The best zombie films are dead serious (sorry, couldn’t resist, but that’s the only pun of this story).
Shot for $1.5m over three weeks between closing time and dawn in Monroeville Mall, Pennsylvania, George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is — to many — the best example of the genre.
Before that, zombie films amounted to cheesy 1930’s-inspired movies about voodoo cults. Even Night of the Living Dead, Romero’s original in the series, was a claustrophobic and tangled film the years have has been very unkind to.
After it, zombies dropped off the moviemaking radar. Dawn’s 1985 sequel Day of the Dead has none of Dawn’s appeal or impact, budgetary constraints mostly choking off Romero’s vision.
2003 was the new year of the zombie, with the locally made Undead and British hit 28 Days Later, but both put a new spin on the genre that deviated from the direction Romero had forged (respectively, camp comedy and the absence of the flesh eating prediliction).
And don’t even mention 2002’s woeful Resident Evil, which was so not about zombies it could have featured Al Quaeda terrorists instead. True zombie film fans desperately needed a change from repeated viewings of an old Zombi Holocaust video.
Can indie darling Sarah Polley rescue them? As overworked nurse and loving wife Anna (in another move that blows away any attempt to typecast her) she comes home to her husband in the suburbs for their regular romantic night in, missing the subtle cues you’ll catch; something bad is happening over the horizon.
The next morning, Anna and her husband are attacked in their bedroom by the sweet kid they’re neighbours with — now a hissing ghoul who bites a chunk out of hubby’s neck.
Hubby dies from blood loss and shock, then promptly jumps up and turns on Anna himself. She escapes through the bathroom window and outside into a world descended into chaos. Her quiet Pennsylvania suburb is a war zone of trashed cars and people screaming as they run from the hunger-crazed undead.
She meets a handful of other survivors and together the band make their way to the local shopping mall, where the premise of the 1978 original takes over. Although their numbers are added to (as well as nastily depleted) on several occasions, the story is the same; they know they’re trapped and putting off the inevitable, but the human spirit just won’t stop trying to survive.
Romero created and captured several elements essential to modern zombie lore. First, they’re not placid creatures risen by voodoo for slave labour but the dead, reanimated by a virus, whose single instinct is the eat human flesh.
Second, a crushing sense of dread — that the virus will sweep the world and there’ll be nowhere to hide from these creatures who will kill you in what must be one of the worst ways possible. And third, bucketloads’ no, truckloads of blood.
So when Universal announced their ‘reimagining’, fanboy websites erupted in fury. Tarnishing the most inspirational independent horror film of all time was too much to bear (or maybe it was just that everyone remembered the last time a film was ‘reimagined’ rather than remade — Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes). Worse still, it was being directed by another upstart TV commercial director!
So is it as good as Romero’s 1979 epic? Of course not — partly because by its nature it’s a copy of an original, partly because a big studio effort will never have the cult appeal of the original’s guerilla zeitgeist.
Is it good? It’s fantastic. It encompasses the spirit that drove the original wonderfully — the sense of doom, knowing you have to find a hole to hide in but knowing you needn’t bother because nobody is coming to rescue you since society has fallen apart.
It also doesn’t skimp on another fundamental ingredient — truckloads of blood. Good old-fashioned makeup effects; squibs full of red paint tied to the backs of extras’ heads for the many graphic zombie shootings. A body with its guts spilled across a slick tiled floor for the graphic zombie feasting scenes. If you’re after Gameboy-ready computer effects that are as scary as a cheese sandwich, go see Van Helsing. This is a horror, not an action adventure blockbuster.
And like a true horror (unlike recent ‘horror’ films more akin to mild roller coasters than experiences in terror), there’ll be times you’ll want to hide behind your hands or crawl down under your seat from the unbearable tension.
What Dawn actually has more of than the original is sharp observation of human nature; how people react in a crisis, how they arrange power structure in a group, who comes to the fore and who bows out. The characters are great and wonderfully acted, and the triumph of the script is that you never know who’s going to surprise you by doing something you didn’t expect of them.
And as the machinations of their interaction make up much of the film, the script has had to be extra strong to sustain the movie; clunky Day After Tomorrow-style dialogue would have (one more pun) killed it. It even manages bursts of humour that take nothing away from the seriousness of the predicament or the impact.
Filmed using gritty, grimy stock (particularly during the action and attack sequences) lends Dawn a similar indie feel used to good effect in the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.
Far from knocking Romero’s piece de resistance off its pedestal, Dawn of the Dead is nevertheless a worthy homage to the hallmarks he bought to the mythology; the natural horror inherent in being torn to bits and eaten alive and a return to old-style, hand crafted blood and guts.