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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+

Chemistry, romance propel sometimes-spotty “The Adjustment Bureau”

Damon and Blunt try to outfox the world's snazziest event planners in "The Adjustment Bureau."

“Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.” ~~Toni Morrison, “Beloved”

Brooklyn-born Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon), with his Budweiser-fed frat boy looks, may or may not have read much Toni Morrison. At some point in his life, though, he undoubtedly latched on to the idea that true love, whenever and wherever it appears, is worth fighting like hell to keep. Because for all its ramblings on fate and destiny and free will, “The Adjustment Bureau” is at its center a poignant, exhilarating love story — poignant because it is deeply human, and exhilarating because it suggests that love, when it’s real, can be a gamechanger.

The fight to hold on to love, combined with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt’s fantastic chemistry, would be enough to make “The Adjustment Bureau” a worthwhile romantic dramedy. But since the film is inspired by Philip K. Dick’s story “Adjustment Team,” director George Nolfi adds in touches of sci-fi and fast-and-loose theology, with nods to “The Matrix” sprinkled in for good measure. That’s one way to make this romance stand apart from the crowd. Whether or not the sci-fi and theology and romance mesh depends on how willing viewers are to squelch their their questions because — consider this a fair warning — once the Adjustment Team appears, there’s no end to the questions. 

(For starters: Who are these men really? What does their boss, “The Chairman,” have against hiring women? If the Bureau can meddle in human lives/anticipate human choices, why is chance still a factor? Can chance circumvent The Chairman’s plans? And did the Adjustment Team members adopt their style after one too many viewings of “The Maltese Falcon”?)

“The Adjustment Bureau,” by the end, has the rare problem of seeming too short to reach its lofty ambitions. It also demands acceptance of a storyline contains a fair amount of what aren’t exactly plot holes (more like weighty concepts abandoned?), but something like them. Despite these flaws, Nolfi’s directorial debut succeeds as a romance and a thriller because it never gets too bogged down in rambling explanations. Nolfi lays out the story matter-of-factly: David, an up-and-comer full of youthful idealism, looks a sure bet to become an N.Y. senator. But when the papers make his past — including a college mooning incident — public, he loses his lead. Practicing his concession speech in a hotel men’s room, he meets Elise (Blunt, radiant as ever), a ballerina who’s just crashed a wedding and is hiding from security. Their instant connection and brief kiss inspire Norris to scrap his P.C. speech and give an uncommonly earnest talk that wins him more fans. He reconnects with Elise on the bus and gets her number, but the Adjustment Bureau — led by Richardson (John Slattery) — steps in. There’s a plan for David’s life, and Elise isn’t part of it, Richardson explains. He destroys Elise’s number and threatens to have David “reset” (his memory erased) if he reveals anything about the Bureau. Richardson, however, underestimated coworker Harry (Anthony Mackie, as good here as he was in “Half Nelson”), a particularly compassionate “adjustor” who feels responsible for David and Elise’s second meeting and tells David more. The Bureau adjustors knows everyone’s plan; it’s their business to protect the plan. They use many methods: spilled coffees, missed taxis, dead cellphone batteries, even “reprogramming” people to make different choices. Most people accept their plans without question. But David, Harry discovers, is not a cooperative sheep.

The latter half of “The Adjustment Bureau” is where the action kicks in, including a chase, helmed by agent Thompson (the perenially menacing Terence Stamp) through New York’s maze of underground tunnels and doors that open to places that explode logic. The effects are blessedly minimal compared to, say, “The Matrix” because they are not central to the story. They only serve to outline the film’s most endearing purpose: David and Elise’s love story. Damon and Blunt are perfectly matched, with Blunt ensuring Elise is funny and vital and Damon giving a lot of emotion and energy to his part. For all the lofty philosophical mutterings and theological concepts, it is these two actors who keep the film grounded.

Grade: B-