Well, this was the dessert course that nobody expected, wasn't it? A big slice of cappucino cheesecake sent over compliments of the chef and on the house—with brandy, espresso and a Cuban cigar. Yeah.
For me, these zombie movies turned out to be a roundabout re-introduction to what makes right now, the present moment, such a great time in the history of movies. To go from the doldrums of the mid-eighties -- a time during which, in my opinion, everybody did their worst work (Garry Trudeau, Woody Allen, Elvis Costello, everybody) -- straight to 2004 (beautiful, digital 2004) was an exhilarating reminder of how far movies have come. The technical artistry and visual sophistication that goes into even a mid-budget, B-list-actor horror movie like this is so stunning, so far beyond anything possible in the previous decades that it boggles the mind. Additionally, the de rigeur collection of "average" people in each film reveals something interesting about the modern era -- at least on film, a randomly-selected group of Americans (and, by extension, the audience watching and grooving on them) are many degrees smarter, more sophisticated, more culturally savvy and just cooler than their counterparts in the previous decades' films.
Summerisle called Romero's dismissal of this movie "sour grapes," but I think it's more than that. On the 1978 Dawn of the Dead DVD commentary, Romero and Tom Savini talk at great length about how they disapprove of CGI and don't like digital film in general. They make a lot of arguments about how it's not "natural" and how CGI "throws you out of the movie" (all of which remind me of Bob Dylan -- not the sharpest knife in the drawer -- talking in 1987 about how he disliked "unnatural" audio CDs). Watching revered directors like John Schlessinger try to make modern thillers (Ronin) reinforces the argument that the art of cinema is just moving forward at great speed, leaving older artists and their talents behind. (The only '70s director who has managed to fuse the best of his '70s sensibility with the cutting edge of today's film techniques is, of course, the man himself, Steven Spielberg.) So, I agree with Summerisle that this movie marks a fundamental advance over the original, and, more significantly, a movie that Romero himself could never have made.
So it's the end of the world and zombies are taking over (with the threat spreading out subjectively from the characters' experience, as other reviews have noted) and the material available on television and in the montage that frames the opening titles quickly make use of the best techniques available for conveying the magnitude of the crisis: from Romero's black-and-white television with the man in the horn-rimmed glasses explaining the "civil unrest" (in the '60s, when "civil unrest" was actually something people talked about), we've come forward thirty-five years to the CNN era and a wobbly Betacam showing a press secretary in front of the Capitol Building flanked by secret service machine-gunning zombies. Nurse Sarah Polley and cop Ving Rhames run through a ten-minute "mini-28 Days Later" (evading the new, FAST zombies) and end up in a shopping mall, where, once again, the walking dead surround the entrances because "this was a special place to them" and, once again, it's the perfect place for a showdown: us vs. the walking dead (and, once again, we lose).
The end of the world 2004-style hits an American population that seems considerably more ready for it. There are those who say that The Two Towers and Attack of the Clones (and Revenge of the Sith) are commenting on the Iraqi war; I tend to agree, and, along the same lines, the Americans in the new Dawn of the Dead face the global disaster with a hardened, knowing resignation and fortitude that obviously has something to do with these times we live in. (Our generation has its own uneasy relationship with the literal, biblical Apocalypse as well; the characters were obviously already thinking about the "End of Days" even before the zombies hit.)
I compared zombie movies to vampire movies before, but there's a crucial difference: call it the "Kenny factor" or the "Aeon Flux" factor. What can this possibly mean? Basically that, unlike vampire stories, which run the gamut from a single Vampire and its direct spawn (Dracula) to an entire town ('Salem's Lot) to larger populations (Blade), the zombie story always involves a threat that grows without boundaries, as long as there are people dying anywhere, so, ergo, "zombie story" = "world overrun by zombies" no matter what. There's just no such thing as a "limited" zombie story; the world dies each time, like Kenny in South Park or Aeon Flux in her early animated adventures. Romero understood this and never bothered to try to tie his various stories together as one narrative; he just comes in at a later stage each time: we see the beginning of the catastrophe that ends the world in 1968 and then the middle of the catastrophe that ends the world in 1978 and then the end of the catastrophe that ends the world in 1985; the world just ends, over and over, each time, like Kenny's death, because the zombie story itself is a one-of-a-kind yet endlessly repeating fable that applies to each era with equal force.
The group of survivors who gather here are likable and interesting, and, more significantly, deal with their differences of opinion rather quickly and efficiently (for a change). As I said above, they seem smarter than their counterparts in earlier zombie movies (they're certainly more tolerant of each other and more innovative). In fact, everything happens with a speed and economy that's tremendously refreshing after the shambling chaos of the '60s, '70s and '80s versions. The speed of the story has its drawbacks: the one thing I feel this movie lacked was a coherent framework for depicting the horror of good people turned into bad zombies; in each case it all happens so fast (death-awakening-snarl-headshot) that there's no time for anything like the woman in the tenement who embraces her dead husband only to have him sink his teeth into her shoulder. But the business with Matt Frewer and the ending on the dock more than made up for that.
And how about those homages/cameos? Look!
Yes indeed, it's the details that count. Speaking of details, Summerisle went bananas over the Andy tape (which I haven't watched yet) but holy shit, did you guys watch the fucking closing credits? The camcorder "found on the boat" with old footage on it? The movie ends like the Beatles' "Helter Skelter"-- you fade out in with reasonably presentable set of conditions, assuming the best, and then peek behind the curtain to watch it all fall apart "after" the ending. That horrible boat ride...and the island of zombies...and the camera's still running...my God, it's good. (If you freeze frame in the final burst of video static, you can catch a few frames of two bimbos kissing from the tape's original content as the camera heads skip until you're back with the zombies advancing on the lens.)
A fine piece of work all around. And I think I'm pretty much "zombied out" for now, but man, what a ride! Now I've got to go watch Howard's End or something to cleanse my palette.
ADDENDUM: They changed the rules, didn't they? Only zombie-bite-victims get zombified? I hope I've got that wrong, because it screws up the premise. (How could it start without corpses rising from the grave?)