John Romero's holy trilogy, 'Night of the Living Dead', 'Dawn of the Dead', and 'Day of the Dead' are doubtless the final word in zombie movies and the standard against which all are judged. Romero pretty well created our modern zombie genre, although newer movies have added a few tweaks to the formula. This years remake of 'Dawn of the Dead' isn't a scene-for-scene, blow-by-blow recreation, but relies more on the basic premise as a jumping off point for what plays like a brand new movie.
'Dawn of the Dead' doesn't waste a single moment in getting underway. The action starts even before the opening credits play, and this is generally a good indicator for the tempo of the entire movie. 'Dawn' doesn't bother with such trivial things as explanations, and concentrates entirely on action. Although this makes for an entertaining movie, it does seem a bit of a shame - a little backstory about the zombies would have been entertaining. No matter.
What we do have is nurse Ana (Polley) returning from a long shift at the hospital. As she's leaving there's a some mention of a bite victim, but that's it. After she and her husband head off to sleep they're awakened early in the morning by a neighbourhood girl who's entered their house. Little do they know, she's the worst kind of girl - a Zombie Girl! Needless to say they find out pretty quickly, and Ana's husband doesn't do a very good job of not turning into a zombie. Ana manages to escape, and fleeing through a shattered city eventually hooks up with a cop (Ving Rhames) and a few other survivors. They figure their best bet is to make it into the mall, and hole up there until help arrives. As the movie unfolds, they're joined by a few other survivors, and run into a few zombie-related problems along the way.
Snyder has managed to avoid the dark, washed out colors of recent horror movies, and as a result 'Dawn of the Dead' is remarkably easy to watch. There's still plenty of atmosphere, and the scenes which are darkened are even scarier by contrast. The zombies look fantastic throughout, with horrible gaping wounds and an animal-like loping run. As good as they are however, they're not quite as creepy as the excellent zombies of '28 Days Later'. For all you zombie purists out there, you'll no doubt be disappointed that 'Dawn' features fast zombies, not the slow shuffling undead of Romero's trilogy. No doubt after the initial horror of the brain-eating undead wore off, enemies that can be outrun at a brisk walk needed a bit of an update.
The opening credits are very well done with gritty news reports playing to Johnny Cash's dark and brooding 'The Man Came Around'. In fact, the music throughout the movie is excellent and serves as an important piece of 'Dawn of the Dead's apocalyptic feel. The ending credits are almost as good, and shouldn't be missed. There's a coda to the movie narrated between the credits, and it works as an enjoyable finish to the film.
Surprisingly for a movie of this nature, 'Dawn of the Dead' sports a competent cast all delivering strong performances. Sarah Polley's Ana is a hardened survivor, and Mekhi Phifer turns in a capable rendition of a man teetering on the edge of sanity. The casting was done superbly, and the good performances do a great job of drawing the viewer into the movie. The rest of the actors are just as good, with nods going out to Michael Kelly as a rough mall security guard, and Ty Burrell as a wise-cracking asshole. Speaking of which, there are some great one-liners and humour throughout the movie, but at times it feels like a little much. The hopeless, apocalytpic ambience that 'Dawn of the Dead' seems to be reaching for is interrupted a few times too many, and the movie as a whole suffers for it.
In general, 'Dawn of the Dead' is a worthy successor to Romero's trilogy, though in no way a replacement. It does an admirable job of entertaining its viewers - from the great creature effects, surprising (and gruesome) action sequences, and plenty of wit - it's all here, and it's been done pretty well all around. Here's hoping for a new generation of zombie movies!