Dawn of the Dead (2004) (R) ★★★

Review Date: April 5th, 2004

In this contemporary remake of George Romero's apocalyptic horror classic, Dawn of the Dead, an unexplained pestilence causes the dead to come back to life and feed off the flesh and blood of the living.


Ana (Sarah Polley), a hard-working nurse living in a picturesque Wisconsin suburb, wakes up early one morning to find a little blonde neighborhood girl chomping on Ana's husband's jugular. She makes a quick getaway, only to find her pruned-lawn universe in complete disarray: Houses are on fire, cars are careening out of control and people are literally running for their lives--and that's before the title art even appears. It turns out a mysterious plague is transforming people into zombies with an insatiable appetite for living human tissue. Now on the run, Ana joins up with other survivors, including tough cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames), good guy Michael (Jake Weber), street-smart Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his very pregnant wife Luda (Inna Korobkina), and decide the Crossroads Mall would be a good sanctuary. After convincing three security guards to let them into their safe haven, the group bands together to defend the mall against the growing army of zombies pawing at the glass doors. But while the mall, with its stores packed with food, clothing, TVs and radios, serves as an ideal refuge, the group realizes that no one is coming to rescue them and their only chance of survival is to plot their own escape. But their getaway is squelched when some of those still living barricaded inside the mall begin to show signs of infection, including the expectant Luda.


Drawing a skilled cast to a horror film--a genre that's not taken very seriously--is always a good move because it gives it a certain credibility. Dawn of the Dead's lineup, which includes Polley, Rhames, Weber and Phifer, offer up likeable characters despite the lack of character development. As the bleeding-heart nurse, Polley (My Life Without Me) is clearly the heroine here: Not only does she care for everyone's medical needs, but she is also the film's biggest risk taker, diving nose-first into dangerous situations for the group's sake. Her character Ana is a nice balance to Rhames' badass cop Kenneth, whose decisions are grounded and never clouded by emotion. Other dueling characters include Weber's (Wendigo) Michael, the group's strategic leader, and militant security guard CJ, played by Michael Kelly (Unbreakable). The cast plays off each other nicely; it's just a shame that they are emotionally disconnected. For example, although Phifer is persuasive as the doting father-to-be, it's difficult to sympathize with Andre's gut wrenching predicament with his pregnant zombie wife because their bond was never established. Look for actors from the original film in cameo appearances, including makeup artist Tom Savini (also a biker in the original) as the sheriff; Scott Reiniger (Roger), as the general; and Ken Foree (Peter), as the televangelist.


Dawn of the Dead marks Zack Snyder's directorial debut--and what a project he chose. Snyder, however, fittingly resurrects the undead created by Romero 24 years ago into much more menacing zombies for modern-day horror-savvy audiences: They are lightning-fast, have shark-like radar for human flesh and demonstrate pack mentality. Of course, the film's look is a lot slicker that its predecessor, minus a few action sequences involving the zombie hordes that almost appear to have been shot on digital video. Snyder, for example, was careful not to make the film too CGI-laden and instead relied on special effects makeup designer David Anderson (Men in Black Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) to make the zombies extremely gross, lifelike and menacing. But in focusing on creating this fear-provoking look, the film loses some of the subtle humor that distinguished the 1978 production from the average horror pic. Remember the scene in the original film that has the zombies robotically trying to walk up the down escalator? Romero had a way of laughing at the film's own absurdity without demeaning it; Snyder's humor here is less sophisticated and instead relies on screenwriter James Gunn's dialogue. But this modern Dawn of the Dead is still a thrilling moviegoing experience with tons of scares to be had.

Bottom Line

While the re-envisioned Dawn of the Dead is not as clever as director George Romero's 1978 cult hit, its suspenseful storytelling, bloodthirsty zombies and notable performances make it a masterful horror pic nonetheless.