zombies into agile, rage-fuelled automata, as Danny Boyle did recently in the excellent 28 Days Later… – but attempting an actual remake verges on sacrilege. Wisely, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ redux is no slavish imitation, but a whole new dawn. James Gunn’s knowing script has torn the guts out of the original, retaining only the shopping mall setting and a few key motifs and lines, with everything else twisted, mangled and deformed beyond all recognition. Racing in at some forty minutes shorter than Romero’s original, the pace is breathlessly fast, but then so are the zombies, who run, climb and attack with infectious abandon – and while the first film already had a deliriously speedy opening, the relative calm of the remake’s prologue is interrupted with such a sudden and lurching violence that your attention is not so much grabbed as gripped in a stranglehold. There are far more characters (or, to use the proper term, fodder) shacked up in the mall, yet all are nuanced enough for us to care about, or in some cases applaud, their bloody fate. The gentle relationship which develops between policeman Kenneth (Ving Rhames), and Andy (Bruce Bohne), who is trapped on the roof of a gunshop opposite, is an especially well-drawn innovation, subtle and believable even if their only means of communication is handwritten posters.

The script has a deep vein of humour, which is a necessary relief, because overall this is a resolutely gloomy, profoundly pessimistic film, full of disaster and despair – which is just what a good horror film should be. Even the pregnancy of one of the characters, which in the original version symbolised hope for future generations, is here turned into a horrifying perversion that destroys all hope – and the film’s shaky handheld coda (intercut with the closing credits) forms a satisfyingly bleak rejoinder to the more optimistic conclusion of the original Dawn of the Dead (and of 28 Days Later…). Yet fans of the zombie flick can rest assured that their world has not quite come to an end – for even if Romero’s long-awaited ‘Twilight of the Dead’ never sees the light of day, there is still Simon ‘Spaced’ Pegg’s self-styled RomZomCom Shaun of the Dead“.

It's Got: Fast zombies, slow humans, painful tension, a cameo from Tom Savini (make-up artist and actor from the original Dawn...) as a county sheriff (that is the coolest guy, as one character comments), a bold use of the word twitcher, a cafeteria called Hallowed Grounds, and the most compellingly bleak portrayal of total societal breakdown since The Time of the Wolf.

It Needs: To be seen without prejudice - it is much, much better than what you might expect of a remake.

Alternatives:

28 Days Later..., Dawn of the Dead, Mad Max 2, Shaun of the Dead, The Time of the Wolf, Zombie Flesh Eaters

Summary

Darkly funny, tense and devastatingly grim, it manages to bring a classic horror back to life without stinking of rot. Bust a gut to see it.

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