NASTY -- now there's a good word.
During a screening of "Dawn of the Dead" the other night, I heard someone in the audience shout out that word, drawing out the first syllable and savoring the sibilance of the "s" in a way that told me it wasn't meant as a criticism. I don't mean it that way either, when I say to you that the movie -- the story of a small band of suburbanites holed up in a shopping mall and their efforts to fight off a horde of flesh-eating zombies -- is one of the nastiest exercises in cinematic storytelling I have ever had the pleasure to sit through.
It is, in other words, a paradigm of its genre: bloody (and bloody scary), stylish, smart, audacious and edgy, darkly pessimistic yet inflected with touches of deliciously sick humor. Yes, it's essentially a remake of a sequel, albeit a sequel that happens to be one of the greatest horror movies ever made, but it more than surpasses the original. Its sole aim, and one at which it succeeds admirably, is to simultaneously revolt, scare and delight you; to make you as afraid to look at the screen as to look away from it; to fill you with such a mix of terror and guilty pleasure that you can't tell the two emotions apart.
Not everyone can handle this reaction.
If you're one of the people who can't -- and you know who you are -- stay well away from this bloodbath. But you already knew that, didn't you? If, on the other hand, you saw the 1978 original, and you said to yourself, "This isn't violent or funny enough," then this is the movie for you. Not only does the new "Dawn" easily outstrip the gore quotient of the first film, whose stage blood has been described by F/X wizard Tom Savini as looking like "melted crayons," but it's also, at times, darn near hilarious.
Set in a middle-American Anytown, "Dawn" wastes no time cutting to the chase, literally. We're only minutes into the film when our heroine, nurse Ana (the wonderful Sarah Polley, who classes up every joint she walks into), awakens to find her neighbors, and soon her husband, overtaken by what appears to be a rapidly spreading disease -- and it ain't the flu. Communicated through bites, the disease first kills it victims, then unkills them, turning them into cannibalistic walking corpses. Very simple. A fleeing Ana soon finds herself in the company of a ragtag handful of survivors (tough cop Ving Rhames; doting dad-to-be Mekhi Phifer and his very pregnant wife, Inna Korobkina; thinking woman's stud Jake Weber and others), who hole up, quite naturally, in the mall.
At least there they'll find food, water, mattresses, restrooms and lattes. That and a whole host of entertaining personality conflicts between security guards with hair-trigger tempers, selfless martyrs and those guided by cynical self-interest. This is, of course, the stuff of countless "survivor" flicks (not to mention TV's "Survivor"). But such conflicts are not, pardon the expression, the meat of this movie.
That would be the zombies. They are who we've come for, to see what they do and what gets done to them -- as when a surviving sharpshooter picks them off one by one from a roof, choosing his victims based on their resemblance to such celebrities as Jay Leno and Burt Reynolds. And yes, despite the fact that they are technically "dead," they can be permanently killed, if shot in the head. It also helps to burn them.
Forget such technicalities, though.
As far as "Dawn of the Dead" is concerned, it's your id that's at the wheel of the bus. Let it drive down the dark byways and blind alleys of your hippocampus, where screams, splashes of blood and raw fear are the only things telling it which way to turn. One final note: If you still need something resembling a happy ending, skip the closing credits, which provide a wickedly nihilistic, un-Hollywood postscript to a film that is already blacker than many people can stand.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (R, 98 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, sensuality, pervasive violence and, to put it mildly, lots and lots of blood. Area theaters.