Have you ever wanted a fresh start? To live in a shopping mall without needing your credit card? How about if these fantasies and more were writ large in a movie scary enough to remind you how good life is even without forgotten pasts and satiated consumer desires? By the time the opening credits roll, “Dawn of the Dead” (2004) amply demonstrates that it will be the blood-stained, armored bus to get you there. Where “there” is, though, may not suit your –ahem— tastes unless you are a fan of a particular horror sub-genre, the zombie flick.
This remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 sequel to Night of the Living Dead soups up the zombies, takes the gross-factor to eleven, and has a lot of cheeky in-jokes about its predecessor.
The basic plot remains the same. For unknown reasons, people across the country are turning into blood-thirsty, animated corpses with rotting visages only an undertaker could love. The morning after the outbreak of a mysterious “virus”, an unlikely group of humans still capable of thought and speech converge on an empty shopping mall outside Milwaukee to escape the marauding zombies, who were until then the friends, families, neighbors of the survivors. As they fortify their defenses against the peril outside the mall walls, they must also face the threats they pose to one another. Unspecified days pass in a haze of mall enjoyment and zombie sniping until the remaining survivors opt to make a break for the nearby marina in order to escape by boat to a –hopefully—deserted island in Lake Michigan.
Besides the musical touches (ironic mall muzak includes “All by Myself”), the humor in this movie is predominately referential. Fans of Romero’s work will note the cameos by Tom Savini (special effects artist on the 1978 version) as the televised sheriff, Scott Reiniger (who played Roger DeMarco) as the General, and Ken Foree (survivor Peter Washington in the original) as the fire and brimstone preacher. Additionally, mall stores include “Wooley’s Diner” (Wooley was the SWAT team leader in the first version) and “Gaylen Ross” (the actress who played survivor Francine).
In comparison with the original, gone are the shrieking blondes and rampaging looters, while in are smart, controlled Ana (Sarah Polley as a believable nurse not afraid to wield a fire poker) and Kenneth (Ving Rhames) who is exactly the kind of cop you want walking beside you if you are facing scores of the undead. Also gone are the shambling zombies of yore. While they still wander aimlessly for the most part, when properly motivated by the presence of the living, the undead dart across parking lots, run after cars, bash through wooden obstacles, climb fences and dart through doggy doors. The pregnancy of one of the main characters is not the life-giving promise it was in the first movie. But it is in the end that the 2004 version differs most greatly from the original. (Spoiler: audience members looking for a somewhat happy ending will sprint to the exits the moment the final credits begin to roll, thus avoiding the nihilistic epilogue which is interwoven in the credits.)
If you are a fan of the horror genre, much less a “(Noun) of the Dead” fan, then this flick is a welcome, if derivative, fright-fest in the school of Romero’s classics. It is an entertaining enough trip to the kind of horror fantasy land that provides escape from ho-hum routines but ultimately it glorifies the simple pleasures exemplified in the movie’s opening scenes, of coming home from work to Date Night with your spouse, of a dear, precious normal life.
Parents should know that this movie is extremely violent, gory, and scary. Most of the characters die terrible and explicit deaths. The squeamish will be particularly disturbed by a scene of childbirth and the resulting mayhem. Characters amuse themselves by shooting zombies milling in the parking lot around the mall. There are two explicit sexual situations, including a tender one between a married couple.
Families who watch this movie might wish to discuss the different approaches taken by the survivors and the range of choices that they make. Are there times when the moral answer is at odds with the instinct to survive? How would you handle this variance?
While devoid of the aloof sexiness of the vampire or the feral force of the werewolf, the zombie continues to grip the imagination of story tellers and movies on the subject are legion. Families who enjoy this movie should see the 1978 original as well as the other two in the series, Night of the Living Dead and, the weaker, Day of the Dead. 28 Days Later is a tighter movie that deals with the many of the same themes, featuring zombie-like victims of infection. The Evil Dead series featuring zombie-like demons, especially Army of Darkness, is a classic of the genre.
For many more zombie movies, families might refer to this slightly dated but entertaining list from 1932”s White Zombie to 2002’s Resident Evil.
Those who find themselves discussing what they would do to survive in this situation might be interested in reading the humorous Zombie Survival Guide.
Families who are intrigued by similar themes of survivors isolating themselves from the infected and amusing themselves to pass the time, might enjoy The Decameron (mature content), G. Boccaccio’s classic book of 14th century nobles sitting out the plague.