26 Years Later
'Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills. The people it kills get up and kill.' - from George Romero's original screenplay
'History repeats itself - the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.' - Karl Marx
Another week, another unnecessary big-name remake. On this occasion the donor is George Romero's 1978 classic (and I use the term with precision, folks) Dawn of the Dead. This is one of those films that is so perfect and special that it really deserves listing or ringfencing or otherwise putting beyond the greedy reach of creatively bankrupt modern studios (see also The Ladykillers...). As you can imagine I turned up to Zack Snyder's new take on this masterpiece with a good deal of apprehension.
Rather pleasantly, it's not that bad at all (especially, I would guess, if you haven't seen the original). The film starts off with overworked nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) coming home from a hard day at the hospital, watching Pop Idol with her boyfriend, and then missing an emergency news report through being in the shower at the time. This proves to be a serious mistake as when she awakes the next morning she has overslept and missed the start of a zombie apocalypse. Her boyfriend has his throat torn out by the cute little girl next door (now deceased), and comes after Ana himself. Jumping into the car and heading out of town, she quickly realises civilisation is collapsing around her...
And all this even before the credits! Soon enough Ana hooks up with Ving Rhames' tough cop Ken (his name doubtless a reference to Ken Foree's memorable performance in a similar role in the 1978 film) and together with a few other refugees they take cover in a huge shopping mall, much to the dislike of the redneck security guards already in control of the place. More survivors arrive, and as Ana, Ken and their friends (of whom Mekhi Phifer and Matt Frewer are about the best known) fortify the mall against the vast undead hordes swelling outside, they realise that help is not coming, and it's up to them to find a way to survive...
Snyder's film keeps the mall setting of the original, but otherwise this is a very free adaptation, heavily influenced by 28 Days Later - the zombies in this film (never actually referred to as such, of course) go in for a spot of Romero-style shambling and putrefying when they've nothing better to do, but at the first whiff of live flesh they're sprinting around like puppies on amphetamines. Purists may object, but it fits in rather well with Snyder's reimagining of the story as a kinetic rollercoaster of an action movie, punctuated by lavishly gory set-pieces at frequent intervals.
All this comes at the expense of some of the characterisation (quite a few of the characters trapped in the mall remain cardboard cutouts) and nearly all the satire and intelligence that defined Romero's zombie films. In those movies the zombie apocalypse was only ever a backdrop to the conflicts and problems arising between the human characters - the original Dawn opens and closes with acts of violence committed by the living against the living. While the new film remains as bleak and dark as its forebears, this element is toned down. In its favour, though, Snyder's film is often tense and is unafraid to retain Romero's very black sense of humour.
The digital effects are never less than adequate to tell the story, and most of the splatter and makeup work is top-notch, even if it lacks the novelty and visceral yuck-factor of Tom Savini's original make-up. As usual, this is a bigger (well, sort of - it's nearly an hour shorter, for all that it has a vastly greater budget) telling of the tale, but by no means a better one.
Polley and Rhames make charismatic leads, and at least some of the supporting cast are very effective - f'rinstance, Jake Weber as a resourceful everyman, Phifer as an overzealous husband and father, and Ty Burrell as the sort of wretched yuppy-scum no crisis situation should be without. As is customary in this sort of undertaking, stars of the original get cameos - Savini lands a plum role, basically as the sheriff from the original Night of the Living Dead ('That one's still twitching - somebody shoot her in the head!'), while Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger also pop up briefly.
The new Dawn of the Dead is really stuck between a rock and a hard place - comparisons with the original are bound to be unfavourable, simply because the original is one of the greatest horror movies ever made. And it's true that Snyder panders to the audience in a way Romero never did, and that this is in nearly every way a much more conventional piece of storytelling (particularly at either end). But for all that, this is still an extremely proficient and effective horror film, certainly the best I've seen in quite some time. Bloody good fun, and well worth a look if you like that sort of thing.
So much for tragedy - be back here in two weeks for the farce.