Action-horror genre resurrected by 'Dawn of the Dead'

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Special to the Journal-World

Jake Weber, left, Sarah Polley, Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina portray survivors of a zombie-fueled apocalypse in the remake of "Dawn of the Dead."

I first saw George Romero's apocalyptic zombie effort "Dawn of the Dead" at a midnight movie screening in Kansas City when I was 15.

Needless to say it made an impression.

Pre-dating flicks like "Aliens" and "From Dusk Til Dawn," the original "Dawn of the Dead" was the first movie to truly fuse action with gory horror. This tale of a band of four survivors who avoid a zombie plague by holing up in a Pennsylvania shopping mall had everything: blood, guts, guns, chases, helicopter-blade decapitations and a healthy dose of cultural satire.

Most importantly, it perfectly set up a scenario in which the audience could empathize with those on the screen and ponder, "Yeah, that's probably what I would do if put in a situation in which my society became ripped apart."

This makes it all the more surprising that rookie director Zack Snyder's new remake of "Dawn of the Dead" is such a worthy successor. Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn (no relation to the KU professor/sci-fi expert of the same name) manage to keep all the specific elements that made the first film a success, yet they thoroughly reinvent the characters and the plot.

The result is a nonstop collision of thrills, chills and societal ills.

Whereas the original began in medias res at a Philadelphia TV station coping with the crisis, the latest takes a more leisurely approach by first establishing a believably mundane setting.

Ana (Sarah Polley) is returning from her nursing shift to her cookie-cutter block in suburban Milwaukee. Like a horrific domino effect, a plague begins to spread throughout the peaceful burg that causes those bitten to become undead cannibals on the prowl for human flesh.

(Last Monday the USA Network took part in a unique promotional campaign by debuting the first 10 minutes uncut prior to the opening weekend. It proves a brilliant gambit considering that this sequence is so skillfully crafted that a viewer can't help but be sucked into the story.)

Soon Ana has hooked up with a batch of other survivors who have just narrowly escaped from an overrun military shelter.

Movie

Dawn of the Dead *** 1/2

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Just because a film is about zombies doesn't mean it has to be brain dead, and this stellar remake of George Romero's seminal action-horror flick is a perfect example. Hotshot new director Zack Snyder injects tremendous skill and energy into this tale of survivors who hole up in a mall to take refuge from undead cannibals.

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"Is everyone there dead?" asks police officer Kenneth (Ving Rhames).

"Dead-ish" is the response.

Together with a pistol-toting hothead (Mekhi Phifer) and his very pregnant Russian girlfriend (Inna Korobkina) -- you know that birth ain't gonna end up pretty -- the group takes refuge at the Crossroads Mall. It's here that the film really expands from the self-contained setting of the 1979 version by continually adding memorable characters and new environments to explore.

Also quite good is the thread of humor that helps punctuate the tension. Much of this is character-driven, especially those stemming from a condescending yuppie (Ty Burrell) who is bitchy enough to be a cast member of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

(It's no surprise that with headliners like Polley and Rhames the acting is light years beyond the rather rickety performances of the original.)

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Special to the Journal-World

Sarah Polley, Ty Burrell and Ving Rhames flee from a city overrun by a zombie plague in "Dawn of the Dead."

There are also a number of quirky little touches that complement the action, such as the group first entering the mall to the strains of a Muzak loop playing "Don't Worry Be Happy." Then there's a hilarious scene in which a stranded owner of a gun shop on a neighboring rooftop takes target practice on the hundreds of zombies surrounding him based on the suggestions of those at the mall.

"Jay Leno" they write on a large dry-erase board to communicate their choice. Soon a wandering creature with similar salt-and-pepper hair and a large chin gets a bullet through its noggin.

The main criticism that one can level at this "Dawn of the Dead" is that it is indisputably derivative. The success of last year's eerie "28 Days Later" has most influenced the remake. Now instead of the lumbering, pasty zombies of Romero's trilogy (which also includes "Night of the Living Dead" and "Day of the Dead"), these fiends are victims of a virus that makes them swift and aggressive like packs of wild dogs.

But Snyder and Gunn also pilfer liberally from non-zombie movies such as "The Road Warrior" and "Tremors." No one will accuse this effort of being conceptually innovative. It simply offers first-rate execution of a familiar cinematic premise.

There are also a few obvious continuity glitches -- one canine-oriented one in particular -- that appear to be the product of expositional scenes being dropped in order to keep the picture's running time under two hours.

But these are petty quibbles for a project that is such a powerhouse entry within its own hybrid genre. It succeeds as an action epic. It succeeds as a horror flick. And it succeeds as an updated homage to an influential "midnight movie."

Remember, just because the film is about zombies doesn't mean it has to be brain dead.

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