Monday, November 06, 2006

Dawn of the Dead

(2004) *****

One of the theaters down my street showed this late in October, so Summerisle, I'mnotMarc and I got to see it on the big screen. The Dawn remake is one of those movies it's tough to sound eloquent about because it's just so damn awesome. I mean, just watch the quality build: Our introduction to the world of the movie is Sarah Polley -- rock. When the horror is introduced, it comes right into her bedroom on a sleepy morning, the place that should be safest of all. When she flees to the bathroom with her zombified husband coming after her, the thing she remembers to have in her hand are her car keys. Once outside, the madness beautifully unfolds from her front yard, across the street, down the block and through her neighborhood. Then we get that great super-wide shot of the city, with visible disaster spread near and far. Then Ving Rhames shows up. Score!

The success of this movie is down to a tasty mix of kinetic action and good attention to character. All the charm can be found in the little details: Near-zombified Matt Frewer saying "you want every fucking second," Andy the gun man holding up the smeared bloody sign after he's flipped over, or the reflective slo-mo shots of the three guys who have to wait in the chainlink cage while several manic, flaming corpses are futilely trying to get in and eat them. I imagined at least one of them thought "how is it that I wound up in Hell?"

This movie achieved what the Texas Chainsaw remake missed by only about three feet: to plant its own flag in the sand, to actually re-make something out of the original story. When that shopping mall rises into view, it's like the movie is saying "Eh? Eh? You scope that title? Dawn of the freakin' Dead, bitches!" and it can be that sassy because it's already won us over with the opening. There's one line I keep thinking of that personifies this flick's balls-out sincerity:

Bart (doofus security guard): You know what sucks? Remember that chick from Dairy Queen?
CJ: The fat one?
Bart: Yeah, she was coming over tonight. I would've tapped that shit for sure.
Terry: Bart, dude, everybody's dead, OK? Your mom's dead, your brother's dead, the fat chick at Dairy Queen... dead.
(Bart lies down to sleep, his head framed upside-down on the screen)
Bart: Yeah, that sucks too.

The fact that Bart starts the next day by strapping his gun over his boxer shorts before he puts on his pants just makes it even better.

Dawn '04 definitely owes some cred to 28 Days Later, first for the smart, quality move of making characters the number one priority, and second: fast zombies. I recall a lot of fast/slow zombie debate when this came out, and my conclusion is that I dig both kinds. The fast zombies in Dawn are ferocious, slavering beasts with sickly weird eyes and horrible screeches. As in 28 Days Later, it's terrifyingly likely that they'd gain the upper hand and never lose it.

With Romero's slow zombies, there's a haunting unearthliness to the lurching gait and the hollow, mournful sounds. Romero movies are always so fond of the zombie make-up, which is something I was happy to see carried over into Land of the Dead. With the Dawn remake, you never get a particular artfully decayed zombie like the baseball chick from Land with her cheek chewed off. As a matter of fact, the more the remake progresses, the more the zombies are shot as a wild, blurry menace.

Which is great! Romero's zombies are products of some metaphysical threat; Death itself is broken. Behind the physical threat of the walking dead, there lurks some cold, unseen force from parts unkown. The way slow zombies move communicates that, just as the hyperactive zombies of the remake reflect the more physical threat of that story. There are deaths in the Dawn remake that are not caused by zombie bites, and to Summerisle's delight, those people don't wake up (and I took an elbow jab). Like 28 Days Later, the threat comes in the form of some sort of communicable virus.

You could look at the updated approach as a reflection of the times: fear of biological contamination is a real thing, and so is fear of unchecked rage. "What can men do against such reckless hate?" says Theoden to Aragorn. It's scary stuff, and fast zombies are an excellent face for that fear. Of course, then Romero made Land and shot holes in my little theory, informing us that the worst thing your enemies can do is organize.

Zombies! It's weird, I thought I'd be as burnt out on zombie flicks as I am with Mad Hillbilly flicks, but I'm not. Dawn hits an amazing crescendo with the escape from the mall; the shot of those armored buses in the middle of the raging crowd has the iconic look of some famous b&w photo of a riot at a Rolling Stones concert. I've come to enjoy the inevitable triumph of entropy in these movies, and Dawn's daylight scenes of apocalypse are some of the grimmest, the most total. This is an exemplary zombie movie. It does credit to the original, and even some stuff on its own.

P.S. I know how to sail a boat.


Jordan said...

Okay, you guys just rock. That's it.

I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed Horrorthon this year. It's all good but the part I really like is how, for example, Octo's insane love of Zombie Flix shines through so infectously (no pun intended). I totally want to go see all these movies now. And send people to Horrorthon for a primer in how to like horror movies, or movies in general.

I'mnotMarcbutmyboyfriendis said...

kickass review, octo. way to keep your head in the game for this one --- you nailed it when you said it's tough to remain eloquent about DotD because it's so freaking awesome. in the last weeks of the thon, i found myself wanting to find any grounds for comparing movies back to this one. my part of the thon is over and i'm still pretty captivated.

I'mnotMarcbutmyboyfriendis said...

incidentally, much has been said about CJ's unexpected change of heart mid-movie. he's an aggressive, power-hungry jerk for the first hour and when he's given a gun later, most of us thought, "oh shit, now that he's got a gun again, he's going to be the guy that blows it for everybody." but in the end, he's pivotal in everyone's escape.

i bring this up because i came across this hilarious plot point that i completely missed in both viewings. when he's locked up with the other guard, they pass the time reading relationship magazines. according to wikipedia, cj learns from one of the magazines that the most important element in any relationship is "trust."

he didn't learn teamwork skills from the utter collapse of the entire world, he learned it from Oprah.

JPX said...

Woo-hoo, Octo! You don't just write reviews, you give these films dissertation-like critical analysis. You've raised the bar too high, you bastard.

Octopunk said...

Aww, thanks. I disagree about the bar-raising -- the writing styles of all our players are essential to this blog's personality. You guys can pull off stuff I can't.

One teensy detail I loved from this flick that I didn't include was an early mention of "civil unrest" on the radio, as if this were a crisis involving riot police and hippies throwing bricks. NOTLD uses the same phrase at one point, in the early times when they haven't even figured out what's going on.

Octopunk said...

"He didn't learn teamwork skills from the utter collapse of the entire world, he learned it from Oprah."

That's a riot.