DOTD - 2004
Review by Norman England

Probably I’m the worst person to review a remake of Dawn of the Dead. As this site shows, I have great fondness for the ‘original’. However, I do like zombie films and welcome any well made entry into this popular, yet quality product deprived genre. Still, a regular zombie entry and a touted DOTD remake are wholly different beasts. And, thus, I should be upfront with my overall reaction to the film: I hated it. So, if you’re one of those who thought it was “awesome-dude” and just want something to confirm why it was so “awesome-dude,” I suggest you stop reading. However, if you care to read on, I think you may come to see that once the flash and slickness is removed from the equation you’ll agree that there is not much substance to be found within this so-called remake, re-tooling, re-imagining, whatever.

With that said…

For starters, the film’s opening: Sorry, but DOTD is a middle chapter; it starts amidst the chaos of the situation. The very essence of DOTD is the beginning with its mad panic portral of society as it is experiencing its death throws; this is further compounded by the human reaction to the situation, which demonstrates how bad, ingrained habits only manage to escalate the problem. All this is perfectly delivered in the original DOTD during its initial sequence where workers, media heads and government officials are explosively brought together. In the new film we get, what? A nurse getting off work, a couple of foreboding legs sticking out of an ambulance and then a “humanizing” moment with a neighborhood girl who can skate backwards. Ho-hum stuff that is fairly narrow envisioning when placed side by side against the original. Actually, I found it is less Romero, and more Stephen King in approach, and bad King at that.

The next scene, too, makes as much sense as storing a pound of butter in the glove compartment of a truck during the height of summer. Things are done not so much in accordance with story, but simply to jolt the audience. That is, after main character Ana falls asleep with her husband and he later wakes to find the infected girl Vivian, rather than dash at him as zombies do later, the girl simply holds back at the door.

Other than an attempt at building viewer tension, I can’t imagine why she would hold back, as zombies are soon established to be berserk creatures that waste not a moment dashing for human flesh. While “shocking” to see the girl hanging half-lit in the shadows, it ultimately lessens the value of the film as a whole by being inconsistent with itself. And so, in this way, the film right away establishes itself as a self-conscious effort seeking little more than to be a stylish shock inducer.

To reaffirm this, the same sort of thing happens following Ana’s attack by her revived hubby. After picking herself up, she creeps to the bathroom door to listen to what he’s up to in the next room. Just when she gets to the door—*BAM*—he dramatically bursts through the wood. Sorry, but not only is it the same sort of production-calculated behavior as seen from the girl zombie moments earlier, it introduces zombies as being oddly super human as even a normal human male would have trouble busting through this sort of a wood barrier in this manner.

Ultimately, it is inconsistencies such as these done simply for the purpose of visual shocks that dilute the film’s ability to survive past a single viewing. And these scenes, like so many more to come, illustrate that the film is designed to be nothing more than the cinematic version of a carnival spook ride for Saturday night moviegoers searching for a couple of jolts to remind them that they themselves are alive and not members of the living dead.

Following this we are given scenes in Ana’s neighborhood as she comes to witness the end of civilization. These scenes are not bad (nice wide-angle pan), yet show no sense of societal scale and only demonstrate more of what a missed opportunity this film is. Even the original DOTD with its small budget tried to show more than the meager corner of a suburban track, as the raid on apartment complex 107 proves with its scenes of SWAT officers against zombies. And even the low budget 28 Days Later ambitiously placed itself in the middle of England’s largest city. What do we get here? A car crash and an aerial shot with CG smoke snaking into the air throughout a middle American town. The whole thing looked less apocalyptic and more like a neighborhood barbecue gone bad.

The arrival to the mall is so lame I don’t even know where to begin. “We’re going to the mall,” the ever somber character Michael says. Then the camera sweeps up over a hill and there it is: The Mall! Now, where did this come from? Seemed to me that was the road Ana had just driven down.

Next, we’re shown the mall in a low, sweeping pull in that seems to be attempting to say something. Yet, in interviews before the film’s release, the filmmakers announced that they felt what with the original DOTD having said what needed to be said about such malls in American society they weren’t going to try. Then why the half-assed attempt? Which is it? It seems to me that they tried, found it didn’t work, and so took the stance later on that they didn’t even bother. Has spin doctoring finally arrived into the vernacular of cinematic jargon?

Anyway, we get to the mall. More characters are introduced. And then more characters. This wouldn’t be so bad except all focus gets lost. Who is who and what is going on in the story’s center is lost. Characters appear only when needed to drop in another calculated jolt into the film’s mix, such as with the pregnant Luda. So, there’s a nurse there and she never once goes to check on her progress? What was she doing all the time if not helping this woman in her advanced state of pregnancy? And this, too, was another problem for me. I could never figure out the time frame in the film. Were they in the mall for a couple of days, a week, a month, half a year? At times it seemed like they’d been there a while, but then they would go and talk about the situation from the most basic, beginning point.

This leads to my overall gripe with the movie: that the characters never speak in a realistic way. For example, when the mall security guys demand that the newcomers give up their weapons and then later on lock them up, there is hardly any protest other than burning stares. I don’t know; if I were in the same situation I’d be going on how we aren’t the enemy and that we should band together. (Didn’t the filmmakers watch NOTLD? Remember: “Those people aren’t our enemies.”) It wasn’t as if the security trio was wrong, just that they were scared and most likely reacting out of fear, which they were trying to hide through macho posturing. And if this weren’t the case and they truly were just plain assholes, at least if Ana and the bunch had attempted to talk it out then we as audience members would have felt that all options had been explored before the group succumbed to their jerkiness. Again, this was simply another weak excuse to create tension. For an example of how to do this type of thing correctly, look at the original. It managed to have a normal amount of tension without relying on scripting tricks to do so. Fran was pregnant, they were in the mall, should they stay or should they go? The tension came from the basic fact that people desire different things out of life. The original group had tension, but not more so than was needed and certainly not forced in the way DOTD 04 is.

To expound on this, also frustrating is the lack of communicating that goes on. That is, while the characters talk, they don’t communicate. No one asks what is going on, they simply stare at the TV broadcasts passively and afterward say nothing about what they have just seen other than picking up the phrase “twitcher”, which again just shows that the film is trying to be more style than substance.

When the last group makes it to the mall is when the film utterly collapses. First, they let in a woman who looks like a bloated drowning victim, which only manages to demonstrate that they still hadn’t put two and two together and that the dead have risen. Again, what are they doing with their time if not analyzing what is going on? And why wasn’t this even addressed on the TV except as a posed question in the opening credits? There was the bit about the brain shot being the only way to kill them, yet it never seemed odd that this was the only way to kill someone? Look at the original NOTLD, doctors figured it out right away based on corpses in hospitals and morgues and the information got out on the very first night of the crisis. Here, it happens, there are news reports and then the reports go off the air without any explanation as to what is happening. It seems like the real shocker is supposed to be not that the living dead have come back to life, but that our precious TV is going off the air—inconceivable!

And what’s this with that shot woman who doesn’t come back to dead-life. Now, what is that? So, are these people really zombies? Or, are they sick people? And, in this vein, at a location seemingly removed from the thick of the city, how did everything in the beginning become overrun as quickly as it did? That is, if it were just plain dead people maybe I could see this, but if it’s a bite that causes the resurrection then it would take a lot longer to catch hold. Twisting things creatively is not a bad thing, but giving nothing but unanswered questions in replace, especially ones that you can’t figure out in anyway, is a jip.

Pretty much for me the film flattens out in the mall. And it seems that this wasn’t missed by the filmmakers either, thus the inclusion of the “oh my god the lights went out and we have to get to the breaker box that just so happens to be located in a spooky lower level of the parking lot” scene. Here, too, we get the obligatory “menace in the dark, which proves to be unfounded and then turns out to be a real threat” scene seen repeatedly in horror films. Well, at least someone finally gets sucked into a group of zombies. Feeding scene time! No—but wait—nothing comes of it! He’s eaten off screen. Where’s the feeding scene?

And this leads to another complaint. Now it’s out that we’ll be getting all the ‘good stuff’ on the ‘unrated DVD’. (I’ve bitched about this before and so why stop now?) What’s the point? If it’s about censorship, then censor it and ‘protect’ the public. Don’t censor the film in the theater and then release it uncut on video. What kind of a half-assed measure is this? I mean, if the point is to keep such sights away from minors it seems to me that it is much easier to sneak a viewing of a DVD than it is to sneak into a theater. Studios complain about dropping attendance in the theater, so how is it going to help ticket sales if people are paying knowing that they are seeing a trimmed down feature? Basically, it just sounds like these extended director cuts have gone from being viable alternatives to ways in which to sell the same product over again with the MPAA now a tool to ensure that there will be two, marketable versions. The original DOTD faced this same hurdle, yet creatively opted for a self-imposed ‘X’ in order to get around the puritanical and wholly inconsistent MPAA. Sure, DVD and video releases weren’t a consideration back then, but the point is that DOTD bucked the system and it was still successful. This is the legacy of DOTD.

DOTD 04 also does my most hated thing in a film: Has a character do something utterly dumb. I’m talking about when Nicole goes to save the dog. I’m sorry, this is another older than the hills trick to not only establish who is good and bad in the group, but to drop characters into the thick of things. So, what happens? A bunch of people die trying to save one person who really doesn’t deserve to be saved because they made a totally illogical life decision.

And then what do they do? They all go across the street to save her and leave the one guy who has been nothing but trouble in charge of the mall? But, this guy was simply the obligatory asshole anyway and not really a character.

And, you know, the more I write this, the more I realize that I can’t even figure out who or what this film is about. Is it about dead people coming back to life? Is it about people trying to survive in the aftermath of the apocalypse? Is it an illustration of how people can’t get along? Is it about the will to survive in the face of a futureless future? Any good film has a deeper meaning whether obvious or not. Sometimes this meaning is totally buried. But buried or not, that there is a deeper meaning adds to the beef and leaves the audience feeling that, as with real life, there is something inexplicable beneath the surface. With DOTD 04, one never gets the feeling that anything more is happening than what is on the screen at any particular moment. But that’s OK. When all you’re trying to do is ape video game narrative for a target audience that has had its artistic value sense reared on TV commercials and music videos then the decision to go with a director of such fare makes more and more sense.

I had heard much about this film’s “awesome” zombie makeup. Sorry, but it’s all just more goo tossed on the face. There is no personality anywhere. Tom Savini may not be the greatest effect’s man in the world, but he has his own style and he knows how to give a zombie personality. I saw nothing of this in this film and still feel that Day of the Dead remains the greatest film in terms of the look of zombies.

As for the ending of the film, this too is as puzzling as the rest of the movie. OK. Cool. Let’s go to an island. Not such a bad idea, but when you think about it they should have done a lot more before embarking on such a risky endeavor. (And did you watch the scene in which they decide to go to the island? It made no sense and relied strictly on the posturing of Ving Rhames to pull it off.) How about waiting a few months to see if the dead deteriorate? How about developing the resources the mall has to offer a bit more? How about a rescue attempt of the man across the street? And why did they leave the boat keys with Steve? Wouldn’t that have been a coveted item? (Again, another superfluous trick to create tension.) And how did they know which boat was his once they got there? Unanswered questions are nothing new, and many good films often break the rules of reality, but it was like the filmmakers just had a goal in mind and didn’t even bother to think it through past the surface, which is a common affliction of films whose overall aim is flash.

So, in the end, what we are given is a film that loudly announces that in the twenty-six years since DOTD’s release the only thing that has improved is film stock, filmmaking savvy, and the ability to edit films more precisely with the audio. This new entry to the Romero zombie world is without a doubt the weakest so far. There is nothing smart about the film, and in fact, it demonstrates director Zack Snyder’s background of music video proves detrimental to the movie, a film that will be placed within a series known for its ability to transcend the genre.

OK. I guess you can say that it is easy for me to bitch about this film and nothing more. Sorry, but I would want a DOTD remake to be great and to go further than the original. Even if you depart from the basic story, there is so much more that can be done with the premise. For example, how about getting the military involved? What if the US military used the mall as a base of operations? This would be such a powerful metaphor about how US militarism is often simply a tool used to open opportunities for US businesses in areas that have chosen for whatever reasons (often religious and/or traditional) to remain closed. Think, too, what kind of a battle could be had if a group of citizens were to stumble into the mall under the control of such a military group. It would be like Day meets Dawn taken to the umpteenth degree.

So, there you go. Another watered down Hollywood remake that tries to wow audiences with techniques gleamed from TV commercials and music videos. But what the hell do I know? I’m just a guy who runs a homepage about Dawn of the Dead. It’s not like I have my own plans to buck the system with my own films in the way that the original Dawn of the Dead taught me.

Zombie Farm rating: Better Luck Next Time

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