America as Chopping Mall
By Fernando F. Croce

How can I possibly hope to be taken seriously when recommending a movie with drooling zombies and exploding heads as one of the most interesting now playing? Yet that's just what Dawn of the Dead is, a prime example of a genre that I thought was by now deader than the marooned protagonists peopling them -- the political horror movie. In his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, film scholar Robin Wood pinpointed the 1970s as the golden age of the American horror film, a time when the conventions of the genre were used not only to whip up scares, but also to reflect the political and social concerns of the era. In the decade of Vietnam, Nixon, and Watergate, the despair and anger and erosion of values of the nation could be seen in the chainsaw carnage of Leatherface and the stabbings of Michael Myers during Halloween, to mention two of the psychos who stalked the screen throughout those years.

Like practically every other type of art, the horror movie dipped into a creative slump during Reagan's 1980s. What was radicalized the previous decade became circumscribed and commercialized, with the gore amount pumped up and all the implications of criticism ironed out. Hipsters like to remember the shoddiness of any given Friday the 13th installment as '80s nostalgia, but the sad truth is that the degradation of the principles of the horror movie is very much still in full sail -- vide the smirky, hall-of-mirrors knowingness of the Scream series, or, as recently as last year, the disgustingly depoliticized (and just plain disgusting) remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

So I had little hope for the new Dawn of the Dead, another remake of a revolutionary '70s opus for new millennium audiences -- I had already titled my review "Dawn of the Unnecessary Remakes." Compared to George Romero's great 1978 original, the new Dawn is slicker, leaner, faster, less focused and, ultimately, less coherent. Every scare is punched up by high-decibel soundtrack blasts, and the gore (oceans of blood, sawed-off limbs, splattered viscera) is more gross than frightening. And yet, like the recent, underappreciated 28 Days Later and Cabin Fever, the film mines unfashionable gravity by treating the tropes of the genre with respect instead of irony.

Director Zack Snyder, a commercial speedster making his feature debut, sets up the plot in quick, jolting brushes. A young Milwaukee nurse (Sarah Polley) watches helplessly as her husband and daughter rise up from the dead to become flesh-eating zombies, part of an inexplicable plague that is suddenly striking the whole planet. She barely escapes their bites to join a ragtag gang of survivors, including a police officer (Ving Rhames), a sensitive schmo (Jake Weber) and a young street thug (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant wife (Inna Korobkina). Finding refuge in an empty shopping mall, they scramble to figure out some kind of survival plan as more and more hordes of living dead snap and lurch just outside the gates.

Polley, a staple of quirky independent cinema (The Sweet Hereafter, eXistenZ), displays Uma Thurman-style resilience, and Rhames is a reassuring presence in any film, but the power of Dawn of the Dead still lies in George Romero's audacious conceptions. One of American cinema's most political filmmakers (as well as one of its most cutting satirists), Romero used the notion of cannibalizing ghouls to examine the upheavals inherent in the American society, to show the horror deep in the heart of a decaying bourgeoisie. His Dawn of the Dead was a devastating political and moral statement, where audiences were faced with nothing less than the destruction of societal norms and the birth of an alternative America (embodied by the survivors, a black man and a white woman, standing in for two of the most important social movements of the decade).

Even diluted by extraneous characters and wiseass comic relief in James Gunn's updated screenplay, Romero's bold ideas still draw blood. When the opening credits play Johnny Cash's ominously elegiac "The Man Comes Around" over faux-CNN images of zombie attacks, our view of comfy normalcy erodes into apocalyptic dread -- the shopping mall, the Mecca of shiny, all-American consumerism, becomes the emblem for a decadent society devouring itself out. One of the most disappointing aspects of the remake is the faceless aspect of the zombies, compared to Romero's individualized, recognizably human creatures: They are us, we are them. Despite the films' dark humor, their vision is a bleak one.

The new Dawn of the Dead offers several interesting additions to the story (including an interracial couple amid the cornered humans -- the meanings that could be read into their zombified baby are pretty dispiriting) and a pitiless finale that barely skirts nihilism. And why not? In the decades since the original's battlecry, we as a society have gotten more complacent, more rampant in our consumerism, more ignorant of the rest of the world. If the audience I saw the film with (who met every bloody burst with cheery laughter) is any indication, a horror movie, no matter how radical its ideas may be, will always be seen as no more than "just" a horror movie. Right now, however, its shocks are welcome.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on March 22, 2004.

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