Release date in cinemas: March 19, 2004
Reviewed by Andy Ling
[Written in April 2004. This is the fourth in a series of monthly columns by Andy Ling reviewing TV shows, movies and DVDs.]
Civilization comes crashing down in a day when corpses become reanimated as cannibalistic zombies who attack the living. A group of survivors take refuge at a shopping mall and make a temporary self-contained life for themselves.
This film is a guilty pleasure. There are no challenging storylines, deep characters, award-winning performances or deep commentaries on modern life. There isn't even a satisfactory explanation for the origin of the zombies. All those details would only have gotten in the way of the dark humour, visceral thrills and a game of spot-the-Toronto-exteriors.
For this version of the B-film classic, only the basic premise of people taking refuge in a mall has been preserved. The characters, plotline and even the nature of the zombie process have been changed.
Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames and Mekhi Phifer play the core of the survivors' group this time. As the star performers, they do fairly well, but they don't get an opportunity to really shine since the script saddles them with generic characterizations. They are allotted just enough screen time to differentiate them from secondary zombie-fodder characters. But even mediocre performances from them were fine considering the audience was probably more interested in watching them shoot, duck, run, hide, hack at zombies and look haggard.
Polley, Rhames and Phifer are supported by lesser-known talents who are just as entertaining to watch even if their roles are even more generic than the core group. Jake Weber puts in a good performance as the level-headed leader of the group, and Michael Kelley serves as his foil playing the would-be tin-pot dictator/security guard. Ty Burrell is a sleazy Wall Street yuppie executive with sarcastic wit (and is consequently the least staid character of the bunch). Lindy Booth plays an annoyingly insecure teen. Matt Frewer (best-known as Max Headroom) puts in an appearance as the aforesaid teen's father, a character who also serves as an object lesson to the survivors. For the eagle-eyed fan of the original, there are a number of cameo appearances of the original cast as well.
The film progresses in a fairly linear manner, following the survivors as they move from the hectic anarchy of the initial crisis to the languid days in their oasis in the mall, and then to their final desperate rush to leave the mall. It would be a stretch to say that were are unexpected twists or complications, as most situations are telegraphed in advance. Even the horrific subplot of a character being slowly converted into a zombie while pregnant is not a surprise (though that may also have been due to the trailers and commercials featuring an unfortunate spoiler).
Fortunately, the aforementioned dark humour plays a great role in keeping the audience entertained. One of the first glimpses of this is in first 10 minutes of the film as Ana (Sarah Polley) escapes from her zombified husband, who pursues her through a bathroom, through a window, runs behind her as she drives away and then forgets about her when he spots a pedestrian. Other antics abound, such as zombie celebrity bingo.
The action sequences are quite satisfying as well—though perhaps not the most creative—and they drive the film, whether they involve total chaos, carnage, claustrophic pursuit, or just wide shots of hundreds of zombies chasing a handful of people down a street.
The original version used the zombies as a satirical device to comment on consumerism. This version makes no such pretense; the filmmakers focus on the action aspects of the franchise. The zombies are the perfect adversary in the "us versus them" situation: fearsome enough because of their origin and numbers, but not so unstoppable that the heroes don't have a chance.
There are scenes where the characters have epiphanies and confess inner thoughts, but such moments don't connect with the viewer as well as the ones in the 2003 zombie film 28 Days Later. The dialogue was clichéd, and the moments were introduced with no buildup and then passed over with no opportunity for audience reflection. But this is hardly a new or unique complaint for an action film.
The soundtrack is an interesting mix of incidental music and various contemporary sources, complementing the story pacing and visuals very well. The title and credit sequences are particular standouts.
In the end, the 2004 update doesn't stray from its B-film roots, even if it has a larger budget and A-list stars. Whether one is willing to disengage the brain for a bit of good, clean, harmless zombie fun or is just looking for something to see with a group of friends, Dawn of the Dead is a good bet.
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Copyright © 2004, Andy Ling.