31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 24 – No More Room in Hell – Dawn of the Dead (2004/dir. Zack Snyder/USA)

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween.

You know, there’s easily a margin that people hold accountable for remakes. Particularly horror remakes, which practically need a damned handicap these days. And particularly horror remakes of beloved classics. It is very easy for these types of movies to tumble and fall over on their ass. Especially in the hands of directors that don’t have an outstanding track record or simply have been plucked out of a hat of commercial or music video directors like Zack Snyder has been (the lackluster track record would only occur later in his career, given that this is his debut feature).

It’s a fucking miracle that the remake of Dawn of the Dead is actually good. Like actively worth a damn. It’s actually pretty depressing that it needs to live in the original’s shadow.

In addition to being a decent (if not great) zombie movie that can stand on its own from the original Dawn of the Dead, it is also possibly the only Zack Snyder movie that doesn’t feel like a Zack Snyder (or at least I could say so a year ago if Man of Steel didn’t exist now). It’s not ramped-up in fps speed (we get bits of slow motion here and there, but you don’t notice it unless you actively look for it), it’s not filled with actors who don’t know a damn thing about their characters, it’s not repetitive surprisingly nor laced in CG, it doesn’t pretend it is anything more than it actually is. In fact, the only things I can particularly think of that fit into the Snyder repertoire is the filtering out the hell out of the picture to give it a more sickly, grungy look (cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti) and the soundtrack based on music I’m guessing Snyder happens to like – both which actually work out splendidly here as opposed to in Snyder’s other films.

It is the movie that promised a director who could prove to be a competent storyteller, a competent acting director, a competent action visionary, a competent creator of atmosphere and so much more and it sucks that instead what we got for the following ten years since Dawn of the Dead was fucking Zack Snyder.

But anyway, Dawn of the Dead is what we are to talk about and Dawn of the Dead we shall.

So, it’s a regular nice ol’ day in the Ontorio neighborhood when suddenly shit starts falling apart… and coming back to life… and eating each other to death. A certain group of characters ends up meeting together by fate and decide to go to the nearby mall to hole up where they encounter other survivors.

Among our fabulous cast of characters:
Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse
Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a cop – very obviously named after Ken Foree, the afro-american star of the original film with similar physique to Rhames and also playing a police officer.
Michael (Jake Weber), a down-on-his-luck loser who is just trying to survive
CJ (Michael Kelly), the trigger-happy intense security guard of the mall
Andre (Mekhi Pfifer), a former gangbanger taking care of his pregnant wife Luda (Inna Korobkina)
and then a bunch of other disposable characters.

Because the truth is that the movie’s script (written by James Gunn) is quite unwieldy in some manners of respect. We quickly get a large load of characters that even the most skilled director-writer team would not be able to handle and its very easy to identify them all as cannon fodder. Moments are inconsistent in terms of tone and characters in terms of attitude and motivation. A forced romance occurs and characters suddenly switch attitudes without any catalyst. What makes it honestly work is the assembly of actors who actually make the characters real, even when they’re spitting out dialogue that’s easy to write and hard to say. Polley, Weber, a pre-Modern Family Ty Burrell and Pfifer, among a few others ground their characters to  some basic empathetic scenarios… though they still have to deal with a lion’s share of heavy dialogue and illogical decisions, we can at least buy it for a few seconds until after the movie’s done with them. Rhames is not realistic so much as he is just a bonafide badass trying to give his lines more and more of a “do-not-fuck-with-me-even-though-I-sound-like-a-fucking-idiot” attitude and it works. Michael Kelly is the only actor whose character arguably has an arc (or it might be that they just decided two assholes was harder to manage than one and made him more sympathetic in the latter half). With one of them being in a number of scenes I’d be able to count on my hand while cutting fingers off and the other having that many lines, Matt Frewer and Bruce Bohne become the most involving performances in the film (Frewer is my favorite, being an absolutely devastated but front-providing rock for his daughter). The rest of the characters and performances are take them as you get them.

What I do of course give the film’s script is that it’s mainly no-nonsense about what it’s trying to say in each scene. While this movie completely disregards George Romero’s original satire about consumerism, it at least is obvious why each scene is there to be able to build up to the next scenario and the next scenario, so we get a false plot rather than an actual one. Momentum stopping moments do of course occur, namely during dialogue scenes where a character deliberately states what kind of person he is or what his situation is.

But for what it’s worth, the movie uses the modern running, snarling zombie in the best ways I’ve seen since 28 Days Later…. These zombies provide for some really kinetic and tense action scene moments that seem like what The Walking Dead was aiming for if he used its budget as wisely as the producers of this film did. And we do, by the end of the film, get a sense of a lifetime spent in a mall surrounded by the undead, so we do get some kind of sense of familiarity and unending terror within the film (the actual ending of the film, though, sort of finite rather than destitute and it probably would have been destitute if it had ended with what we got before the ending credits).

It’s not even close to flawless cinematically honestly. Some actors still don’t feel as fulfilling in their roles as we’d wish they had been. There are still some actions scenes that don’t feel as fluid with the editing style Snyder decided to go with for this film. But these are all pretty much rookie mistakes and to Snyder’s credit, he was a rookie with this film. And he hurdled over other rookie mistakes as well.

The biggest one he avoided being making a zombie flick that is completely generic, boring, and uninteresting among the rest of the white noise. Which he fucking didn’t do at all. It’s not just saturday night background noise, Dawn of the Dead is some prime shit for anybody who is just looking for a Saturday night movie to check out.

If you don’t have the original Dawn of the Dead, that is… Which, I’d recommend you watch the original Dawn of the Dead all the fucking time.

But this remake is pretty cool too.

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