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(2004) (Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames) (R)

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Horror: Various survivors join forces in a shopping mall when deadly zombies overrun their town.
Ana (SARAH POLLEY) is a hospital worker whose life is shattered when zombies suddenly overrun her Wisconsin town. Having survived an attack that's left her husband as a zombie, she joins forces with policeman Kenneth (VING RHAMES), salesman Michael (JAKE WEBER), and Andre (MEKHI PHIFER) and Luda (INNA KOROBKINA) who are expecting their first child at any minute.

They seek refuge in an apparently abandoned shopping mall but then run into head security guard CJ (MICHAEL KELLY) and his minions Terry (KEVIN ZEGERS) and Bart (MICHAEL BARRY) who aren't pleased to have outsiders intruding upon their fortress.

With the zombies apparently unable to penetrate the mall's locked doors, the small group of survivors paints SOS symbols on the roof where they notice Andy (BRUCE BOHNE), a lone survivor on top of another building. When they realize that they're never going to receive any outside help, the group must decide what to do.

Other survivors then arrive at the mall, including the sarcastic Steve (TY BURRELL), dog lover Nicole (LINDY BOOTH), Tucker (BOYD BANKS), Frank (MATT FREWER) and others. When some of them turn out to be infected by zombie bites, the group realizes their security is jeopardized. From that point on and with the growing mass of zombies only intensifying outside the mall, the group must decide what to do next to survive.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
I never thought I'd use the words "zombie" and "renaissance" in any piece of writing, let alone the same sentence, but there seems to be a zombie renaissance occurring in today's movies. In the past few years we've had the undead appear in both "The Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Haunted Mansion," while more traditional ones have dominated the proceedings in "Resident Evil," "Ghosts of Mars," "House of the Dead," "Cabin Fever" and "28 Days Later." I'm not sure what cultural phenomenon is stirring them up, but there's no denying that horror movies in general are enjoying an upswing in popularity nowadays.

Of course, the great granddaddy of them all was George Romero who unleashed his "...of the Dead" films on the unsuspecting and then eager masses over four decades. Starting and ending with the 1968 and 1990 version of "Night of the Living Dead," he then made the subpar "Day of the Dead" in 1985 and the cult classic "Dawn of the Dead" in 1978.

The latter combined horror and comedy/social satire into a frothy mix that captured the hearts (when not trying to tear them out via fright) of horror fans worldwide as it focused on a small group of survivors who hole themselves up in a shopping mall and try to avoid the lumbering undead. While not up there with the likes of "The Exorcist" in being a true classic of the genre, there's no denying that the film was and is a smartly crafted and rather entertaining guilty pleasure.

In keeping with said renaissance, Romero's zombies just keep coming in the 2004 re-envisioning of "Dawn of the Dead." Based on Romero's film, writer James Gunn (the "Scooby-Doo" films) and first-time director Zack Snyder (of TV commercial fame) have tried to recapture the horror comedy mix of the original while updating both the title characters and the filmmaking techniques used to create and capture them on film.

The result -- while clearly not for all viewers -- is an entertaining, amusement park type cinematic ride filled with enough chills, thrills and yes, some big laughs, to appease those looking for exactly this sort of movie offering.

As was the case the first time around, there's very little explanation concerning the how's and why's regarding the zombies and their actions. Instead, we're immediately thrust into the action -- much like Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" -- and the film never really lets up until the last credit rolls (stick around because the end of the story doesn't occur until those very last frames).

Considering the plethora of such films of late, I wasn't exactly thrilled with the prospect of catching this flick in the theaters. Yet, I have to admit that I rather enjoyed the experience, while obviously noting its built-in limitations. Some moments -- including the first attack -- are truly quite creepy if not downright scary -- and much of the film has that same black comedy aura to it as do the two "Final Destination" films. Like those efforts, the filmmakers seem to revel in their jolting, sick-humor ways of dispatching various characters for maximum shock and giddy effect.

Much of the rest of the material is a combination of elements and styles from other "us versus them" horror pictures such as "Aliens" along with more comedic efforts such as "Tremors," "Eight Legged Freaks" and "Gremlins." Accordingly, when the zombies get their individual and collective comeuppance, the viewer is expected to cheer on the survivors -- which is exactly what occurred at our advance screening -- despite the obviously humanoid monsters being killed in about every gruesome way imaginable.

The big change from the first time around is that these zombies are more akin to those in "28 Days Later" than in Romero's versions. Rather than being slow, lumbering creatures -- which has a certain spooky quality to it all its own -- the ones here are quick and agile, making the scenes where hordes of them rush at the characters a bit unnerving (although the rapid-fire editing and high shutter speed look leave a bit to be desired at times).

Of course, the dead are still as dumb as rocks, a point that somewhat lessens the scare factor. It does, however, allow one to somewhat forgive such questions as why the zombies can't get into the mall or use their collective strength in numbers to do in the last survivors.

While there are some big laughs thrown into the mix -- including a visual one of a zombie chasing a character in her car and then suddenly veering off to attack a bystander (you have to see it to understand the humor) -- the satire isn't quite as imaginative as I thought it would be.

The motif of consumers being consumed in a shopping mall is still present, and there are funny little bits such as the Muzak version of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" playing over the mall's sound system. Yet, I would have liked even more jabs at today's over commercialized world.

Considering the limited plot material and character construction, performances are about on par with what you'd expect from a film like this, although the likes of Sara Polley ("My Life Without Me," "The Claim"), Ving Rhames ("Dark Blue," "Mission: Impossible II") and Mekhi Phifer ("Honey," "Impostor") give the effort a bit more star power than is normally present. The likes of Michael Kelly ("Unbreakable," "Man on the Moon") and Ty Burrell ("Black Hawk Down," "Evolution") are decent in their roles, while several actors from the original film appear in brief cameo bits.

If you don't like horror films and/or violent humor, you'd probably be wise to skip this picture. On the other hand, if the thought of bloody, decomposed zombies being shot, impaled, mutilated and more sounds like your cinematic cup of tea, you could do much worse than what this film offers. In fact, the black comedy is what sets this film apart from and above all of the other zombie flicks that take themselves far too seriously.

Since it's been decades since I saw the original film, my specific memories of it are fleeting and thus I can't do a true artistic comparison between it and this update. I can say, however, that this one has enough truly spooky, wild and funny moments to earn a recommendation for those who can stomach and appreciate what it offers. "Dawn of the Dead" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 16, 2004 / Posted March 19, 2004

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