Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Dawn of the Dead

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

DAWN OF THE DEAD

4/10

USA 2004 : Zack SNYDER: approx 95-100 mins

Kyle Cooper, The ManOpening-title sequences can be very dangerous things especially if they’re good. Take Wild Wild West: terrific, exhilarating work. Until, that is, the (dire) film actually kicks in. Even with a successful, critically-lauded picture like Se7en, many viewers memories of the phenomenal titles will now be at least as vivid as their recollections of the stygian movie itself. As it turns out, both sets of titles were designed by Kyle Cooper acknowledged in the movie business as the rightful heir to Saul Bass, even if he doesn’t yet have that maestros name-recognition with the wider public.

That isn’t likely to change with the release of Dawn of the Dead, unfortunately, which features Coopers latest mini-masterpiece: brief, jagged images of apocalypse scored to the deliciously doomy-jaunty strains of Johnny Cashs When the Man Comes Around, which we hear in its entirety. (Its actually a much more effective video for Cashs work than Mark Romaneks bombastic, wildly overpraised accompaniment to Cashs final release, Hurt). Fucking hell, the audience thinks what looked like a cheesily opportunistic remake of George Romeros 1979 zombie-classic* might in fact turn out to be a stingingly topical analysis of the millennial, paranoid, Armageddon-haunted American psyche.

But then the film begins, and, sad to say, its just a cheesily opportunistic remake of George Romeros 1979 zombie-classic. All that’s retained in James Gunns screenplay is the basic premise: when an unknown event causes most of the worlds population to turn zombie (though that word is pointedly never mentioned here), a handful of beleaguered survivors take refuge in a huge, faceless suburban shopping mall.

The presence of Kyle Cooper credits isn’t the only aspect of Dawn of the Dead that flatters to deceive. Unlike Romeros zombie trilogy**, there are some name actors here: Mekhi Phifer and Ving Rhames are solid, charismatic performers who lend a touch of class to their scenes. But the real surprise is Canadian arthouse princess Sarah Polley, channelling Jamie Lee Curtis and Terminator IIIs Claire Danes as no-nonsense nurse Anna whose skills prove crucial as the body-count mounts.

Polley, a long way from My Life Without Me, doesn’t get much of a chance to show off her prodigious acting chops she’s ill-served by a very under-developed romance with nerdy-heroic Michael (Jake Weber). Rhames and Phifer aren’t exactly overstretched either Phifer is stuck in one especially anti-climactic (and unbearably sub-Its Alive) set-piece involving a zombie baby. This leaves the way open for some ripe scene-stealing by unknowns Michael Kelly (as balding, moustachioed, amusingly fascistic security guard CJ: Nicky Katt + Peter Sarsgaard) and Ty Burrell (seems to have wandered in from another movie entirely as sardonic yacht-owning lounge-lizard Steven: Justin Theroux + Bill Campbell). Burrells character seems to materialise from nowhere one of many holes (messy post-production) in Gunns colander-like screenplay.

Snyders direction, meanwhile, shows just how very good the likes of Romero and John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13) were with this kind of pulpy material in their 70s-80s heyday. Hes clearly seen Danny Boyles surprise US hit 28 Days Later, and reproduces that films distracting, counter-productive shuttering technique during violent sequences. That isn’t all Dawn borrows from Days whereas Romeros undead shuffled around, these critters can turn on the speed when required. If only the same coule be said of the movie in which they feature: paceless and oddly lacking in suspense, Dawn has barely a couple of genuinely tense scenes in its whole running-time. Theres a rather cheap dog-in-peril sequence (featuring talented canine performer Blu as amiable mongrel Chips) and a civil-disturbance bit where the survivors try to flee the mall in armoured shuttle-buses, only to find themselves in a sea of zombies.

This scene is shot rather like a race-riot, one of a handful of moments where Snyder and Gunn seem to be groping for some kind of deeper political or social angle, only to see it slip through their fingers each and every time. The gore quotient is fairly high, but, apart from one chain-saw mishap, never especially shocking or inventive – despite the presence onscreen of Romeros legendary make-up wizard Tom Savini, one of several gratuitous film-buff in-joke references to the original. Snyder and Gunn unforgivably omit the helicopter decapitation sequence for which the seventies Dawn is most famous – typical of such a lazy, uninspired, predictable cash-in that combines many small missed opportunities into one big missed opportunity. Then again, perhaps its fitting that a film which ranges around a mall should itself be all over the shop.

20th March, 2004
(seen 19th March : Odeon, Gate, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

* Remaking any old movie inevitably triggers a retrospective elevation of the originals status to classic. But Dawn of the Dead has always divided critics. For every David Pirie in Time Out: Undoubtedly the zombie movie to end em all. (A) Bosch-like vision of a society consumed by its own appetites there’s a Danny Peary (Guide for the Film Fanatic): This film fails on all levels… its a dreadful, embarrassing picture by a director who should know better.

** Night of the Living Dead (1968) starred Judith ODea, Duane Jones and Karl Hardman. Day of the Dead (1979) : David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H Reininger. Day of the Dead (1985) : Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joseph Pilato.

by Neil Young