George Romero’s vision from his indelible 1979 classic remains intact even as limbs slough off in this better- than-it-has-any-right-to-be 2004 remake.
Canada’s sweetheart Sarah Polley (pace, Rachel McAdams) plays Ana, a suburbanite with a young family that succumbs to the zombie plague as she manages to escape their clutches to the strains of Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around.
She barrels down the road in her very practical Toyota sedan and crashes into a tree. Bad-ass cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames) helps her out and soon, she and a bunch of other survivors find themselves barricaded inside a Milwaukee-area shopping mall (in actuality, a north Toronto suburb) serenaded by a Muzak version of the execrable novelty hit, Don’t Worry, Be Happy.
Press conference dispatches from the news media fail to provide any insights whatsoever: “Is it a health hazard or a military concern?” “We don’t know.” They don’t know a lot. Gore guru Tom Savini appears as a sheriff, who glibly refers to the doubly deceased yet still animated zombies as “twitchers.”
The incomparable Ken Foree is a TV evangelist wing-nut who blames the plague on the Sodom and Gomorrah that the state of Wisconsin has become.
Meanwhile, the mall is run by rent-a-cop fiefdom trio, larrikin security guards who hold the newcomers hostage and don’t recognize the authority of lawman Kenneth. Who can you trust if not those who are ostensibly there to protect the public, even if they are lowly Paul Blart, mall cops?
Nurse Ana performs an ablution in the mall fountain and her practical medical skills come in handy tending to the injured.
All the while, zombies are encroaching, one of which meets its maker with a croquet mallet through the head, the best depiction of the sport of croquet since Heathers.
Search and rescue teams are deployed by the government but it’s all for not. Central authority dissolves and society degenerates into a Hobbesian horror, a life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Still, things could be worse. The mall is equipped with a nice coffee shop, plenty to eat and places to sleep courtesy of a mattress/furniture store. And who knows what’s playing at the multiplex?
In the film’s most human element, the survivors climb to the roof and paint “Help” and “SOS” in large letters, much like the real-life survivors of Hurricane Katrina. And they hold up signs to communicate with a sharpshooting gun-shop owner Andy, who’s too far afield to join them (and they even play remote chess with him to pass the time). Horror films at their best, celebrate ingenuity and the indomitable human spirit.
Polley and Rhames are terrific, as is Jack Weber as the hard-luck, level-headed Best Buy salesman Michael.
Dawn of the Dead is charming, taut, and action-packed with subtext and gore to spare.
**** (out of 5)