Tuesday, October 16, 2007

DAWN OF THE DEAD-ish (2004)


Going back to James Gunn, the writer probably thought that it was a privilege and an honor when he was tabbed to rewrite George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, an opportunity to do right by the undisputed King of the Dead.

Of course, he didn’t factor in the legion of Deadheads who would set about gnashing their clothes and rending their teeth that the dude behind the Scooby Doo adaptations was set on reimaging the holiest of holies. Who would think that some folks would get so upset over a 25-year-old zombie flick? Hell, some of the nattering nabobs weren’t even born when the original DAWN OF THE DEAD first hit the screens of the mall multiplex.

I recall that internet death threats were involved at points, because dude… people are that stupid, and inevitably stupid people say and do stupid things over stupid things.

Of course, these are the same folks that didn’t bother to support Romero when LAND OF THE DEAD came out because they heard it wasn’t all that good. They’d wait until the DVD came out, they typed as the intertubes crackled with betrayal. Romero had let them down, the bastard. Six months later they probably typed the name of the movie into a P2P and downloaded it. Way to show the support.

But then, the trailer hit the screens. As it unreeled, it was interesting enough. Tantalizingly ominous, but on the whole nothing special. But then as the trailer ended with a girl blacking out the screen with a can of spray paint, the film reel burned away to leave blank screen... a momentary blank screen, as the shadows of the dead lurched up from behind and began to paw at the fabric.

Now that was a fucking trailer. And with that small but decidedly awesome stroke of creativity, the remake suddenly seemed in good hands. Promising, even.

And for the most part, that promise was kept.

Not so much a remake as an homage to the genre, DAWN OF THE DEAD 2.0 opens with a tepid bit of character development that explodes into one of the most satisfying ten minutes of pre-opening credits in horror, as seemingly overnight the world dies. And then gets back up and starts gnawing on those that missed the first round of dying. And of course, when there is no more room in Hell and the dead walk the Earth, the survivors hit the mall. Because that’s where the goodies were in 1978 and still were in 2004.

That’s pretty much where the remake ends. After that it’s a well-executed zombie thriller that just happens to take place in a mall.

The bad news is the relative weakness of what follows the first ten minutes and a fantastic credits sequence featuring Johnny Cash's sepulchral voice. Granted, a very hard act to follow. Although a lot could have happened between the first draft Gunn turned in, then the one Michael Tolkin handed over to Scott Frank to doctor up and hand to director Zack Snyder. But James Gunn got sole writer credit for the final result, which means that he gets all the blame for everything script-related. Although Tolkin wrote the plodding DEEP IMPACT and Frank was responsible for the plothole-driven MINORITY REPORT, so there you go...

Doesn’t being a screenwriter sound like fun?

Most of the narrative drift involves plot holes one could drive a city bus through and random contrivances that threaten to derail the whole project. One has to admire Snyder's ability to keep things cracking at a pace that demands that the viewer not notice the complete lack of internal logic until after leaving the theater.

However, the frightened mall rats here are a loosely sketched lot of stereotypes: the feisty heroine, the taciturn black cop, the nice guy, blah, blah, blah.

In other words, almost no one here inspires empathy, thus serving as nothing more than zombie fodder. Almost… because Gunn also throws a wholly unexpected character into the mix called CJ (played by Michael Kelly).

At first, CJ comes across as yet another stereotype in a morass of stereotypes. Yet another swaggerin’ baseball- capped redneck with a mustache, a slow-talkin’ peckerwood wearing the loser badge of mall security… and using that small authority suddenly writ large to play God when the shit hits the fan.

The thing is, the damned asshole grows on you. And even better, the character rewards the warmth by confounding expectations. Weirdly enough, the ostensible villain of the piece is the only character who is actually given an character arc. Bloody brilliant.

Admittedly, while replacing the social satire of the original with the equivalent of dead-baby jokes (both figuratively and literally); the script does manage to maintain the uneasy balance of being both scary and funny at the same time.

But as an immediate horror show experience, it does its job and does it rather well. Any weaknesses are more than adequately balanced by several well-crafted setpieces, and the occasional sly bits of irony. My favorite being the survivors on the roof of the mall being ignored by a military helicopter flying over... a helicopter that looks suspiciously like the one parked on the front lawn of the White House during the opening credits.

And then the DVD hit the shelves and… holy shit.

Of course we know that she made it out of the bus unbitten... as we learned from LAND OF THE DEAD, the belly-button ring is the first thing the zombies go for.

The DVD of DAWN OF THE DEAD is exactly what I expect a DVD to be but rarely ever see. Of course the gore was juiced up. That’s to be expected in a sane and rational world.

But what I didn’t expect is to get two short films that expand on the premise of the feature. One of them is rudimentary, but still packing a small wallop of its own. It's a video diary of the last days of doomed gunstore owner Andy, trapped across the block and starving to death, separated by a sea of dead, pissed-off flesh from the other survivors.

Of course, doomed is a relative term in a world where most deaths are rewarded by living death.

The second bonus feature is the most rewarding, a as-it- happens live feed from a local news desk as the world slowly decays outside the barred studio doors. It’s cracker-jack apocalyptic stuff that transcends the obvious breadcrumb budget, a taste of what we zombiphiles have frequently been promised but have never received… a fullscale epic account of the world dying and then slowly shambling to its collective feet.

Now, if all three pieces were all edited together and tweaked a little…

1 comment:

ARBOGAST said...

I didn't bother with the featurettes on the DAWN OF THE DEAD disc but I agree with you 100% (and that never happens on the relative merits of the feature itself. I keep meaning to go back and rewatch the remake but I'm expecting my attention to derail once they truck in the fat lady in the wheelbarrow. Who thought that was a good idea?