Faster off dead

Dawn of the Dead

Keanu Reeves takes on the persona of an older black man in <i>Speed VII: Revenge of Citifare</i>.

Keanu Reeves takes on the persona of an older black man in Speed VII: Revenge of Citifare.

Rated 4.0

When I heard they were going to remake and revise George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, one of my favorite horror films, my heart sank. When I heard the remake would be helmed by a first-timer best known for TV commercials (shades of Michael Bay) and written by the dickweed who penned the Scooby Doo movie, my heart, still in its sunken position, threw a little temper tantrum, kicking at my stomach and cursing out my liver. This movie was going to blow.

Against incredible odds, the new Dawn of the Dead instantly establishes itself as one of the great horror remakes, right alongside John Carpenter’s rethinking of The Thing, that crazy-assed blood-fest redo of The Blob, and Philip Kaufman’s go at Invasion of the Body Snatchers. For zombie film lovers who were intrigued, but not completely blown away, by last year’s decent 28 Days Later, Dawn delivers the awesome sickness.

Director Zack Snyder doesn’t ignore all the elements of Romero’s classic. Survivors still head to the mall for shelter, cannibal zombies can only be dispatched through major brain trauma, and the cause of the undead phenomenon is still unexplained. That’s pretty much it for comparisons to the original because this one goes off on its own tangent. Watching it, I was reminded of James Cameron’s Aliens, where he managed to be respectful of Ridley Scott’s original vision while amping up the action and scares.

Let’s face it: Slow, lumbering zombies just wouldn’t cut it with today’s audiences. A brisk walking pace would be enough to put considerable yardage between a potential victim and the undead seeking to make them dinner. Movie hecklers would have a field day with that one. Running, screaming zombies that sound like sickly cheetahs are the zombie wave of the future, a notion introduced by Danny Boyle with 28 Days Later.

A 10-minute pre-credit sequence introduces us to Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse who sees a few unusual bite victims during her overlong dayshift and thinks nothing of it. On her way home, she ignores urgent-sounding messages on the radio to find some decent music. She misses urgent messages yet again, this time on TV, as she gets some hot loving in the shower. When her lover has an unfortunate encounter with a little girl neighbor the following morning, Ana can no longer ignore the problem.

This opening sequence is great movie making. Further proof that this film is one gloriously sick puppy is the use of an apocalyptic Johnny Cash song over the opening credits. Hearing the newly dead Johnny over a montage of zombies causing world havoc is a super-creep inducer and a sly musical choice. Speaking of credits, do not leave during the closing ones, for you will miss a lot. Let’s just say the film doesn’t cop out with happy endings.

The film looks great, shot by veteran cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti (he shot the 1979 bike race classic Breaking Away the year after Romero’s original was released). Snyder makes a great move by casting Polley and Ving Rhames as a grouchy policeman. Such credibility makes the moments where characters do stupid things, such as walking into dark corridors alone, all the more fun.

This one is already a mega hit and could pave the way for Romero’s long awaited fourth zombie film, Dead Reckoning. I’d be curious to see if Romero, given the chance to make another zombie film, would have his ghouls trudging around like drunken sailors or running at top speed like crazed Beatles fans.

As for gore, this film has plenty of it, though it skimps on the bone-gnawing grotesqueness created by make-up artist Tom Savini for Romero’s Dawn and Day of the Dead. Fear not gore fans, for the unrated and bloodier DVD version has already been announced.