Dawn of the Dead (R) BUY THE:Poster!
The middle chapter of George A. Romero's zombie trilogy, 1978's Dawn of the Dead, is unquestionably a classic of the horror genre, but it is also very much a product of its time, not only in its primitive (by today's standards) makeup effects work but its underlying--and, as time has revealed, rather prescient--message about the mind-numbing dangers of consumerism, namely by way of the then-new emergence of the behemoth temples to commerce known as the shopping mall. So updating--or, to use the studio jargon, "re-imagining"--the film for a modern audience isn't necessarily a bad idea. But instead of adding something fresh and exciting to the mix, director Zack Snyder and writer James Gunn have simply traded one set of time-sensitive issues for more contemporary clichés.
Like last fall's revamp of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this Dawn eschews its source film's haunting simplicity in favor of a more bombastic modern-day sensibility. To that end, Snyder and Gunn's zombies don't lumber about like Romero's living dead but relentlessly charge like the zombie-like virus victims in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. That specific point has been a topic of heated debate among horror fans, but I think there are far more troubling issues with the new film, such as the bloated cast of characters. While the first film tightly focused on a quartet of a survivors holed in a shopping center, this one has a bloated cast of over ten mallrats, and the people are accordingly that much more anonymous, even the more central characters: Sarah Polley's plucky nurse; Ving Rhames's tough cop; Jake Weber's sensible salesman; Mekhi Phifer's young hubby and expectant father. That Phifer's character isn't the street thug one would expect in a lowbrow horror exercise is about the only stock characterization Gunn and Snyder manage to avoid, as the rest of the canvas is filled out with familiar types, not only from the sarcastic wisecracker (Ty Burrell) to a pair of vapid young lovers (forgettably played by actors whose names aren't worth looking up), but also The Dog That Will Not Die.
But I suppose such dumbing down is in line with Dawn 2004's more modest goals. While Romero was aiming for ironic social commentary, Snyder is simply after a thrill ride, which he announces with gusto with the much-talked-about pre-credit sequence in which the Polley finds her life and the world at large up-ended in spectacularly apocalyptic--not to mention profusely bloody--fashion. Startling, exciting, and more than a little unsettling, this curtain-raiser (quite understandably aired as a promo on the USA Network) sets a high bar that Snyder ultimately proves unable to live up to. After the first couple of zombie kills that occur once our initial quintet of Polley, Rhames, Weber, Phifer and his very pregnant wife (Inna Korobkina) take refuge in the mall, the film devolves into a series of "fire away at the charging zombies" action sequences that grow repetitive and less exciting with each turn, not to mention they're never remotely scary. Now and again the top-the-topper excesses amuse--one mass zombie extermination bit is rather ingenious--but then such non-scary sights such as armored-up shuttle buses (complete with bad-ass paint jobs, no less) plowing through zombie hordes made me yearn for the original's more effectively creepy minimalism.
What's missed most in the new Dawn, though, is the slyness of the original. The parallels Romero drew between undead zombies and "living" consumers were about as subtle as a jackhammer, but that was an unexpected destination arrived at in an unconventional and largely implicit manner. For a while Snyder appears to be pulling off something similarly slick by way of the mall Muzak, as syrupy instrumental arrangements of lite FM staples as "All by Myself" and "Don't Worry, Be Happy" serve as an unheralded background counterpoint to the bloodshed of the undead. But then, late in the game, as "All Out of Love" plays in an elevator that offers a narrow escape, one character has to give the foregrounding wink-wink, nudge-nudge of "I like this song." And so this "re-imagining" goes.
Taking Lives (R) BUY THE:Poster!
A tough female law enforcement officer is on the hunt for a serial killer. The Law of Casting (that is, when a prominently billed name star has a fairly throwaway role for a good part of the running time, something is quite obviously up with the character) foretells a painfully predictable twist that inexplicably turns our once-headstrong heroine into weak, whimpering woman. No, I'm not talking about Twisted, but the Angelina Jolie vehicle Taking Lives, which could very well be mistaken for an Ashley Judd programmer. Put aside the specifics of the piece--FBI Special Agent Jolie aids Montreal police in pursuit of a serial killer who assumes the identities of his victims--and the story is as familiar and predictable as Judd's trademark thrillers. But the familiarity doesn't end there, as director D.J. Caruso announces his unoriginality with the Se7en-style opening credits, and the attempts to achieve a David Fincher-style atmosphere of unease throughout the film similarly fall short. Making the end result all the more disappointing is the game cast, which in addition to Jolie (investing far more conviction than the material deserves) also includes Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland, Jean-Hugues Anglade and Tcheky Karyo; even hack himbo Olivier Martinez turns in a surprisingly passable turn.