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Review: “Dawn of the Dead” (2004)

The cheek! The nerve of Zack Snyder, thinking he could remake George Romero’s fine 1978 commentary on consumerism, the very movie that set the standard for the zombie genre! Feel vindicated yet, die-hard Romero fans and zombie purists? Good. Now that the gorilla in the corner’s been pointed out, let’s move on to the more shocking topic: Snyder’s update is not terrible. Actually, 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” is flawed but good — inventive and fast-paced, with enough violence to satisfy gore fiends, some sympathetic characters and nice moments of black humor. Also, there’s a bonafide zombie baby, which is a clear indicator that this remake is zombie flesh of a different pallor.

Snyder, see, is no dummy. He’s aware that Romero’s send-up of shameless consumerism holds less interest for a 21st-century audience, so he’s keen to change things up. He reduces the satire to one line of dialogue and a smattering of brief scenes. With the sly commentary removed, Snyder can focus on the action, the gore and the characters. In addition to upgrading the special effects and the story, the director also upgrades the undead. Snyder’s zombies are dim-witted, but their speed (they can run!) and viciousness renders them more alarming than the lumbering, flesh-craving oafs Romero created. Speed makes the face-chewers in Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” more threatening and predatory; in turn, it makes the humans more vulnerable.

The set-up to this remake has a few things in common with the original: There’s no clear explanation for what’s turning people into zombies; the undead quickly start to outnumber the living; and a group of survivors takes shelter inside a sprawling Milwaukee shopping mall. But “Dawn of the Dead” opens a little differently, introducing the audience to one character, Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse who awakens after her long shift to a world in chaos. After a neighborhood child bites her husband and his reanimated corpse attacks Ana, she has the good sense to grab her car keys, escapes and speeds away. When she crashes her car into a tree, she finds a small group of non-dead humans: Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a cop; Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant wife Luda (Inna Korobkina); and Michael (Jake Weber), an average guy turned resourceful survivor. They head to the local mall for shelter, where other survivors — including ringleader C.J. (Michael Kelly), a mall cop — are less than thrilled to share their hideout. Stuck in a building swarmed by zombies, Ana and the others slowly adjust to this new normal … until a truck with more survivors shows up, and the contagion threatens to spread inside the group’s stronghold. 

The addition of more survivors, unfortunately, muddies the water. It’s not the smartest move, since more characters mean that some leave little impression, while others are puzzling (like the wannabe stripper) or downright annoying (the dog-obsessed teen orphan, for example). Still, Snyder manages to keep the people we form emotional connections with — Ana, Kenneth, Andre and Michael — central to the story. James Gunn’s adapted screenplay provides a few affecting scenes, such as Ana and Michael’s slow-growing affection for one another and Andre’s fierce determination to protect Luda and his unborn child. Rhames’ friendship with another survivor, Andy (Bruce Bohne), a marksman trapped on the roof of an ammo shop yards away, is a nice touch. The two use binoculars and signs to communicate, devising macabre zombie shooting games and even playing chess. Snyder keeps these moments of human connection brief enough that they don’t hamper the violence, but not so brief that the survivors feel like anonymous zombie chow.

“Dawn of the Dead” gets extra points for first-rate song selection and editing, notably in montages and the credits. The early news footage montage set to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” ingeniously enhances the song’s ominous tone, while a blink-and-miss-it scene in an elevator gets a pinch of humor from the “All Out of Love” muzak background. Another montage, soundtracked to Disturbed’s bleakly cheery “Down with the Sickness,” is distinctly unsettling. And the closing credits add a pitch-black finale to the survivors’ tale, shown in flashes of hand-held video camera footage — an intimate and chilling end for this successful update.    

Grade: B+

Cinema of Scare: (My) Big 10

Happy Halloween, everyone! If you’re wondering why I’m saying this today, it’s because every day is Halloween. Or should be. Just think about it: the potential for the world to become a neverending buffet of candy corn, dollar-store cobwebs and glow-in-the-dark skeleton earrings.

Of course, this would increase the possibility that more people would show up to work in clown costumes on idle Tuesday mornings. Hmm. Better give this some more thought.

No more talk of clowns, though. Let’s talk about Bill over at Bill’s Movie Emporium. Connoisseur of scare that he is, he dreamed up something called the Splatter Time Fun Fest Awards (love the title, Bill), and that got me inspired. Well, maybe that’s overstating things a bit, since I’m not sure creating a list of great Halloween movies the day before Halloween is inspired. But I’ve been known to make some noise about being a fan of the cliche, so I will press on with my own collection of movies that ruined me for entering darkened houses, babysitting a child sporting a blonde braids-n-bangs combo, or going camping:

1. “Halloween”

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A miniscule budget, no-name actors, almost no blood or gore and a killer who never utters so much as one syllable? Only a genius frightmaster like John Carpenter could take all the reasons why a horror movie should not work and transform them into clear-cut advantages. He mines the bleakest parts of our collective consciousness to bring humanity’s biggest fear — that evil is everywhere, and it’s unstoppable — to heart-stopping life. Brilliant. 

 

2. “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”

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Henry (Michael Rooker, who’s blank-eyed perfection) has a pretty practical theory about killing. “It’s always the same and it’s always different,” he tells his buddy Otis. And here he reveals the dark, twisted purpose of John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”: to remind us that pure, inexplicable evil wears a human face, and one we never seem to notice until it’s too late to scream for help.

 

3. “M”

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When horror movie chatter turns to accomplished serial killer films (see above), Fritz Lang’s distressing “M” is nowhere to be found. Pity that, because it’s a grim, dank, chilly and thoroughly unnerving exploration of a killer stalking Berlin’s children. Peter Lorre makes Hans Beckert (who closely resembles German serial murderer/pedophile Peter Kürten) the kind of soulless villain who’d haunt Hannibal Lecter’s dreams.

 

4. “Nosferatu”

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With vampire books and movies and TV shows overwhelming our senses, it’s all too easy to forget about F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” the film that turned these blood-lapping mythological creatures into pop-culture staples. Without benefit of technicolor, special effects or even sound, Max Schreck’s otherworldly Count Dracula creeps into our dreams and stays there, waiting for the chance to lunge. 

 

5. “The Evil Dead”

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Before the ultra-campy “Army of Darkness,” with Bruce Campbell cloning himself and playing, well, Bruce Campbell, there was “The Evil Dead,” headed for cult classic status with its no-budget effects. But the original rates highly as a horror staple because of its opening credits — the finest and creepiest ever filmed — and the no-holds-barred performance of Campbell, who makes his terror palpable. And don’t forget that tarty tree branch.

 

6. “Carrie”

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“Carrie,” based on Stephen King’s first published novel, is at its heart a pre-“Surviving Ophelia” look at the crushing effects of bullying and how, in the right setting, constant torment can produce murderous rage in the meekest people. Herein lie the chills in “Carrie”: There’s violence aplenty, all of it rained down on fairly deserving and cruel parties, but we’d never see it coming from a girl like Carrie (Sissy Spacek). How profoundly disturbing.

 

7. “Dawn of the Dead”

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Horror movies that scare us are in hefty supply, but the ones that squeeze in pointed commentary about mass consumerism and America’s shopping mall mentality are not. George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” is proof positive that scares don’t have to be mindless and blood-soaked; they can spring from the realization that we’ve scaled the roof to escape our problems (or zombies), and now there’s nowhere to go but down. 

 

8. “The Bad Seed”

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Kids — it’s all sweetness and innocence, all fun and games until one of them sets a janitor on fire. At least, that’s the image of youth we get in “The Bad Seed,” with Patty McCormack using her blonde braids and sweet smile to disarm her prey. But she’s hiding a whole mess of devilment behind those patent-leather shoes, and the movie’s hiding an ominous warning: Don’t think you know what lurks in a person’s heart.

 

9. “The Shining”

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That Jack Nicholson, always with the Cheshire Cat-that-gulped-the-canary grin. He plays bad better than most anyone, but he’s at his baddest (and creepiest) in “The Shining,” a ghoulish thriller that blows the “happy families stay together” concept to smithereens. Jack’s googly-eyed overacting works OK here, but what really shivers the timbers is the inspired camera work and a foreboding, oppressive score that pierces your brain. 

 

10. “The Blair Witch Project”

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“The Blair Witch Project” is not a movie that inspires lukewarm reactions. No, this documentary-style thriller, with its queasy footage, unknown actors and largely ad-libbed script, is a love-it-or-hate it kind of movie. Still, there’s no denying this film’s directors accomplish a startling feat: They never show us the villain. And the not knowing what’s threading sticks and piling rocks out there in the dark? That’s the part that’s purely petrifying.

Honorable mentions: “Identity,” “The Omen,” “The Stepfather” (1987 version), “Poltergeist,” “28 Days Later…”