Retro Review: Dawn of the Dead

There are staples of a genre and then there are the immortals. George A. Romero’s 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead” is still one of the greatest horror films of all time. It still holds its own and scares the pants off you with each viewing. It is eternal.

Ten years after that classic, Romero awakened our fears once more with “Dawn of the Dead”. To some people this film is the pinnacle of zombie films and something not to be messed with. That is where my fears came from when I heard they were remaking it. Romero later completed his zombie trilogy with 1985’s “Day of the Dead”.

Those three films were some of the best horror films made in each of those decades. Less than a month after the release of “Day” the zombie genre took a horrible turn.

In August of 1985, a new kind of zombie movie was born. The film was “Return of the Living Dead” which took a lot of what Romero cherished and turned it on its ear by adding a goofy soundtrack, sub-standard heroes and comedic elements. The film was a hit and spawned 2 sequels. The comedy and gore delighted audiences but nearly killed the pure horror of the zombie.

In 1990, Hollywood revisited Romero’s 1968 classic with an incredibly interesting and fear ridden remake. It was an amazing attempt at trying to recapture the fear that Romero thrived in. The film thrived from incredible performances by unknown actors like Tony Todd (who would later become “Candy Man”) and Patricia Tallman (who would later become a regular on “Babylon 5”). It wasn’t as insanely clever, horrific or bold as the original but it was an amazing achievement and seemed to honor more than dismay the Romero classic.

That brings us to 2004 and Hollywood ventures back into Romero territory as it remakes the second in the classic trilogy.

Medical nurse Ana Clark (Sarah Polley) awakens one morning to see her world turned upside down. She is forced to flee her home when her husband Luis (Justin Louis) becomes infected with an unknown contagion which he seems to have contracted from a neighbor’s young girl.

Ana is wrought with horror, shock and bewilderment as she drives away from her home. Eventually Ana reunites with survivors Kenneth (Ving Rhames), Michael (Jake Weber), Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant wife who are also enduring the ordeal of the outbreak.

The ragtag fugitives take refuge in a fortress of glass or to others a huge suburban mall. There they learn about what has happened, who each of them are and eventually plot an escape from the mob of growing zombies.

The 2004 version of “Dawn of the Dead” opens strongly and we are quickly captivated by the wrought but strong performance of Sarah Polley. Sadly her character seems to be the only one we really get to know.

Polley’s supporting characters excluding Ving Rhames and Jake Weber range from “cannon-fodder” to “red-neck” to annoying. I just wanted them all to be gobbled up by the mob. If these are the last of humanity please let us be wiped out.

That is kind of sad to say when capable actors like Mekhi Phifer, Matt Frewer, Lindy Booth and Jayne Eastwood are among them. Phifer has his moments but he seems terminal from his introduction and Frewer doesn’t stick around long enough.

If I were to classify this version of a Romero classic I would have to say that it in-between “Return of the Living Dead” and the 1990 remake. It isn’t by far in the same territory as anything done by Romero but as apocalypse/zombie films it would be a fun matinee movie. Last year’s “28 Days Later” was a far superior horror film than this.

Here’s the Great Zombie Breakdown:

Night of the Living Dead 1968 (5 out of 5)
Dawn of the Dead 1978 (4.5 out of 5)
Day of the Dead 1985 (4 out of 5)
Return of the Living Dead 1985 (3 out of 5)
Return of the Living Dead Part 2 1988 (2 out of 5)
Return of the Living Dead Part 3 (1.5 out of 5)
Night of the Living Dead 1990 (4 out of 5)
Dawn of the Dead 2004 (3.5 out of 5)

What’s your favorite zombie movie?

So Says the Soothsayer.

One thought on “Retro Review: Dawn of the Dead

  1. Being the zombie nut that I am, I didn’t expect to like the “Dawn of the Dead” update (kind of a remake, but not really) as much as I did. There are some issues, like too many characters, and some major changes (i.e., these are speedy zombies, not the lumbering ones from Romero’s films). But I think this one has some merit, particularly the opening sequence, which is thrilling and wonderfully gory, as well as the ending, which stuck with me long after the film ended.

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