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October 23rd, 2013


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09:50 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: Dawn of the Dead
A couple of weeks ago, my Least-Favorite Coworker launched into an impromptu rant about Walking Dead, a show that he's trying to like in spite of its implausibility. "Zombies, man!" he said. "How do they work? I mean, when you chop their limbs off, the blood doesn't pump. The heart isn't working to power the organic process. That's like, the most obvious detail and they missed it."

I can't address Walking Dead. I've seen the first two episodes and made a mental note to check it out, but this was around the time that the plot had stalled (something about people being stuck in a well?), and people who'd been recommending it were disgustedly telling me not to bother. That was a couple of years ago, and all of those people are avid fans again, but the warning has stuck with me; I haven't bothered.

So anyway, I don't know if the zombies' hearts are pumping in Walking Dead, but I've seen plenty of zombie movies where they do work. It's not something I look for--it has more to do with memorable special effects. I remember scene from something where the lower half of a body stomps around while a vein, poking out of the top of the hips, erupts intermittent--wait a second. It's the lower half of the body, so there's no reason blood would be pumping through it. Oh, well. Where was I?

Oh, zombie movies. Last night the group that I watch movies with on Tuesday nights was considering either of the two versions of Dawn of the Dead, and settled on the remake. I was more interested in watching the original, but they're long movies, and the 2004 remake is shorter. I wasn't annoyed.

But it's been a long time since I've seen either movie; probably haven't seen the original in eight or ten years. The remake holds up well enough, though, but it's a different type of movie.

Both versions take different roads to get there, but Dawn of the Dead as you may recall, is The One Where They're Trapped In a Mall. As the remake opens, a nurse named Ana (Sarah Polley) is finishing up a longer shift than she was scheduled for. In the background, we hear doctors discussing a patient with an unusual infection. We don't think much of it, and neither does Ana. She goes home, greets the neighbor kid, and falls asleep with her husband. The next morning her husband wakes to see the kid standing in the doorway to the bedroom, her face dripping blood. She attacks him, and a few minutes later he's mindlessly and ravenously attacking Ana, who has to escape through a bathroom window and lock herself into her car as her husband beats on the windshield with his fist. She pulls the car out of the driveway, knocking him off the hood, but he keeps up with her for a block or so, finally noticing a neighbor and veering off to attack her. Ana exhales, sits back, and starts to appreciate that her Milwaukee suburb seems to be on fire. People are attacking each other, guns are being fired, and emergency vehicles are plowing into pedestrians on their way elsewhere. A policeman tries to commandeer her car, and Ana ends up driving off the highway, down a hill, and into a tree. When she comes to, a policeman (different one this time) is pointing a gun in her face. "Say something", he says. "Please," says Ana. He doesn't shoot her.

The policeman is Kenneth (Ving Rhames), and walk together, eventually encountering a TV salesman named Michael (Jake Weber), a hoodlum named Andre (Mekhi Phifer, and Andre's pregnant wife, Luda (Inna Korobkina). Nobody knows what is going on, but they know they need shelter, and a nearby mall seems as safe a place as any.

The mall is mostly deserted. There are a few zombies around on the first floor, so our heroes go up to the second floor, where they encounter a trio of security guards, led by CJ, who takes their guns and locks them in a home furnishings store, where they get to use the nice beds, but there's no working toilet. The next morning, they overpower CJ, and help a truckload of survivors to get inside. Over the next few days, they form bonds and discover another survivor: Andy, the owner of the gun shop across the street. They communicate with Andy via dry-erase board, and generally spend their time finding ways to spend their time, which becomes more difficult than you'd expect. Meanwhile, the animated dead are coming to the mall in droves and hanging around in the parking lot, moaning and bumping into each other, and occasionally trying to kill somebody.

I really haven't spent much time on the zombies, have I? Okay. Zombification in this movie is spread as an infection; a zombie bites you, you die sooner or later, and then you start moving again, or as one character describes it, "they all... sort of... fell down, and then... got up and... started eating each other." The zombies in the original movie were slow, lumbering things that couldn't navigate an escalator, but the remake makes them fast, and a little bit smarter. People who care about zombie movies seem endlessly to debate the relative merits of fast zombies and slow ones. I... whatever. I don't care.

Anyway, the plague eventually makes its way into the mall; some of the survivors have been bitten, and eventually they turn. Luda's pregnancy doesn't go well. Realizing that they can't stay in the mall forever, our heroes formulate an escape plan which involves a heavily modified bus. But it's a zombie movie, so you more or less know that everybody's going to die at the end--sorry.

On its own, Dawn of the Dead is a slick horror movie. It's well executed by director Zack Snyder and writer James Gunn (who was responsible for last week's Slither). It presses the right buttons and knows how to manipulate a scare without devolving too much into cliches. It doesn't compare well to the original, however. It's gorier and more realistic, and Zack Snyder is frankly a better director than George A. Romero, but the original film tells a much better story.

The zombies are the primary threat of both films, of course, but Romero's film is more concerned with the conflict among the healthy characters than Snyder's is. Snyder and Gunn build the odd bit of tension occasionally, but always suddenly diffuse it with no effort. CJ starts out a bad guy, but becomes a team player with no warning and for no reason, and everyone accepts it. This is poor plotting; the character changes without any development. In fact, I've just realized that I named a bunch of important characters a few paragraphs ago, and the only one I've returned to is Luda, who could be removed from the film without much impact.

Don't misunderstand--Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead is a good zombie movie--the action, the scares, and the special effects are all excellent. But the original tells a much more complex story. Romero used the zombie apocalypse as a MacGuffin to pit two warring factions against each other; Snyder's film is simply about Us vs. Them, and I don't have a lot of damn to give about the Us.

Click here to watch the trailer.

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31 Days of Halloween: Dawn of the Dead - Garmonbozia for the soul.

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