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Dawn of the Dead (2004) Review
(Article by Neil Fawcett ©, added 28-Mar-2004)

George Romero's Dawn of the Dead has a special place in my heart. It was the first film I ever saw on video, and quite frankly blew me away with its apocalyptic tale of the dead rising. Now, over twenty five years later, we have James Gunn's re-envisagement of it directed by new comer Zack Snyder. Have the two of them made a good film? Have they produced something comparable to the original master piece? Well I'll answer these questions later; else you might not bother reading on…
First, it must be said that an attempt to remake "Dawn of the Dead" is nothing short of gutsy. Gunn and Snyder must have realised the backlash and negativity they would have to endure, but they went ahead anyway. How could they possibly attempt to reproduce Romero's classic? Well the answer is they didn't try to. Gone is the majority of Romero's story line, so in the end what we are presented with is actually a very different film. And while it is not as intelligent as Romero's original, it is slicker and much faster paced.

So let's cut this film open and look at what's inside. Let's start with one of the corner stones of the film, the zombies. This time around, Snyder has used the effects (and budget) Romero didn't have all those years ago to give us far more gruesome looking zombies. But for all their improved looks (and speed), it's clear that Gunn and Snyder consider their creatures little more than cannon fodder. This is a real shame because on some level they must be considered the true stars of any film of this genre. Yes they are the enemy, and utter monsters, but Romero never painted them in this simple one facetted manner.
Romero's zombies have depth. You can look at them and pity them for what they are, and realise that they were once living people who now had to rot away in this abominable existence. To use a line from Romero's Night of the Living Dead remake, "We're them and they're us." You very rarely saw or felt any of this insight in the remake and the creatures were portrayed simply as monsters to be shot. Nothing more.
The failure to make the dead multi-facetted and interesting, seems to have followed through to the living as well. While the original concentrated on just four characters, we now have over a dozen to worry about. But unfortunately we don't really care about them. There are too many characters, all of which are just underdeveloped. We have the odd glimmer of hope with Kenneth building up a remote relationship with the gun shop owner across the street, Andre's hopes and dreams for his unborn child and Michael talking about his previous life. But on the whole we have just a bunch of stereotypical people that you don't bond with and therefore ultimately don't care about.
Worse still, at times these people just don't behave realistically, and this breaks the final few threads of any belief and therefore any care we have for them. It seems Gunn has not done what Romero managed to do so well in the original. To actually put himself in the situations and make the characters behave in what could be considered a realistic and believable manner. With zombies around, we see characters that are apparently so apathetic to their own survival that they are willing to split up and search locations by themselves. Characters take insane risks for reason that appear to be just to move the script from a to b. If we do not see believable behaviour on the screen, how are we to believe in the premise of the film at all?

Is it all bad? Of course not. Some aspects are glorious. Gunn and Snyder replace Romero's slow build-up by instead launching the audience immediately into the action. The opening ten minutes of the film showing society falling apart are done perfectly, and is probably one of the strongest aspects of the film. Close cut action mixed with aerial shots give a good sense of the devastation and a world spiralling down into mayhem. Unfortunately this pace and quality fades away with much of the middle of the film being little more than mediocre fare. Thankfully the end picks up pace again, even if it does still ultimately fall foul to the slightly unimaginative script that dogs the entire film. But what we are left with is still a composed and solid action film, even if it does lack much of the depth, ingenuity and darkness of the original.

So, to answer my original questions. Is it a good film? Yes, of course it is. Is it comparable to the original master piece? No, of course not. But so what! It's entertaining and a great addition to the genre.

I suspect with this films' success, James Gunn is already beginning to pen "Day of the Dead", with quite possibly even less in common to its original. None the less, given how enjoyable and entertaining his rework of "Dawn" is, you can certainly count me in to see any further jaunts he takes into Romero territory. However, I'd much prefer if George himself was my guide; he seems to know the lay of the land far far better.

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