'Dawn of the Dead' Resurrects a Classic

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2004

In "Dawn of the Dead," a spirited remake of George A. Romero's 1978 classic, the living dead are wandering the Earth again. You know the gang: They're dead. Walk funny. Crave human flesh. Never say "Excuse me" when they bump into one another -- which they do again and again.

Where do they go to satisfy their cravings? Why, the mall, of course. Consumerism, it seems, is something you just never outlive. Our movie takes us to a Milwaukee suburb, where clusters of zombies are gathered outside the Crossroads Mall. The reason: fresh food inside. Fewer than a dozen survivors have barricaded themselves in, desperately trying not to be part of the food court menu. The non-undead inside include Ana (Sarah Polley), a young nurse who has already lost her husband to the zombies; Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a cop who's not afraid to blow a hole through anyone with blood on his chops; electronics salesman Michael (Jake Weber), who looks like the Roddy McDowall of the group; and Andre (Mekhi Phifer), a dutiful husband taking care of his pregnant Russian wife, Luda (Inna Korobkina).

The zombies are restless. They're bashing on the security doors. Ana, Kenneth and company realize that their best hope is to retrofit two mall shuttle buses with armor plating, bust through the stiffs and twitchers and head for the coast, where fellow refugee Steve (Ty Burrell) claims to have a boat. TV reports show that the zombies are all over the country, thanks to a lethal plague. There is no haven anywhere. But maybe, the mall rats figure, they can find refuge somewhere out in the blue beyond.

The movie faintly echoes the plot of Romero's film, in which a small group of survivors of a similar zombie plague commandeer a helicopter and retreat to the fortlike protection of a suburban Pittsburgh mall. (It was Romero's tongue-in-cheek sequel to his darker, black-and-white 1968 classic, "Night of the Living Dead," and it made an extremely respectable $20 million.) The latest movie, from Universal Pictures, is clearly trying to evoke the gritty spirit of the original "Dawn." (Look for Ken Foree, from the 1978 cast, as a televangelist who declares: "When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth." And that county sheriff is Tom Savini, makeup artist for the original "Dawn of the Dead.") At times, the new "Dawn" looks and feels like what it is: a studio picture adopting a twisted campy spirit with the same earnest attention a corporation might give a new brand of cola.

But for the most part, the movie has many of the elements that made the first "Dawn" so darkly entertaining. The opening sequence, in which nurse Ana realizes her neighborhood has turned zombie, is memorably scary. And there is nothing like watching characters shoot fist-size holes through zombie brains to get an audience's juices flowing.

Although first-time director Zack Snyder apes the agitated, grainy-video spirit of Danny Boyle's post-apocalyptic thriller of last year, "28 Days Later," a little too closely, he does have an appropriately macabre sense of humor. At one point, the survivors play a rooftop sniper game in which they plug zombies who resemble celebrities, including Burt Reynolds and Rosie O'Donnell. The mall sound system pipes in instrumental versions of such insipid radio hits as "Don't Worry, Be Happy" and "All by Myself."

And this may be the only flick in movie history in which audiences applaud the point-blank execution of a snarling human infant. Hey, the kid's a flesh-eater, okay? In this crazy world, the rules are -- you know -- a little different.

Dawn of the Dead (98 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong and pervasive horror violence and gore, language and sexuality.

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