Dir: Zack Snyder. US. 2003. 100mins.
It may not have the intensity and satirical touch that made George Romero's original Dawn Of The Dead a modern horror classic. But this 're-envisioning' of Romero's 1979 cult favourite by commercials director Zack Snyder at least partially makes up for the lack with a gleeful excess of gory zombie action, odd characters and dark humour.
Universal, which launches the film in the US this weekend, should be able to generate a sizeable domestic gross from the youthful audience that last year devoured a succession of R-rated horror releases (among them British zombie hit 28 Days Later and 1970s re-make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The mid-level cast - heartthrob Mekhi Phifer is probably the biggest draw - could have a slightly limiting effect in the international marketplace, but video returns should be excellent across the globe.
The original film (itself a sequel/remake of Romero's Night Of the Living Dead - which was then remade in 1990 by Tom Savini) was notable for its bare bones set-up and plot: just four characters barricaded in a deserted Mid West shopping mall facing unexplained hordes of the living dead.
In his adaptation of Romero's original script, James Gunn (a former executive at schlock horror house Troma and writer of 2002's big screen Scooby-Doo) keeps the main setting but adds a bloody prelude and some background on the zombie plague. Gunn also brings in a dozen or so additional (still living) characters, turning the mall into a microcosm of pre-plague Milwaukee.
The pacing is uneven, some of the plot turns don't make too much sense and for atmosphere and terror the film never manages to outdo the darker, grittier 28 Days Later. But by packing the story with incident Snyder ensures that audience interest never flags for long: as soon as one moment is over, another - whether it's scary, gross, amusing or even quite touching - comes along.
The zombies in this version are more numerous, faster on their feet and much more aggressive than in the original, which should please sensation-seeking contemporary horror fans. Any uninfected character that steps outside the mall is immediately attacked - with predictably grisly results - and the smallest bite leads quickly to death and then reawakening in zombie form.
By horror movie standards the humans are an intriguing bunch and their relationships give the film an interesting second level. Sensible nurse Ana (Polley, from The Sweet Hereafter) gets romantic with unassuming salesman Michael (Weber, from The Cell). Stoic cop Kenneth (Rhames) buddy-bonds with a man stranded on a neighbouring building. And Phifer's Andre takes drastic action trying to preserve his newfound family.
Mixed in with the human drama is some kooky, unashamedly sick humour. In one sequence, the characters seek relief from the mayhem around them in, variously, golf, chess, a touch of transvestism and some casual sex. In another segment, they hold a celebrity shooting match on the mall roof, taking turns to blow the brains out of star look-alike zombies in the crowd below.
Most of the action set pieces come in the final act. The big climax has the surviving characters making a dash for what they hope might be safety in two reinforced buses and then a flashy yacht. The efficiently exciting sequence lays crowd-pleasing waste to hundreds of zombies but it's capped by a rather incongruous and unconvincing final moment.
A Blair Witch-style closing credits sequence seems to leave the door open for a sequel.
Prod cos: Strike Entertainment, New Amsterdam Entertainment, Universal Pictures
US dist: Universal
Int'l dist: UIP
Exec prods: Thomas A Bliss, Dennis E Jones, Armyan Bernstein, Eric Newman
Prods: Richard P Rubinstein, Marc Abraham
Scr: James Gunn, based on a screenplay by George A Romero
Cine: Matthew F Leonetti
Prod des: Andrew Neskoromny
Ed: Niven Howie
Costume des: Denise Cronenberg
Special makeup effects: David Leroy Anderson
Music: Tyler Bates
Main cast: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell